Over the past year, instances of racism and discrimination in the classroom haven’t been a question of if, but when. Like clockwork, professors target students with prejudice on the basis of their identity, leading to a wave of condemnation and outrage but rarely consequences for the professors involved. Unless officials want this familiar pattern to embed itself in the fabric of GW, they need to act – now.
In the most recent example of discriminatory behavior in the classroom, a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights earlier this month alleges assistant professor of clinical psychology Lara Sheehi created a “hostile environment” for Jewish and Israeli students in her Diversity I course, which is part of GW’s professional psychology program, last semester.
Beyond antisemitic comments and actions that allegedly included Sheehi telling a Jewish Israeli student, “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel,” Jewish students also raised concerns to Sheehi about class readings, which included references to racist treatment against Arab and Muslim people and the Israel-Palestine conflict. And one Jewish student told Sheehi that a guest speaker’s presentation on the conflict made her feel “vulnerable and unsafe” because she believed it “targeted” Israeli and Jewish people, according to the complaint. Sheehi allegedly replied by saying “in no uncertain terms, anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.”
The complaint also claims the University violated Title VI after faculty and administrators “retaliated” with “disciplinary proceedings” against students who shared concerns about Sheehi’s conduct and course.
Both the Office for Civil Rights and a “third party” are investigating these allegations, which are yet another reminder that the authority faculty wield should be used to educate students, not discriminate against them.
“The George Washington University strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred, discrimination and bias in all forms,” interim University President Mark Wrighton said in a statement after the allegations against Sheehi became public. “We remain committed to fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment where all feel safe and free of harassment, hostility or marginalization.”
Condemning antisemitism, hatred, discrimination and bias in all its many forms is just as critical as it is easy. In fact, we’ve done so in the past after the desecration of a Torah scroll at Tau Kappa Epsilon’s on-campus fraternity house in November 2021. And let us do so again now – targeting Jewish and Israeli students for their faith or their country of origin is, as with any act of discrimination, unacceptable.
But after a year of prominent racist and ableist incidents in the classroom, that commitment to inclusivity still eludes the University. In January, GWTeach professor Alicia Bitler used the N-word in class, and assistant industry professor of decision science Marie Matta denied a student’s service dog from class. In September, professor of human rights Michael Stoil defended racist comments, including his use of the N-word during a phone call with a provost, to the students in his course. Bitler and Matta apologized for their actions without facing real consequences, while Stoil stood in defense of what he said before stepping down soon after.
There’s a difference between academic freedom and blatant discrimination. Sheehi has a right to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict in her class, with the caveat that no professor has a right to allegedly denigrate students for their heritage. Nor can they hide behind the idea of starting a conversation or tackling a difficult topic to excuse their racist behavior – it’s just wrong.
When these incidents happen with alarming regularity, lofty rhetoric about GW being a tolerant and inclusive environment rings hollow. Whether it takes petitions and viral videos in the case of Liza Malinsky, the student whose service dog Matta barred from class, or more formal complaints to the Department of Education in this recent instance, students are looking for more immediate recourse and just outcomes than GW can provide with its slow-moving, opaque internal reporting procedures. And there are likely countless instances of bias, prejudice and microaggressions that go unreported.
Something has gone deeply wrong, and GW’s faculty has a problem. When faculty’s power over students combines with the prejudices they hold, students suffer the consequences – discrimination, harassment, emotional distress and, as in the allegations against Sheehi, retaliatory disciplinary action that can punish those who speak up about what they’re facing.
What’s so striking about this particular case is that the discrimination went beyond one professor or one classroom. The complaint states the psychology program’s faculty voted to subject the students who shared criticism of Sheehi with academic staff and a dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences to “disciplinary proceedings.” The program’s faculty threatened to place a “permanent negative mark” on the students’ academic records if they refused to explain “what harm they caused,” according to the complaint.
While ignorance is no excuse for bias or prejudice, it is an explanation. But faculty who knowingly and maliciously engage in discriminatory conduct directed at their students cannot and should not be part of this University. To that end, officials should work to train faculty to be cognizant of their biases and reconsider the positions of professors who fail to adhere to the values of diversity and inclusion – values GW claims are at the core of this institution.
Whether general sensitivity training or courses meant to illuminate the policies that govern GW, professors must know how to create an inclusive classroom environment for students of various backgrounds. Instead of reacting to incidents in the classroom if, or realistically when, they occur, the University can stop some of them from happening in the first place. Educating professors on appropriate classroom conduct and encouraging them to take students’ concerns seriously could begin to address the reality that GW and its classrooms simply aren’t inclusive as they ought to be.
GW did not accrue hundreds of faculty from around the world overnight, and it will take time to evaluate and ensure that the professors who interact with students on a day-to-day basis understand their concerns and respect who they are. Fostering an inclusive community requires action, not just words. The sooner the University starts, the better.
The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by Opinions Editor Ethan Benn and Contributing Opinions Editor Julia Koscelnik, based on discussions with Research Assistant Zachary Bestwick, Sports Editor Nuria Diaz, Managing Editor Jaden DiMauro, Culture Editor Clara Duhon, Design Editor Grace Miller and Contributing Social Media Director Ethan Valliath.
This article appeared in the January 30, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.