Responsibility for Students, Patients, or Clients

Yesterday, Georgetown Law fired an adjunct law professor after publication of a Zoom call in which she deprecated the abilities of many of her Black law students. See Georgetown Law professor terminated after ‘reprehensible’ comments about Black students.  

Here’s the most objectionable part of her remarks from the video call:

“I hate to say this. I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks,” Sellers said in the video. “Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You get some really good ones, but there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

Georgetown was right to fire her. Her statement is racist to its core: both false in its assessment of Black abilities and prejudiced (literally) in its bias against year-after-year of Black law students under her instruction.

It makes sense to address Prof. Sandra Sellers’s remarks, primarily, as racial bias.

There is, however, a second way in which she proves herself unfit to teach: she summarily blames her students for her own failure to teach effectively. If all these students were the same race and ethnicity as Sellers, then she would still be unworthy of her teaching position. 

The first place one should look after student failure is to a teacher. The first place one should look after teaching failure is to a principal, department chair, or dean. The first place one should look after failure of a principal, department chair, or dean is to a superintendent or university president. The first place to look after the failure of a superintendent or university president is to a school board or board of regents.

Note well: The first place to look, not the only place to look.

Sellers showed no self-reflection whatever on her teaching abilities, and merely blamed others (by race, of all things).

No, and no again.

While the law is not easy (no matter how often laypeople assume it is), law can be understood by any student at Georgetown if taught properly. Again, without doubt in my mind: a dedicated professor would – and should – be able to make proper lawyers out of everyone in the Georgetown class regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Professionals should, by definition, be held to a professional standard of performance. It’s an easy pose for poor teachers to blame reflexively their students, poor doctors to blame reflexively their patients, or poor lawyers to blame reflexively their clients.

Along the same lines, it is as easy, and as unworthy, for poor professionals to support each other while blaming their students, patients, or clients.

It may be true that, here and there, a student, patient, or client goes wrong, somehow. In response, a worthy professional first looks to himself or herself for the cause of that unfortunate situation. Only after a thorough self-examination does a professional look to others as possible causes of his or her professional failings. (Of that self-examination: it should be an effort that he or she can describe in detail, listing each step he or she made. It’s not enough to say one ‘tried’; one should be able to describe point-by-point what one did in pursuit of one’s goal.)

No one is drafted into a profession – one chooses that role. One should meet the demands of the profession or find something less demanding.

There are many who who are disabled or disadvantaged, and who have never had even the chance to assume a professional role. They might have loved that chance, but through no fault of their own those opportunities never came. Those of us who have had better fortune owe far more than reflexive blame-shifting and excuse-marking.

Prof. Sandra Sellers was unfit for more than one reason.

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