University investigates racist comments by sociology professor

August 10, 2020

Illustration by Deborah Han

Content warning: This article references offensive statements made by the professor. 

Four Black students reported Associate Professor Timothy Wickham-Crowley in April 2019 for numerous offensive and discriminatory comments he made in the classroom, prompting a year-long administrative review.

Angel Reed (COL ’21), Briana Thomas (COL ’21), and two other students emailed sociology professors and university administrators about racist comments made by Wickham-Crowley in SOCI 155: Social Movements. They demanded an open investigation into his behavior, a re-evaluation of his curriculum for SOCI 155, cultural competency training for the entire Sociology Department, and the hiring of two new professors of color, one of whom must be Black.

The Voice has since learned that the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action (IDEAA) opened and completed an administrative review of the students’ allegations. Though he originally was slated to teach classes this fall, Wickham-Crowley is no longer listed as the instructor for any courses at Georgetown. The Voice has been unable to determine if the schedule change and allegations are related.

In their letter to administrators, the four students listed a series of incidents in the Spring 2019 semester in which Wickham-Crowley invoked harmful stereotypes about Black and Latinx people and dismissed students’ attempts to discuss representation and intersectionality. In one instance, he joked about “Mississippians not wanting to be treated like Puerto Ricans.”

Reed, Thomas, and the two other students also reported that Wickham-Crowley, who is white, said the n-word in class while reading aloud from a course textbook.

“This kind of environment is very uncomfortable for Black students who frequently experience microaggressions, discrimination, and prejudice from fellow students on campus,” the four wrote in their first email to administrators. “For a professor to inflict the same pain is unacceptable and terrifying, especially given the evident power dynamics between a white man who is a professor and Black individuals who are his students.”

By June of this year, the two students who have been most involved in the review, Reed and Thomas, said they had only been invited to meet with administrators about Wickham-Crowley twice and had not been followed up with. Frustrated by the lack of communication but buoyed by the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, they reached out to faculty and administrators again and asked for student support on social media.

In a follow-up email to administrators and sociology faculty on June 17, Reed and Thomas narrowed their previous list of demands to just one: fire Wickham-Crowley. After Reed posted on Twitter about the university’s public silence on the matter and asked students to show their support, dozens of students emailed the entire sociology department to demand meaningful action.

Reed and Thomas expressed their disappointment with administrators’ and professors’ lack of public response to their allegations, interpreting it as a lack of solidarity with Black students.

“You all are complicit, if not direct actors in the racism that Black students face on a daily basis at Georgetown,” they wrote in their June follow-up. “You have not been committed to making this school a safe space for us. It is time for a change.”

While Reed and Thomas were not made aware, IDEAA opened an administrative review of Wickham-Crowley shortly after receiving their report. According to a May 29, 2020, IDEAA communication obtained by the Voice, investigators interviewed 14 people—including 10 faculty members, staff, and students associated with the Sociology Department, three professors in other departments, and Wickham-Crowley himself. 

According to IDEAA’s grievance procedures, the review process exists to “provide a mechanism for faculty, staff, students, third parties and applicants for employment and admission to receive a prompt, fair, and impartial investigation and resolution on grievances of discrimination, harassment, and related retaliation.”

In the May 29 email to Wickham-Crowley, who later forwarded it to all sociology faculty, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Rosemary Kilkenny informed him of the outcome of the administrative review. “We did not find sufficient evidence that the incidents involving you were severe or pervasive, as they were isolated comments with limited duration that occurred within select classroom instruction or during an office visit,” Kilkenny wrote.

However, the review confirmed all the specific incidents the students described occurred. In an interview with IDEAA investigators, as well as in a written response that Wickham-Crowley circulated within the Sociology Department, he admitted to making all the comments students had alleged.

But in a comment emailed to the Voice, Wickham-Crowley denied wrongdoing. “[The students’] version of events was investigated for over a year, and that claim [was] not supported by the recent report issued by the Diversity Office. Let us leave it there,” he wrote.

Kilkenny also noted her particular concern over Wickham-Crowley’s admitted use of the n-word, explaining that it was not acceptable for him to use the word, even in a supposedly pedagogical context. She referred the matter to College Dean Christopher Celenza for further review.

By July 2020, students were informed Wickham-Crowley was no longer scheduled to teach his section of SOCI 001: Introduction to Sociology. 

Wickham-Crowley has worked at Georgetown since 1986 and has previously taught sociology courses such as Introduction to Sociology; Race, Color, Culture; Brazilian Society; and Comparative Class, Status, and Power.

To protect the privacy of those involved, the university cannot comment on individual IDEAA cases. However, according to a university spokesperson, IDEAA takes any allegations of racial discrimination seriously and can take corrective action if investigators decide it is necessary.

Following an IDEAA investigation, the university can hold known community members accountable for acts that violate our institutional policies through the imposition of sanctions and educational remedies, if a policy violation is identified,” they wrote in an email to the Voice.

Some sociology professors have taken the allegations and subsequent IDEAA review as an opportunity to examine the need for a more inclusive academic and professional environment within the department. After the four students first made their allegations, several professors joined on to the students’ demands.

In an April 2019 letter to then-Department Chair William McDonald later obtained by the Voice, six sociology professors affirmed their support for the students and urged administrators to address their concerns.

“We are committed to openly engaging in dialogue about social justice and ensuring that our own classroom practices promote inclusion and a diversity of voices,” they wrote. “If accurate, the concerns described in the letter do not adhere to the standard we have set for ourselves and require an examination of broader patterns that must be addressed to create an inclusive, respectful academic community.”

Associate Professor Corey Fields signed the letter of support and was later interviewed for IDEAA’s administrative review. In an email to the Voice, Fields explained his belief in the importance of an inclusive classroom. “That means having classrooms that expose students to a wide variety of theoretical and empirical perspectives, and encourages engagement from all students,” he wrote. 

“Personally, I have a zero-tolerance policy for anything that undermines that effort.”

The GUSA Senate also unanimously passed a resolution in support of Reed and Thomas in June. “No student’s concerns should ever be so easily dismissed by the University, any office, any department, or any administrator without properly investigating and taking action to protect the safety and wellbeing of the student,” the resolution reads. At the time, neither Reed and Thomas nor GUSA members were aware of the IDEAA investigation. 

In July of this year, Reed and Thomas had another meeting with administrators, where they first learned that Wickham-Crowley would not be teaching any Fall 2020 classes. In a joint email to the Voice, they thanked students and on-campus organizations for their support throughout the process but urged them to keep up their momentum.

“Students and Georgetown clubs have been extremely supportive after we re-publicized the incidents on Twitter,” Reed and Thomas wrote. “While we are appreciative for the support, we hope that this allyship continues beyond the politicization of recent events as these are the lived experiences of Black people every day, not just when it makes national news.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to remove the names of two students who had not given comment beyond their initial involvement through private emails.

Caroline Hamilton
Caroline Hamilton is a junior in the SFS studying Culture & Politics. She’s a half-ironic fan of Arcade Fire and an earnest fan of Paul Simon, as well as the features editor for the Voice.

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[…] the matter” of the white professor’s pedagogical use of the n-word to his dean, according to The Georgetown Voice, an independent campus […]