Professors using slurs in the classroom at the Emory University School of Law is nothing new.
Most recently, Associate Professor of Law Alexander Volokh used a homophobic slur in a lecture involving the Westboro Baptist Church in early September 2021.
The law school did not punish Volokh because he argued that he had a pedagogical reason for using the term. However, by Sept. 17 at the latest, an anonymous group of students formed a list of demands, created a petition and circulated flyers advertising what would eventually be a widely attended protest on Bacardi Plaza against the use of slurs in classrooms.
The demands included the law school implementing critical race theory into the legal curriculum, the school hiring more professors who are Black, Indigenous or people of color and that the University provide additional funds for the law school’s diversity, equity and inclusion office.
While Volokh’s use of the homophobic slur sparked a heated debate in the law school broady, the incident also created friction in the Student Bar Association (SBA), the school’s student government.
SBA board members began discussing the list of demands in the organization’s GroupMe chat on Sept. 17 and one board member asked how SBA could help the anonymous group’s efforts, according to President of the Latin American Law Student Association Ariana Ortiz (22L). Ortiz also served as SBA vice president of community outreach at the time.
Ortiz, SBA Treasurer Nicole Falcone (23L) and other board members wanted then-SBA President Theodore Randel (22L) to send an email to the student body stating SBA’s support of the anonymous student group’s demands.
Ortiz said SBA has a history of supporting student advocacy in the debate over slurs and academic freedom, citing a letter from SBA in solidarity with Black students after a professor used the N-word at the beginning of the school year.
“In the past few years SBA has become an advocacy organization, so SBA began releasing statements in solidarity with marginalized communities,” Ortiz said. “[SBA is] an explicitly anti-racist organization, and in previous statements, it has referred to itself as that.”
She added that Randel was “noticeably absent” in the discussion while other board members were brainstorming how to circulate the petition.
Randel declined requests for an interview, but provided written responses to the Wheel’s questions. He noted that he personally felt the slur Volokh used is “repugnant, has zero pedagogical value and as such should not be protected by the academic freedom policy.”
However, he said his position was that SBA does not endorse an initiative without knowing who formulated the petition and list of demands and without meeting with those students.
“The anonymous authors expected full SBA support, including my signature as president, when I had no hand in drafting it and it was only provided to me the Saturday prior to the Tuesday protest,” Randel wrote in the Dec. 7 email to the Wheel. “If my name was going to be the one signing that letter, I simply wanted to put more due diligence into it.”
While he said he fully supports that demand that the law school hire more BIPOC professors, he would have preferred if the letter provided substantial data on the issue, such as what proportion of the law school’s hires over the past decade identify as BIPOC.
“I felt my job as SBA president was to represent the interests of the student body to the administration,” Randel added. “If I am going to make demands of the school, I want to make sure first that the demands are well-researched and accurate, and second that they are demands the student body wants me to make, not just demands this anonymous writer wanted to make.”
Falcone said SBA typically doesn’t remain neutral in campus-wide debates and didn’t poll the student body before releasing its statement in response to a professor’s use of the N-word at the start of the school year.
“In what has become an inexplicably common occurrence at Emory Law, another professor said the ‘N’ word,” SBA’s letter to the student body read. “There are no other words for it: this is an act of anti-Black racism, and counter to everything we as an Emory community should stand for. The context is irrelevant, and there is no ‘academic freedom’ at hand that justifies the use of such a slur that demeans and dehumanizes fellow students.”
Randel said he wrote this statement in partnership with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Representative Mason Mariney (22L). That letter was also reviewed and signed by the entire SBA board.
“There is a broad gulf between an official letter from SBA condemning the use of a slur, and an anonymously written letter making various demands of the school with no substantive data or research whatsoever,” Randel said.
After a “very painful seven hours of this back and forth,” Ortiz said, Randel agreed to send the list of demands to the student body without taking an explicit stance on the issue.
Randel wrote in a Sept. 18 email on behalf of SBA that he was asked to share information about two student-organized efforts: the Sept. 21 walk-out protest in Bacardi Plaza and the “Stop Enabling Bigotry in Academia” petition containing the demands.
Two days later, the student body received another email from SBA describing a counter protest.
“In addition to the Walk-Out in Bacardi Plaza, there is going to be a Walk-In in support of free speech in Prof. Volokh’s class,” Randel wrote in the email. “Those participating are welcome to come in and take an empty seat, but may not disrupt the lecture should Prof. Volokh continue it after the Walk-Out occurs.”
Ortiz said there had been no discussion about the counter protest in the SBA GroupMe prior to the second email from Randel.
While SBA normally sends out weekly emails, if anything important was going to be included in that week’s email, Falcone said the president would typically inform other board members ahead of time.
Some board members “were very, very upset that we sent that out,” Falcone added.
Ortiz said she feels that Randel’s actions harmed any credibility that SBA had acquired as an advocacy organization.
“This counter protest claimed to be in support of free speech,” Ortiz said. “If there’s a counter protest to the protest against slurs being used in the classroom, really it was a counter protest in support of slurs continuing to be used.”
While he sent an email about the walk-in, Randel said that he had no part in arranging it.
“I distributed an announcement about the walk-in to the student body in the same way I distributed an announcement about the walk-out protesting the use of slurs in the classroom and in the same way I distributed countless other student announcements during my time as SBA president,” Randel said.
Following the internal rift, Randel stepped down from his position on Sept. 22.
In a resignation letter addressed to students, Randel highlighted a “philosophical difference” as a key reason for his departure from SBA. Acknowledging that Emory has many advocacy organizations, Randel said that SBA’s job should focus on governance and be able to “craft tenable solutions” based on the work of these other groups.
While Randel viewed SBA as a governing organization meant to listen to different student groups, other board members believed that SBA is an advocacy organization which should take stances on various social and Emory Law-related issues.
“I do realize that, even though I am outraged by the repugnant slurs recently hurled by … Volokh, as a white cisgender heterosexual man I am not fully capably of understanding the pain they have caused,” Randel wrote in his resignation letter. “Because of this, and because of my fundamental disagreement with the SBA board about what type of organization SBA should be, I do not believe that I’m the right person for this job at this moment.”
In accordance with SBA’s rules of succession, Ortiz became the interim SBA president after the next-in-command declined the appointment.
“[Randel] said he had a different … idea of what representing the student body and what SBA is supposed to be doing than most of the board did,” Falcone said. “Whereas we, speaking for the majority of the board, wanted a more proactive approach and more of a taking a side approach, he wanted a more neutral approach.”
Current SBA President Jadyn Taylor (23L), who assumed office on Oct. 6, declined the Wheel’s interview request.