Under the student-backed proposal, students would have been charged a fee of $27.20 per semester to support charitable works for the descendants of 272 enslaved people whom the Jesuits sold in 1838. The referendum at the prominent university in the District drew attention to a broader national debate over reparations to atone for the evils of slavery.
Georgetown students, estimating the fee would raise $400,000 a year, had pressed university leaders to adopt the idea. “Respect our vote!” they chanted this month at a meeting of the university’s board of directors.
The university responded with a plan that officials said would carry out the goal of supporting descendants of the enslaved, without charging a fee.
“We embrace the spirit of this student proposal and will work with our Georgetown community to create an initiative that will support community-based projects with Descendant communities,” university President John J. DeGioia wrote in a letter to the campus Tuesday afternoon.
“This work will be grounded in our academic mission of education, research, and service; will provide opportunities for student leadership; and will be guided by extensive consultation and engagement with Descendants.”
DeGioia said Georgetown “will ensure that the initiative has resources commensurate with, or exceeding, the amount that would have been raised annually” through the proposed student fee.
Another university official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to elaborate on the plan, said donors have “expressed a lot of interest” in the university’s efforts related to slavery, racial justice and reconciliation.
Officials said they do not want to dictate what the initiatives will be. The university said in a statement that it envisions projects with long-term benefit “such as developing a new preschool program or health care initiative.”
Miles Aceves-Lewis, a sophomore from Houston who supported the referendum, had mixed reactions about the announcement. "It seems like a win-win," he said. "The lives of the descendants will be improved, because the university is pledging at least $400,000 a year to help them — and students don't have to pay." That means students struggling to get by don't have the burden, but it means all students won't be reminded of the issue, he said.
The students had advocated for some student oversight of how the money would be used, but if the university funds the effort, he said, "since it's the school's money, they have all the power."
Like many other universities, Georgetown has wrestled in recent years with the legacy of its ties to slavery.
Founded in 1789, Georgetown was the nation’s first Catholic school of higher learning. Its roots are deeply entwined with the history of slavery in Maryland and the nation’s capital. Those connections have long been known, but they have emerged in a much more public way in recent years at the highly ranked university, which has more than 7,400 undergraduates and thousands more graduate students.
Amid student demonstrations in fall 2015, the university decided to remove from campus buildings the names of two Jesuit priests who orchestrated the 1838 sale of 272 people enslaved on Maryland plantations.
Those priests, the Revs. Thomas Mulledy and William McSherry, were early presidents of Georgetown. Proceeds from the sale ($115,000, or more than $3 million in today’s dollars) were used to pay school debts. The deal uprooted enslaved families and dispersed men, women and children to plantations in Louisiana.
In September 2016, Georgetown pledged to give descendants of those whom the Jesuits sold a preference in admissions to the highly competitive university — treating such applicants as if they were the children of faculty members, staff or alumni. About 10 to 12 descendants have since enrolled.
The university also apologized in 2017 for its role in the slave trade, holding a religious ceremony in a campus chapel that was attended by more than 100 descendants of those sold. At that ceremony, Georgetown also named a student residence hall for the first enslaved person listed on the 1838 bill of sale: Isaac Hawkins.
But descendants, students and others argued that Georgetown should do more. Calls mounted for the university to create a reparations fund for the descendants.
Georgetown officials said Tuesday that the university is committed to working with descendants, aiming to launch projects in fall 2020. Officials said they plan to form advisory groups to develop ideas for academic, research and public history initiatives as well as engagement with thousands of descendants of the enslaved people.