Undergraduate students are set to vote next Thursday on a referendum to create a semesterly fee that would go toward a fund to benefit descendants of the GU272.
Students will vote on whether to include a $27.20 fee in student bills every semester. These funds would be allocated to descendants of the GU272, the 272 enslaved individuals Georgetown sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 to financially sustain the university.
In 2001, the Georgetown University Student Association proposed the addition of a semesterly student activities fee. The proposal was approved by a student referendum and Georgetown’s board of directors, which is comprised of 39 members selected by the university. The board, which approves major policy changes and advises University President John J. DeGioia on university decisions, passed a tuition increase that removes a mandatory Yates membership fee for undergraduate students in January.
The university is not obligated to enact policy based on the results of the April 11 referendum, according to university spokesperson Matt Hill.
“Any student referendum provides a sense of the student body’s views on an issue,” Hill wrote. “Student referendums help to express important student perspectives but do not create university policy and are not binding on the university.”
Other universities, such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia, have acknowledged their past ties to slavery, according to the Associated Press. However, Thursday’s referendum marks the first time a university has held a vote regarding the inclusion of a fee that would raise funds for descendants.
The GU272 Advocacy Team, an on-campus group of students that advocates for descendants, has hosted events to educate students and encourage them to vote in the weeks leading up to the referendum.
Students for GU272, the Advocacy Team’s social media presence, hosted a discussion Monday for students to ask questions and share their thoughts on the referendum. On Wednesday, the group hosted a town hall to encourage discussion about the referendum. The town hall featured a panel of students that included supporters and opponents of the referendum.
Students who are privileged to attend Georgetown should vote, according to Advocacy Team member Mélisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), who is a descendant of the GU272.
“You have come here to get an education that you will take out into the world, and for $27.20 for eight semesters, you can invest in something while you’re here that makes it better or presents opportunities for people who do not have the same opportunity you have — and that was to come to Georgetown University,” Short-Colomb said at the Monday discussion. “If you don’t want to give $27.20 to another thing in your whole life, you don’t have to, but while students are here at Georgetown, this is what we’re going to do.”
The GU272 referendum does not require a minimum participation rate among students to pass. However, Georgetown students’ voter participation can ensure that advocacy for the descendants is a priority among the Georgetown community, according to Elliot Mack (SFS ’22), who plans to vote in favor of the referendum.
“If we really want to prove that this is something of essence in our community, we need to be able to get huge participation,” Mack said. “I hope to prove that this is a priority of our community and of the student body. If we want this to be a successful first step, a step which allows us to take many more, this needs to be a big statement. We need the whole community to come out and express their opinion.”
The referendum is set to coincide with GUSA’s April 11 senate election. Overall voter turnout at the last senate election in October was 20.9 percent, according to the GUSA Election Commission’s Twitter account. The relatively low turnout marked a downturn since the April 2018 senate elections, when turnout reached 23 percent.
Recent elections for GUSA president and vice president in February saw the lowest voter turnout since the 2007 executive election, with 32 percent of the student body casting votes.
The university plans to create opportunities for informed dialogue on the history of slavery at Georgetown regardless of next Thursday’s results, according to Hill.
“We remain committed to working with students – regardless of the outcome of the referendum – to develop education and programming that will enable all students to meaningfully engage with Georgetown’s history of slavery and support opportunities for collaboration between students and Descendants,” Hill wrote.
GUSA Senator Sam Dubke (SFS ’21) voted no in the Feb. 3 GUSA Senate vote on whether or not to hold a referendum to benefit the descendants, many of whom live in Maringouin, La. Dubke said that though he believes Georgetown should be held accountable for its past actions, the injustices were committed by the university itself, and thus the university should be responsible for repaying the descendants.
“It is my belief that Georgetown University committed the heinous crime that was the sale of 272 slaves, that Georgetown University made a commitment to repay the descendants of those slaves,” Dubke said at the townhall. “Therefore it is Georgetown University’s responsibility financially to contribute financially to that community of descendants in and around Maringouin. Students should not be required to pay.”
If passed by students and approved by the university, the referendum would establish a reconciliation fund, which will be presided over by a board of trustees composed of students and descendants. The reconciliation fund would then allocate funds toward purposes to the direct benefit of descendants of the 272, according to the Students for GU272 Facebook page. Some proposed projects include funding K-12 education, creating college scholarships and buying school supplies.
GUSA Senator Hayley Grande (COL ’21), who also opposes the addition of a reconciliation fee and who sat on Wednesday’s panel, said voters should consider the financial burden of the fee on low-income students.
“We can’t treat the student body as it stands today and in the future as a monolith,” Grande said at the townhall. “Everyone really brings a different voice to this community, and going across the board and requiring everyone to pay more to come to this prohibitively costly and expensive university is unjust.”
The financial aid office has indicated students receiving financial aid from the university would not have to pay the fee, according to former GUSA senator Sam Appel (COL ’20), who originally sponsored the resolution proposing the referendum.
However, the Advocacy Team has not been able to make a concrete guarantee that low-income students would receive a waiver for the fee, according to a February op-ed in The Hoya by Dubke and Grande.
The referendum lacks empirical reasoning behind the designated $27.20 fee and fails to specify how the money will be utilized for the descendants, Dubke said at Wednesday’s town hall.
“The amount $27.20 per student is symbolic but not grounded in data; only undergraduates are feed, even though everyone at Georgetown, as most on this panel argue, benefits from the sale of these slaves,” Dubke said. “There are no concrete plans for where this money should go and why.”
The GU272 Advocacy Team first started considering the proposal of the referendum at the beginning of last semester. The GUSA senate voted in favor of holding the universitywide referendum with a 20-4 vote Feb. 3.
Of 615 students who responded to a Feb. 6 door-to-door poll conducted by The Hoya, 34.8 percent said they approved of the fee, 34.7 percent said they were indifferent or unsure, 16.3 percent said they do not support the fee and 13.4 percent said they did not plan to vote.
Passing the GU272 referendum would be an important step not only in addressing injustices of the past, but also in helping Georgetown University set a historical precedent, according to Mack.
“Many other elite universities and institutions are in the same situation as us, and none have acted,” Mack said. “I want this to be a statement from the student body to the administration, to the board of trustees, to other institutions in this country, to the country on a national level that this is an issue that we care about and this is an issue that our community is pushing for.”
Hoya Staff Writer Amy Li contributed reporting.
This article was updated April 5 to include a university statement and correct the role of Georgetown’s board of directors in past referendums. This article was updated April 6 to correct the minimum participation rate of the referendum.