Trending Topics: Georgetown, Slavery, and Admissions Preferences

 New York Times: “Nearly two centuries after Georgetown University profited from the sale of 272 slaves, it will embark on a series of steps to atone for the past, including awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved, officials said on Wednesday.

Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, who will discuss the measures in a speech on Thursday afternoon, also plans to offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution, including those who were sold in 1838 to help keep the university afloat.

In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.

So far, Mr. DeGioia’s plan does not include a provision for offering scholarships to descendants, a possibility that was raised by a university committee whose recommendations were released on Thursday morning. The committee, however, stopped short of calling on the university to provide such financial assistance, as well as admissions preference.”

Last week, the blogosphere was up in arms after Georgetown University President John DeGioia announced that the school would give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves and enact a series of measures to atone for the school’s past. After I actually read a few articles, I agree with the university’s plan. Many conservatives seemed to be reacting to the clickbait headlines instead of the historical impetus behind the decision. Here’s why I think the move was a good one.

  1. The decision was made after the school (a private university) commissioned a report on the founding of the university (1790).

This was not a government edict or a University of Missouri type protest led by a misguided student group. The year long investigation by scholars confirmed that in the early days of the university the Jesuit priests who oversaw the school sold 272 slaves in order to repay the school’s mounting debts and establish the campus. At the time, one official opined that “It would be better to suffer financial disaster than suffer the loss of our souls with the sale of the slaves,” but in the end he and others were convinced to support the scheme. The sale, which ended the school’s involvement in the slave trade, of these individuals involved forcible removal from six plantations in Maryland to two plantations in the Deep South. Families were torn apart and the slaves were subjugated to even harsher conditions. The transaction amounted to $3.3 million in today’s dollars and ensured the school’s survival. The sale of the slaves directly financed and contributed to the longevity of the venerable institution which now educates over 17, 800 students annually.

(Note: All nine of the colleges started before the Revolutionary War have some ties to slavery.)

  1. The granting of a preference in admission is in keeping with the enrollment policy of the school and is limited to the descendants of those actually affected by the school’s actions.

Most of the headlines incorrectly suggested that the preference would be given to all those who were descendants of slaves. If that was the case, I would qualify but it isn’t and I don’t meet the criteria. This is a specific group that was wronged in a well-documented manner. The amount of hyperbole employed by some conservative writers does us all a disservice. Prestigious universities, such as Georgetown, offer legacy admissions to those who have had a close relative attend the school. (Remember how former President George W. Bush routinely joked that even a C student such as he could become president? He didn’t get into Yale because he had a 4.0.) Why is this admissions preference any different? In both cases, the preference is one of the many factors considered in enrollment and does not guarantee admission to the school.

(Studies show that a legacy preference increases the chance of an applicant’s enrollment by 19.7 points and nearly all liberal arts colleges award extra points to the potential student’s assessment score based on legacy preferences.)

  1. The school should award some form of financial aid to the descendants who choose to attend the school.

An education at Georgetown costs upwards of $70,000 dollars. The average student would not be able to afford to attend even if they secured enrollment. Liberals on Twitter suggested that the admissions preference did not go far enough since no financial aid was attached to it. For once, I may agree with them. I do not believe that students shouldn’t contribute to their education. It is important to have a financial stake in one’s education but some form of scholarship or tuition assistance should be made available otherwise the admission’s preference is practically worthless. Currently, Georgetown’s endowment is worth $1.529 billion. I would think that some considerations could be made or a fund could be set up and private donations could be given to help qualified students. Maybe the NAACP or Black Lives Matter could spearhead such an effort since their purported aim is the empowerment of Black people?

  1. The university cannot right all the wrongs of the past but when an institution has wronged individuals and verifiable documentation is present shouldn’t they be allowed to make the effort?

Individuals should not be held liable for the actions of their ancestors but institutions that choose to address the sins of the past should be commended. When the survivors of the Holocaust and their families fought to have their artwork returned to them decades after World War II, Hollywood made movies about it (see The Lady in Gold and Monuments Men). When President Jimmy Carter commissioned a study into the United States government’s role in the unlawful internment of Japanese Americans in camps after Pearl Harbor, the findings resulted in their descendants (who endured public humiliation, as well as, lost property, homes, and businesses as a result of their imprisonment) receiving an apology, a memorial in D.C., and $20,000 per person in compensation for their losses. Later, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill which ensured that all the families received their financial restitution. In the case of Georgetown, the direct descendants gain nothing but a preference in admission. Why some conservatives have chosen to make a federal case of a decision by a private university I will never understand.

In conclusion, let’s save our political capital and ink for more important issues. I find that actually reading the articles and doing a little digging usually helps shed some light on these trending topics.

P. S. The self-flagellation should not go on ad infinitum. For the record, I do not support affirmative action in hiring because it is no longer necessary. That is a separate issue for another day.

The Japanese American Internment Memorial in Washington, D. C.





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