As the debate over reparations heats up, Georgetown University students voted Thursday by a large margin to impose a fee on themselves to pay reparations for the university's ties to slavery.
The student election commission announced the results early this morning. The measure attracted just under two-thirds of voters and passed, 2,541 to 1,304.
The measure calls for the university to start with a fee of $27.20 per semester in the fall of 2020, "in honor of the 272 people sold by Georgetown," referring to the slaves sold by Jesuits to finance the university in its early days. The resolution says that proceeds from the fund "will be allocated for charitable purposes directly benefiting the descendants of the GU272 and other persons once enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits — with special consideration given to causes and proposals directly benefiting those descendants still residing in proud and underprivileged communities."
The proposed fee would be a tiny fraction of the price of attending Georgetown, where tuition alone is more than $55,000 this year.
While the measure is not binding on the university, the vote comes as Democratic presidential candidates have elevated the national debate over reparations. The vote also marks a potential shift in higher education.
In recent years, many colleges — including Georgetown — have conducted studies of their ties to slavery. Those studies have led to publications, academic conferences and monuments that honor the labor of slaves.
But the vote by Georgetown is the first move to have students pay reparations.
The resolution calling for reparations summarizes the argument this way: "As students at an elite institution, we recognize the great privileges we have been given, and wish to at least partially repay our debts to those families whose involuntary sacrifices made these privileges possible. As individuals with moral imagination, we choose to do more than simply recognize the past — we resolve to change our future. And since we truly wish to 'go, set the world on fire,' we choose to do so in this place, on this day and with this ballot." (The quote refers to a guiding idea of Jesuit philosophy.)
The university has praised the discussion set off by the student referendum but stopped short of saying it will adopt the new fee.
Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs, issued a statement that said in part, "We value the engagement of our students and appreciate that they are making their voices heard and contributing to an important national conversation. Any student referendum provides a sense of the student body’s views on an issue. Student referendums help to express important student perspectives but do not create university policy and are not binding on the university."
A Georgetown senior, Hunter Estes, in an essay in The Georgetown Review, outlined reasons he opposes the reparations fee. He questioned whether there is a system in place to appropriately use the funds, and he noted that every additional expense puts a stress on student budgets (and the financial aid budget of the university).
"At the end of the day, this referendum raises a larger question of who should be culpable for the failures of an institution," Estes wrote. "My question is, why should students accept the moral and financial burdens of the university’s apparent failures. If one believes that the university has not done enough in the process for memory and reconciliation in regards to slavery, then why not hold the school accountable? … I ask, why is it that to correct an injustice, we should place upon the students another injustice, in regards to the mandated acquisition of student money with no ability to opt out?"