Georgetown University has struggled to adequately address its past participation in the American slave trade, but the recently proposed referendum is not the answer.
In an effort to confront the university’s troubled legacy, the Georgetown 272 Advocacy Team proposed creating a fund of charitable contributions for the descendants of the 272 individuals sold by our university in 1838. This “Act of Referendum to Establish a New GU272 Legacy” narrowly passed the GUSA senate Feb. 3. Now, the decision regarding this referendum has been placed in in the hands of the larger student body.
In April, each Georgetown undergraduate will have the opportunity to vote on this referendum. We implore you to vote no.
If passed, this referendum will levy a fee of $27.20 upon every undergraduate student, every semester, “to be allocated for charitable purposes directly benefiting the descendants of the GU272 and other persons once enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits.” The fund — which would amount to roughly $400,000 annually — would be controlled by five descendants of the GU272 and a board of five undergraduates, appointed by the GUSA president.
Though we wholeheartedly support the charitable intentions of the GU272 Advocacy Team’s efforts, we firmly object to their methodology.
Georgetown University alone, not the student body, has the obligation to pay for its past transgressions. The 2016 report issued by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, while frequently cited by the GU272 Advocacy Team, echoes this point. We encourage every student to read the report to learn about Georgetown’s shameful history, and to familiarize themselves with the actions recommended by a leading group of students, faculty and researchers. One key detail is apparent in the document: never did the Working Group never recommended that we, the student body, atone for Georgetown’s sins.
Our university has neglected to adhere to its promised memorial-building, class-teaching and research-funding. However, the student body is not obliged to pay for institutional failures.
The specifics of this proposal raise additional concerns that the Advocacy Team has failed to adequately address. Undergraduates alone are forced to pay this fee; no contribution is required from graduate students, faculty or staff. All of these groups benefit from the existence of Georgetown. The $27.20 cost per student may have symbolic value, but its meaning ends there — no cost data or project proposals exist for the use of the fund. The charitable investments suggested by the Advocacy Team are vague, anecdotal and fall short of the level of specificity needed when considering raising the cost of attendance.
In the coming months, the GU272 Advocacy Team will try to convince you that the obligations of Georgetown’s sins fall squarely on its student body and will present this referendum as a financial obligation rather than a choice. Supporters of the referendum will claim that we, by attending classes, living in dorms and accepting our degrees, owe an intrinsic debt to the descendants of those enslaved people who paid for Georgetown’s existence with their lives. While we agree that the Georgetown of today would not exist if not for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838, current students are not to blame for the past sins of the institution, and a financial contribution cannot reconcile this past debt on behalf of the university.
Most students were unaware of the darker aspects of Georgetown’s history when they decided to enroll. Most certainly, no member of the current student body ever participated in the slave trade nor willingly operates an institution that does. For many students, paying more than $200 over four years at Georgetown would add immensely to the economic struggle of college tuition. The Advocacy Team has not been able to make a concrete guarantee that low-income students would receive a waiver for the fee.
This referendum is a case study of good intentions gone awry. If this proposed fee were to become a reality, students would be footing the bill for Georgetown University’s inaction. We encourage the GU272 Advocacy Team to lobby our administration to pay its debts and not take aim at our already cash-strapped student body.
We fear the precedent that we will set if this referendum is allowed to pass — we cannot demand students self-fund every project Georgetown fails to deliver. Please join us in voting no on this referendum in April.
Hayley Grande is a sophomore in the College. Samuel Dubke is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Both are GUSA senators.