When sordid revelations surfaced in recent years of how the sale of hundreds of enslaved laborers in 1838 saved Georgetown University from the cliff of financial ruin, the college cobbled together a multipronged response. It summoned a working group to study how to make penance for the wrongdoing. It held a ceremony to deliver an official apology. It began giving descendants of the 272 enslaved people a bump in admissions.
The Georgetown working group wrote that “we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the University”—but so far, the university has done little to follow through on that recommendation.
Students at the school have now taken matters into their own hands. Last week, in a student referendum, undergrads voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves the symbolically significant amount of $27.20 per semester to create a fund that will support the descendants of the enslaved people from whom the university profited. Many of them live in rural Maringouin, Louisiana, where the median household income is less than $24,000, far below the national average. The details of Georgetown’s potential new approach are still nebulous—Will students on financial aid have to fork over money? How exactly will the collected funds be provisioned?—and the results of the referendum could still be nullified by the administration. But if the vote indeed gets translated into policy, it will mark the first attempt by any American institution to give out reparations.
But while students by and large supported the measure, some questioned whether it should fall to the student body to make amends for the institution’s past blunders. “We are just one part of the over-100,000-member Georgetown community,” says Sam Dubke, a sophomore,* referring to the school’s alumni, “and frankly, we are the members of that community who have the least financial means.” The tax would raise an estimated $400,000 in its first year, a considerable chunk of money, but less so in the context of an institution sitting on nearly $2 billion in the bank, one that, in 2016, paid the school’s president $1,436,230 and the head men’s-basketball coach $3,967,988. (The team finished the year with its worst record since the 1970s.)
The Georgetown students behind the effort reject the premise that they themselves are absolved from any financial commitment. “I don’t think the university paying the fee would address what the referendum seeks to address,” says Hannah Michael, a sophomore who helped conceive the idea of a fund. “Students voted yes because they believe they have a financial obligation to commit to reconciliation with descendants.”
“Since 2015, Georgetown has been working to address its historical relationship to slavery and will continue to do so,” said Matt Hill, a Georgetown spokesman, when I asked why the school doesn’t just pay for the fund itself. The school’s president visited Maringouin in 2016, he added, and since then, “Georgetown has met with many descendants and heard many important ideas about how we might move forward together.”
But the fact that students may be ahead of the school in paying reparations is evidence of just how little the university has done to make amends for its misdeeds. And such inaction isn’t just a Georgetown quirk. Virtually all the antebellum colleges were active participants in chattel slavery—at Princeton, for example, prospective students would arrive on campus to be first greeted at the president’s doorstep by his slave. As the MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder writes in Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education “never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”
Many of these colleges—Harvard, Brown, Rutgers, the University of Virginia, William & Mary—have begun to grapple with their slaveholding past, convening symposia, erecting memorials, renaming buildings, and so on. But none has yet acted on a plan that transcends symbols to try to make amends for the wrong it has done.
A big reason for this is that a lot of colleges aren’t quite sure how to actually do that. “It’s really clear that if those 272 people had not been sold, Georgetown as we know it today would not be here,” says Jody Allen, a William & Mary professor who directs the Lemon Project, an initiative at William & Mary to address its complicity in racism. “It can’t get much clearer than that. But at a lot of other colleges, it’s murky.” That clarity has allowed for some 8,000 direct descendants of the Georgetown 272 to be identified—a remarkable genealogical feat that may not be replicable elsewhere.
Take Harvard: In 2016, the university put up a plaque memorializing four enslaved people who worked on campus in the 1700s—but apart from their first names, not a whole lot else is known about the individuals. Without a defined set of people descended from those four, Harvard says it’s not clear what it can do to recompense for its centuries-old misdeeds.
Though colleges—ivy-laden, highly selective schools especially—have reputations as bastions of progressivism, behind that veneer, like many other institutions, they’re exceedingly cautious and resistant to dramatic moves, expensive ones in particular. “When you start doing the math, who knows what that dollar amount might be?” Allen told me. “I do think there’s probably a good amount of trepidation at looking closely at that reality. That might be slowing down some schools from actually doing it.” Even for a college like Harvard, with a virtually boundless endowment that outstrips the resources of most state governments, the more hefty attempts at compensation could raise difficult questions about who deserves it, and how much, that these institutions would much like to avoid. In that way, colleges mirror society more broadly. Though lofty reparations plans are in vogue among a set of Democratic 2020 presidential aspirants, Americans on the whole aren’t exactly clamoring to hand out cash to descendants of slaves; one recent poll found that just one in four Americans favored the policy.
But these obstacles shouldn’t mean that colleges are off the hook from doing more to atone for the profits they’ve reaped from enslavement. “People think of reparations and they think checks,” Allen told me. “But that’s only part of it. Are you providing courses around these issues? Are you diversifying the faculty? Are you supporting student organizations?”
Colleges like Georgetown could adopt a slew of other strategies, starting with a simple one: Enroll more black students. Highly selective colleges are enrolling more minority students overall—just not more black students. Leslie Harris, a Northwestern University historian and the co-editor of the newly released anthology Slavery and the University, told me that these schools could do more to help black students offset the cost of attending. Harris sees that as the biggest failing of Georgetown’s well-meaning effort to give descendants of the 272 a bump in the admissions process. “It’s not a scholarship; it’s just, ‘We might admit you.’ The students still have to figure out how to pay for it,” Harris said. “I thought it was almost laughable.”
But Harris wants colleges with multibillion-dollar endowments, such as Georgetown and UVA, to stop thinking about just their own bottom line—they could, for example, donate some of their funds to struggling historically black colleges. While the bank accounts at wealthy colleges keep inexorably creeping up, the endowments at the 10 wealthiest HBCUs combined still amount to just one-20th of Harvard’s total funds. But even without a mountain of money, HBCUs are overachievers. Nearly a third of black students who earn a science doctoral degree went to a black college. Xavier University of Louisiana, with just 3,000 undergrads, churns out more black medical-school students than any other college in the country.
“One way that the well-heeled schools could make some repair and address some of these inequalities is to shore up the finances of HBCUs and to think through how to ensure they have better access to fundraising and development,” Harris told me.
Of course, the actions of one college, or even several wealthy schools, cannot wipe away the consequences of three and a half centuries of slavery and state-sanctioned racial subjugation in the U.S. Surely colleges aren’t the lone set of American institutions that have squirmed out of reckoning with their complicity in racism, but they could be better positioned for atonement than a lot of them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of The Atlantic’s cover story “The Case for Reparations,” said in a conversation with then–Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, colleges “have a knowledge that maybe the Chicago Police Department does not have yet”—of where they’ve gone wrong in the past.
If there’s any hope of healing the scars of racial bondage, colleges will almost surely be at the vanguard of that movement. Higher education should have an advantage here: One asset of the Ivory Tower is that it gives those within its confines the opportunity to nurture and grow seemingly heretical ideas that could, one day, become commonplace.
“Many of the schools talk about their history all the time,” Harris said. “But it’s hard for them to look at the legacy of their own wealth. None of us were here when it happened, but we’re all benefiting from it now.”
* This article originally misstated Sam Dubke’s class year.