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To atone for past ties to slavery, Georgetown tries something new (+video)

Nearly 200 years ago, Georgetown University profited from the sale of 272 slaves. Now, the school will offer an admissions edge to descendants of those slaves. 

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    Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington on July 10, 2013. Georgetown University will give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits as part of its effort to atone for profiting from the sale of enslaved people, the president of the prominent Jesuit university in Washington announced Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016.
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In 1838, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., sold 272 slaves, a sale that rescued the university from dire financial straits. Now, nearly 200 years later, in an attempt to atone for this sale and the years of slave labor from which Georgetown benefited, the school has introduced a set of measures that includes an initiative that offers preferential admission status to descendants of those held in slavery by the university. 

Georgetown is far from the first school to publicly denounce its past ties with slavery or take steps to atone for historic wrongdoings. A number of colleges including Brown University, the College of William and Mary, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have created commissions, built memorials, and funded research projects to open a dialogue about the role of slaves in the universities' respective histories. But Georgetown is the first to actively recruit the descendants of the people it wronged.

Yet, experts caution, whether the initiatives bring about significant change remains to be seen. Furthermore, they say, aspects of the university's approach could be improved upon if other schools adopt similar policies in the future. 

The unprecedented move to offer preferential admissions to descendants "goes farther than just about any institution," Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times. "I think it's to Georgetown's credit. It's taking steps that a lot of universities have been reluctant to take."

John Hatch, author of "Race and Reconciliation: Redressing Wounds of Injustice," also applauds the university's "serious attempt" to atone for its past mistakes through the admissions edge and other measures announced on Thursday.

The new initiatives, which also include a formal apology, a new institution for the study of slavery, and a public memorial to the slaves associated with the university, "illustrate both the symbolic and material nature of restorative justice," Dr. Hatch tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Publicly apologizing and erecting a memorial to slaves will work symbolically to redress the dehumanization that occurred when African Americans were both used as free labor and sold for profit by Georgetown." And the act of offering preferential admissions, he says, "gives material substance to the symbolic redress." 

However, as Dr. Wilder warns, whether the initiative leads to significant change depends on the extent to which Georgetown makes an effort to identify and reach out to descendants. And, as some have pointed out, the university has not yet announced any plans to offer special scholarships or financial aid to descendants, raising questions of whether those who are admitted will be able to afford their education.  

At the same time, others argue that the concept of preferential admissions treatment, whether successfully executed or not, does not get to the heart of the matter.

The move is an "appealing gesture," says John Torpey, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York who has studied reparation politics, in an email to the Monitor. "But it does not really begin to address the reasons why people have sought 'reparations' for the mistreatment of blacks in the American past." 

The concept of reparations, he explains, "revolves mainly around the aim of rectifying the economic inequalities faced by the descendants of slaves who were not compensated for their work and not able to amass wealth, but it goes beyond that to try to address the denial of wealth accumulation to blacks by means of such post-slavery policies" as redlining, restrictive covenants, and "exclusion from access to certain types of jobs." 

What is really needed, Dr. Torpey says, is a national bipartisan commission of historical inquiry to address such matters and develop recommendations for the future – and in this sense, the school and its Georgetown Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, the committee that provided the recommendations, could serve as a model for a broader national effort.

Even the model for the committee itself, however, could be improved upon, critics say. In a New York Times interview, Karran Harper Royal, a descent of slaves sold by Georgetown in 1838, lamented that no descendants were included on the committee that produced the recommended measures, nor were any invited to university President John J. DeGioia's speech Thursday afternoon to announce the initiatives. 

This reaction, Hatch says, "highlights the fact that reconciliation can never be unilateral. Apology can be unilateral; forgiveness can be unilateral; but reconciliation requires dialogue and negotiation." 

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