Social justice activists routinely demand that we “see race,” call out disparities and feel personal shame about them, and commit to improving outcomes for minorities. But William Treanor, dean of the Georgetown University Law Center, has sent a clear message to those who try to answer that call: verbalizing your commitment to social justice won’t protect you—and may even destroy your career—if an angry activist decides to “cancel” you.
Last month, Georgetown Law adjunct professor Sandra Sellers told a colleague privately on Zoom, “I hate to say this—I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower [graded] ones are blacks.” Some black students, Sellers said, did well, but the overall pattern made her “feel bad.” Sellers was not aware that her conversation was being recorded and uploaded to the aptly named “Panopto” software system. If someone had chosen to, he might have clipped her words and posted them to Twitter with the caption: “We need more white professors like this, who feel shame about how badly law schools are failing students of color. Thank you, Professor Sellers!” Instead, Sellers’ words were clipped and posted by Georgetown Law student Hassan Ahmad with the caption: “.@GeorgetownLaw negotiations professors Sandra Sellers and David Batson being openly racist on a recorded Zoom call. Beyond unacceptable.”
That day, without speaking with Sellers, William Treanor condemned her “reprehensible statements,” which he declared “abhorrent.” The next day, against his own university’s policies, Treanor fired Sellers without an official investigation.
The firing attracted national attention, from the New York Times and the Washington Post to NBC News and Newsweek, every headline a variation on “Who Is Sandra Sellers? Georgetown Professor Fired over ‘Abhorrent’ Comments on Black Students.” Then, as all “cancellations” do, the episode faded from the headlines days later as journalists hunted for the next destroyed life and career.
Curious as to why Treanor violated his university’s policies and the American Association of University Professors guidelines by firing Sellers without due process, I reached out to him with some questions. Why did he condemn Sellers without speaking to her first? Is it true that black students at Georgetown Law disproportionately score below the median GPA? If true, could he explain why verbalizing that truth is “abhorrent”? Clipping and posting private conversations are major violations of university policy. Had an investigation been opened? I also asked him to consider the chilling effect his decision has had on the law school community: one student had told me of now being nervous to speak in class, for fear of suffering reputational damage.
Treanor offered no response to my questions.
He has, however, publicly vowed to explore requiring a critical race theory unit for all students and making professor tenure contingent on “diversity, equity, and inclusion”; reminded Georgetown Law that under his leadership the share of students and staff “of color” has grown substantially; and insisted that he was “dedicated to the important work that lies ahead.”
Treanor is the latest in a long line of American university administrators who has knuckled under to the pressures of the cancel culture mob. All it would have taken was for the dean to tell the Twitter mob, in effect: “Hold on a moment, let me speak with this woman first to understand what’s in her heart before I decide whether to act on your impulse to destroy her professional life.”
Treanor said nothing of the kind. He has saved his position as dean—at least for now—but to do so, he has traded due process and the presumption of innocence for mob justice, made students reluctant to express themselves, and destroyed a woman’s professional reputation. And in all this, Treanor has proven himself the very model of a modern university administrator.
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