After controversies, Georgetown law students call for culture change |

When Nick Rawlinson, a third-year student at Georgetown University Law Center, heard that a poet accused of anti-Semitism would be giving a talk on campus, he grew concerned.

Mohammed El-Kurd is a Palestinian activist whose work has revolved around his family’s experience living under occupation in East Jerusalem. But the Anti-Defamation League accused him of having a “disturbing pattern of rhetoric and slander that goes far beyond reasoned criticism of Israel” – an assessment that a group of students who invited El -Kurd on campus called it “baseless.”

Yet the April 26 event involved Rawlinson and other Jewish students, who wrote emails to law school administrators saying El-Kurd should not be allowed to speak. After learning that the event would continue anyway – a manager told students in an email: “Your safety and sense of belonging on this campus and in this community matters to me, and to every member of the school administration” – they felt their feelings had been brushed aside, with little explanation of how officials made their decision.

“Free speech has limits when it comes to incitement and when it comes to violent speech,” Rawlinson said. “It’s a question of safety for the students.

The dispute over El-Kurd’s appearance was the second major campus speech controversy this year, reflecting pressure on administrators nationwide to portray their schools as sites of diverse viewpoints. while ensuring that students feel safe and welcome. In January, a new faculty member was placed on administrative leave for his tweets about President Biden’s pledge to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court, a move that drew both praise and criticism.

But the students say recent events underscore a culture in which the needs of racial and religious minorities are often ignored. Georgetown Law has been under the microscope since last year, when two instructors were recorded discussing how black students behaved in class – comments that were later called “objectionable” by school management. school. In the months since, student groups have called on authorities to address “deep-rooted” issues after a professor used an anti-Asian slur in class, and Muslim students have accused a professor of longstanding Islamophobia.

Georgetown Law officials acknowledged the series of recent incidents and outlined existing and upcoming initiatives designed to support students, including expansion of the office of equity and inclusion, anti-bias training and inclusive pedagogy workshops for teachers.

“We are focused on how we create a better environment for all of our students and, in particular, those who may not always feel heard or supported, or have not always done so in the past,” Sheila Foster, a professor and inaugural associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, said in an interview. “We see the potential for significant innovation as a law school that is one of the most diverse in the country.”

Georgetown Law Students for Justice in Palestine, who welcomed El-Kurd to campus, defended the activist and highlighted his place on Time Magazine’s 2021 list of 100 Most Influential People. of his presence on campus, however, revealed broader questions about how students understand anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and members called on the law school community to “reflect on their biases.”

“The allegations of anti-Semitism made against him are groundless, in bad faith and aimed at silencing the voice of Mohammed,” the group said in a statement. “Mohammed’s record speaks for itself: he is a principled advocate of Palestinian freedom and justice for all.

In a statement, Georgetown officials condemned acts of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hatred – while affirming their commitment to “providing a space for the free and open exchange of ideas”, even if those ideas are considered by some to be difficult or objectionable.

“While we affirm that open discourse, discussion and debate are essential elements of university life, we also have core values ​​that clearly oppose bigotry, hatred and racism, and clearly support the assurance that every student is welcomed and respected in our community,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Georgetown has the largest law school in the nation, with nearly 3,000 students enrolled in 2021, according to university data. Last year, 1 in 5 prospective law students nationwide sent applications to Georgetown, resulting in a 41% increase in applications that shocked officials.

Danielle McCoy, a third-year student who transferred from a New York law school to Georgetown in 2020. She said she was drawn to the school’s first criminal defense and prisoner advocacy clinic, as well as by the reputation of the school’s black law student association. — one of the largest and most active in the country.

“Georgetown is a top law school and as a black law student who is all first generation, it’s very important to me to really look at the opportunities that are going to advance my career,” McCoy said. “There are already a lot of obstacles that I have to face.”

Still, she faced more challenges in Georgetown. In March 2021, a video clip went viral showing a conversation between two adjunct faculty members, Sandra Sellers and David Batson. On student performance, Sellers said, “A lot of my lowers are blacks.”

Batson, in a second clip, appeared to question his own unconscious bias. But students, including the BLSA, criticized Batson for failing to condemn Sellers’ comments.

Both teachers apologized. Sellers was fired from her position and Batson resigned.

William Treanor, dean of the law school, condemned the comments at the time, calling the content of the video “odious”. He also announced a series of initiatives, including additional voluntary non-discrimination training for faculty, plans to raise awareness of the school’s bias reporting system and increased funding for a program that supports students. from underrepresented backgrounds.

But the incident left McCoy disgusted.

“Hearing a professor talk about black students like we’re not able to do well and perform well and always at rock bottom is unfortunate,” McCoy said. “I’m already struggling with impostor syndrome.”

She said those feelings resurfaced after Ilya Shapiro, who was to take over as executive director of the law school’s Center for the Constitution in February, apologized for a thread of deleted tweets he wrote after that Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer has announced his intention to step down.

In a tweet, Shapiro suggested that Sri Srinivasan, Chief Justice of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and the first person of South Asian descent to head a federal circuit court, would be Biden’s top pick. “But alas, this doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy, so we’ll have fewer black women,” Shapiro tweeted, “Thank goodness for the little favors?”

Shapiro has been placed on administrative leave as school officials launch an investigation into whether his remarks violated university policy. He confirmed that he was still on leave.

“I don’t know why it’s taking so long, but I look forward to joining the faculty and standing up for the values ​​of free speech and academic freedom,” Shapiro told The Washington Post.

McCoy said the episode made him feel like little had changed at law school since the Sellers and Batson incident. “I’m just tired,” McCoy said. “Unfortunately, we have to continue to wear this armor and be prepared for all of this.”

In February, the law school addressed another faculty scandal after a professor called a student an anti-Asian slur. The teacher, Franz Werro, apologized for the remark and in a note to his class said that as a non-native English speaker he did not “appreciate that it was a pejorative term “.

In a letter written by the Asia-Pacific Law Students Association – and signed by other student groups – members said the episode was “the latest in a recent series of incidents that suggest a pattern of deeper systemic issues” in law school.

Treanor, in a statement, said students and employees need to take a “serious look” at the school’s culture and processes. “We have important work ahead of us to create a community where students can learn in an environment free of bias, where they are able to foster positive connections with others, and where everyone feels supported and valued for their contributions,” did he declare. written in February.

That month, members of the Muslim Law Students Association began circulating a letter accusing Susan Deller Ross, professor and director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, of “Islamophobic and racist behavior”.

The students allege Ross discriminated against them because of their race and religion, and accused her of teaching “culturally deaf” classes that perpetuate stereotypes about Muslims and Africans. In a collection of anonymous testimonials compiled by MLSA, a student described an incident in which a classmate called Muslims “backward people” and Ross did not offer a correction. Another student said he felt “humiliated” after Ross asked “a white female student to ‘translate’ a technical concept that I was telling her about.”

Ross, through his attorney, has denied the allegations. She is cooperating with an investigation at the university and “looks forward to having these unsubstantiated allegations addressed in a reasoned and rational academic environment, and to having her reputation and her unblemished professional reputation for more than 50 years restored as soon as possible.” , Patricia Payne, who represents Ross, wrote in an email.

The university did not comment on the investigation, but reiterated its commitment to fostering an inclusive campus. “We have policies in place to ensure our classrooms are free of bias and focused on respectful dialogue,” a spokesperson said.

Sophomore and MLSA member Hamsa Fayed helped write the letter after taking Ross’ class last semester. She said she went through official channels to report the professor’s alleged conduct, but the process has now dragged on for more than two months.

“I have no hope in this administration,” she said. “I’m very jaded.”

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