Georgetown University, located in Washington, D.C. and ranking 21 in the 2016 list of best national universities published by U.S. News and World Report, announced an unprecedented and bold plan Sept. 1 to offer the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits and sold to fund the college’s operations preferential admission to the university. This puts them at the same level as legacy applicants, who also get preference.
The Maryland Jesuit sale of slaves in 1838 is one of the largest and most well-documented in all of American history, and Georgetown has begun to track the descendants down to solicit their applications and explain their families’ history to them. The college also renamed two buildings previously named after slave owners to those of a former slave from the aforementioned purchase and a black woman who opened a school for young black girls near the university in the 19th century.
It is admirable a university of Georgetown’s size and stature is owning up to its unfortunate history and trying to make amends, but offering students a better chance at a spot at their university and renaming buildings are not the most meaningful reparations. Who is to say the descendants want to go to Georgetown or can afford to attend? How many of them, even with preferred status, have the academic history and resume needed to compete with standard Georgetown applicants?
Instead of offering a seat at its own table, Georgetown should focus its efforts on offering more meaningful opportunities. A better solution is creating a scholarship fund for descendants who might not be able to afford a college education, and possibly, prep courses to help descendants before they get to the college level, like Georgetown already offers to local disadvantaged youth in the Washington, D.C. area.
Preferential treatment does not hurt anyone but is an empty gift, not real reparation. It does not cost the school anything.
Legacy applications are already becoming less important to institutions of higher education. Colleges like the University of Chicago have phased them out as it becomes more important to admit students based on individual merit and not their family background or history, according to a Nov. 19, 2015, Huffington Post article titled “Do legacy students get a leg up in college applications?” Perhaps Georgetown should follow this lead and get rid of preferential applications altogether and focus more on educating descendants better so they can earn their place at Georgetown.
Admitting its role in the slave trade and making an effort to reach out to those affected is a bold action not taken by many institutions and should be praised.
From Brown University to the University of North Carolina, slavery is embedded in much of higher education’s legacy. More schools should follow Georgetown’s lead in creating a dialogue about their pasts while pushing to create a fairer future at their institution and beyond.
Other schools should not offer preferential admission to those they have affected, but scholarships and community outreach combined with open communication about slave trade history are good steps for universities to take while reparations from the U.S. government is still debated.