In an unprecedented move, the US’s 227-year-old Georgetown University will begin applying a preferential admissions policy to the descendants of slaves, the university announced today, Sept. 1.
The announcement comes as part of the private university’s attempt to make amends for its historical dependence on the labor of slaves. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, Georgetown’s Jesuit presidents sold 272 slaves in 1838 in order to pay off its debt and bolster its finances. Descendants of those slaves who apply to study at Georgetown will now receive the same extra consideration that children of alumni (known as “legacy applicants”) receive at the storied Catholic university.
Legacy applicants typically expect a slight advantage in the student selection process, a practice employed at most American universities. In a 2004 interview with Georgetown’s student newspaper, Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions said that legacy and donorship play an important part in the admissions considerations. “If alumni have been engaged in the community since they left, supporting them in return just makes sense,” he said.
Similarly, the Georgetown committee formed to make recommendations for post-slavery reconciliation proposes: “The University should engage the descendants of the enslaved whose labor and value benefited the University.” Additional proposals include a formal apology, creation of an institution for the study of slavery and a memorial to the people sold.
Other US schools are beginning to address their own historic complicity with the slave trade, but no other university is known to have offered an admissions advantage. “It goes farther than just about any institution,” Professor Craig Steven Wilder 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.”
In a statement this morning, university president John J. DeGioia wrote, “I believe the most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time.”
Georgetown has not disclosed how it will implement its admissions strategy for descendants of slaves, nor whether it will earmark any financial relief or scholarships for those students. According to its website, the average cost of attendance in 2016-2017 for an undergraduate student is $46,750.