Friday, February 10, 2023

Georgetown Reinstated Him After a Controversial Tweet. He Quit Anyway.

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Ilya Shapiro quit his job at Georgetown University’s law school before he ever really started it.

Shapiro, a former vice president at the Cato Institute, had been hired to be executive director of the law school’s Georgetown Center for the Constitution. Before he officially stepped into that position, though, he sent a tweet about President Biden’s stated intention to nominate a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. Shapiro wrote that he thought Sri Srinivasan, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, would be the best pick but “alas doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.”

Those three words — “lesser black woman” — led to a lot of outrage.

He apologized, said his wording was “inartful,” and took down the tweet. The dean of the law school, William Treanor, called the language “appalling” and said it was “at odds with everything we stand for at Georgetown Law.” Shapiro was suspended with pay, and an investigation began. After four months, the university reinstated him, a decision Shapiro initially celebrated.

Then, on Monday, he announced that, on second thought, he would resign. A report from the university’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action said that any similar remarks in the future would very likely create “a hostile environment based on race, gender, and sex” — a warning that, Shapiro wrote, amounted to a “slow-motion firing.”

I spoke with Shapiro about his decision to quit, the controversial tweet, and what he plans to do now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You wrote a column after Georgetown completed its investigation in which you said that you were “relieved that now I’ll get to do the job for which I was hired.” You called it a “new day.” Four days after that, you announced your resignation. What changed?

What changed was that it took a little time to go through the report that I got from the university administrators and to see and understand that I was being put in an untenable situation and that the next time I said or did something that offended someone, or someone claimed offense or felt discomfort, then that would constitute a hostile educational environment and I’d be disciplined. I’m not prepared to live and work under that kind of sword of Damocles, and I’m certainly not prepared to walk on eggshells to try to avoid any sort of inadvertent offense.

You wrote that the dean assured you that he’d have your back in the future and that he wanted you to succeed. So I take it you didn’t believe him?

He said that he would have my back if I acted professionally. I came to understand what “acting professionally” meant through the report and through his statements. And it became clear that he would not have my back unless I never said anything that subjectively offended anyone or anyone complained. Basically his assurance, I came to realize, was an empty one.

You sent the infamous tweet just before midnight. What sort of head space were you in at the time?

I never expected to become a poster boy for cancel culture.

My head space was that I was feisty, having done media during the day about the Breyer retirement and was still upset and got more upset by seeing the commentary on Twitter as I was doom-scrolling, which I wouldn’t have been doing had I been at home in bed with my wife. But I was in a hotel room. And, you know, the last thing I did before going to bed was firing off those tweets, which is a bad idea. And away we went.

So you wake up the next morning and it’s gone viral. It’s being condemned by people at Georgetown and elsewhere as racist and misogynistic. What did you think when you saw how it was being interpreted?

It was a nightmare. It was not fun at all. People willfully misconstrued what I said, which I admitted right away was poorly phrased. So I took it down and apologized for any inadvertent offense. And I was trying to do damage control, but that’s not possible today and certainly not online, and not really in the academic world. I don’t think there would have been a scandal if I hadn’t been about to join Georgetown. If I had just been in my Cato job, it would have been considered a controversial tweet, but there wouldn’t have been a scandal.

And I had to keep reminding myself that Twitter is not the real world. But that doesn’t matter so much with respect to academia, because the climate of academia is very similar to the climate of Twitter: Anyone who deviates from progressive orthodoxy is pilloried, and there’s no grace.

If you could reword that tweet, what would you have written instead?

I’d say that, in my view, I think the best pick, if I were Joe Biden, would be Sri Srinivasan because he’s a solid progressive and very smart and influential. We also have the identity politics benefit of being the first Asian or Indian American. And so it’s unfortunate that President Biden has excluded him, among many, many others, from consideration. I don’t think the pool of job candidates, from the lowest possible job to the highest office in the land, should be restricted by race and gender.

The Black Law Students Association at Georgetown put out a statement saying you didn’t deserve to “hold a space as a leader and educator” at the law school. Did you speak with any members of that association?

Nobody reached out. And during my suspension, I was not allowed on campus.

You tried to speak at a Federalist Society event at the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California back in March. You stood at a podium for more than 40 minutes while protesters chanted “Black lawyers matter” and pounded their desks. Eventually, you gave up and walked out. What would you have told those students had you been able to speak?

I have a whole presentation about the politics of Supreme Court nominations. I would have talked about the role of politicians, going back to George Washington, how things have changed over time, how politics play a different role now, what the inflection points were historically and bringing it up to the present day. As in other events that I did during that period, if students had asked about my tweet or about what I think about the Ketanji Brown Jackson nomination, or anything like that, I would have been happy to answer. But I didn’t get a chance to do any of it.

For the record, do you believe that Ketanji Brown Jackson is qualified to be on the Supreme Court?


What are you going to do now?

I do have irons in the fire. I’m gratified and thankful to all the friends and allies that I’ve had offering support and helping think through my next steps.

I saw several tweets accusing you of, basically, wanting to be “canceled.” One said you would now be joining the “right-wing outrage-culture grift train.” How would you respond to that?

Of course I didn’t want to be canceled. I took the job at Georgetown because I thought that, after nearly 15 years at the Cato, I wanted a new challenge and the opportunity to build an institution and to have a different sort of impact in the world regarding the ideas and issue areas that I care about. And I pursued that through the end until I came to realize, in the last few days, that that was no longer possible.

I never expected to become a poster boy for cancel culture. But if I could use this platform that I’ve been given to make certain points and to advance the ideas that I care about, then I was going to take that and continue to take that, whether in the hopes of pressuring Georgetown or other higher-education institutions to reform, or whether it’s generating enough awareness and opposition to these illiberal trends in academia such that reform will be forced on the institutions.

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