How the SA responded to allegations of racism, ableism in the classroom

Media Credit: Raphael Kellner | Staff Photographer

SA Vice President Kate Carpenter pushed back on criticism at a Monday senate meeting, saying meeting with administrators directly proves more effective than releasing public statements.

Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 at 9:40 a.m.

The Student Association is calling on the University to fire two professors – one who used the N-word in class and one who denied a student a service dog in class.

SA President Brandon Hill and Vice President Kate Carpenter met with interim University President Mark Wrighton Friday “asking for clarification and transparency” about how officials were handling the incidents involving a GWTeach professor who said the N-word in a classroom and a School of Business professor who denied a student’s service dog from class, according to an Instagram post Sunday. After nearly 20 SA members urged Wrighton in a letter Sunday to take “punitive measures” against the two professors, the SA updated the post’s caption Monday to call for their termination.

Alicia Bitler, the GWTeach professor, apologized for saying the N-word, which appeared in a painting she was showing the class, in an email sent to students later that day. Marie Matta, the business school professor, apologized in an email to Liza Malinsky, the student who was denied her service dog, about a week after the two openly argued in class, a recording of which Malinsky posted on Instagram.

Bitler and Matta are still currently employed at the University, according to their faculty profiles.

“The Student Association Executive Team condemns the behavior of Professors Bitler and Matta,” the updated caption reads. “We strongly believe that any professor who violates the basic rights of students, as these professors have done, should be terminated. This is a view we hold based on morals as well as the University’s own policies. We are advocating for this action if the University does not move forward with the firing of these professors.”

Students who commented on the Instagram post Sunday before SA members updated its caption called the SA’s response to these events “useless” and “embarrassing” because the SA did not demand in the post that the University fire the professors. SA members who signed the letter criticized the post, saying the graphic should have condemned the incidents and call for the termination of both of the professors.

“As we all know, actions speak far louder than words,” the original caption posted Sunday reads. “In response to a series of disturbing events these past two weeks, the SA’s leaders have met with administrators, engaged in student discussions, and pushed for transparency, clarity and justice. In lieu of a traditional statement, our actions and a list of reliable resources are detailed here.”

More than a dozen SA members said in their own comments to The Hatchet that the University needs to take disciplinary action against the professors to prevent future similar incidents and make GW a safe space for “vulnerable” groups on campus.

“The students of GW are tired of the endless excuses and band-aid solutions that so often follow these familiar incidents,” the letter reads. “Without a concrete solution, these acts are sure to happen again. We beseech your administration to take punitive measures against Dr. Bitler and Dr. Matta.”

The SA’s Instagram post states that Carpenter attended the Black Student Union’s town hall last Friday held in response to Bitler’s use of the N-word, and Hill reached out to students in Matta’s business class.

Carpenter said she did not sign the letter when SA members sent her a draft Friday because it would look “performative” before she and Hill would meet Wrighton later that day to urge administrators to fire Bitler and Matta. She said she will use her platform to advocate for students who have been harmed by these events by continuing to have discussions with administrators. 

“For us to make the most change possible, we worked with them to voice the concerns of students, advocated for new and updated training for all faculty and emphasized strong disciplinary actions and discharge for the professors,” Carpenter said in an interview.

At the senate meeting Monday, Carpenter said discussing the incidents with administrators achieves “direct action” against the issues, making it more “fruitful” than posting statements.

“We instead utilize our platform and outlets to advocate and fight for what the students were asking for,” Carpenter said at the meeting. “As an executive team, our best advocacy comes from meetings with administrators.”

Hill said at the meeting that he hopes to work with the administration and the SA’s executive branch to promote transparency between students and administrators about the recent events on campus.

“Vice President Carpenter and I met with University President Wrighton to discuss our shared vision for the next 18 months,” Hill said at the meeting. “We talked about how the University can foster transparency in light of recent ableist and racist events on campus, which the executive team and I clearly condemn.”

Junior Ian Ching, the SA’s executive secretary of diversity equity and inclusion, said he and sophomore Abigail Francis, the SA’s executive secretary of academic affairs, drafted the SA’s letter to Wrighton after Hill decided not to release a statement about the incidents involving Bitler and Matta.

Ching said even though Hill decided against a public statement, he gave his “blessing” for SA members to write their own letter condemning the classroom incidents. Ching said he wants the University to provide a “clear explanation” from the University about Bitler and Matta’s actions in their classrooms and a “satisfactory” punishment to ensure these issues do not happen again.

“The Student Association will not be releasing an official statement at this time but you are all more than welcome to act in your own personal capacities,” Hill said in a Slack message, which was obtained by The Hatchet, to the SA executive cabinet.

Hill did not return a request for comment.

Ching said he had already drafted most of the letter before Hill said he would not release a statement, but SA members decided to deliver the letter after learning of Hill’s decision. Ching said after he drafted the letter, SA members exchanged copies via Slack so they could sign and recommend any changes.

“In the long term, we want to make sure that all sorts of things don’t happen again, where unfortunately, this has shown that will most likely happen again,” Ching said.

Francis, one of the drafters of the letter, said some of the cabinet members were “unwilling” to condemn racism and ableism in an official statement.

She said she hopes officials reform diversity training with measures like mandatory diversity training for every academic department, including diversity modules freshmen take before starting at GW.

“Holding the administration accountable is definitely necessary,” Francis said. “You can’t just hope that they go through with our suggestions we have to keep pushing them to do the right thing.”

This post has been updated to correct the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Hill reached out to students in Bitler’s class. He actually reached out to students in Matta’s class. We regret this error.

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