A crowd cheers at the conclusion of the dedication of Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft halls at Georgetown University on in Washington on April 18. On that day the university and the Jesuit order issued a formal apology for the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people, a transaction that benefited the school. The halls were named after the first slave listed on the sale document and a free woman of color who founded one of the first schools for black girls in Georgetown. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)

By Terry W. Hartle

Last week, Georgetown University and its founding Jesuit order formally apologized to the descendants of 272 slaves sold in 1838 to pay off the university’s debts.

Georgetown and many other colleges and universities across the nation have for years grappled with ways to acknowledge ties to oppression and slavery. This is not a matter of south or north, public or private, or the resources that a school has. Virtually any college or university that predates the Civil War is likely to face these issues.

But it is always a challenge to come to terms with the past. The controversies over Calhoun College at Yale University and the legacy of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University reveal how fraught the discussion of these issues can be. This doesn’t just occur in the United States—see the campaign at Oxford to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Some schools have successfully navigated this difficult ground. Consider the case of the University of Mississippi. This southern school that for a brief period in 1962 was the epicenter of the nascent civil rights movement now has on its grounds a statue of James Meredith, who integrated the campus during riots that left two people dead and required the National Guard to secure order. The school stopped flying the Mississippi state flag in 2015 because of its Confederate emblem, but also openly and publicly acknowledges the Confederate Cemetery on its campus.

Now Georgetown offers a fresh exemplar of how careful, thoughtful leadership can deal with these divisive issues.

Georgetown, led by President John J. DeGioia, put those qualities on display as the school tackled both the past and the present during last week’s event in Washington. (Full disclosure: DeGioia is a former chairman of the board of the American Council on Education.)

“We do not seek to move on with this apology, but to move forward with open hearts to respond to the urgent demands of justice, still present in our time. The expression of contrition that we offer today guides, permeates, animates our ongoing work for justice. We build a more just world with honest reflection on our past and commitment to a faith that does justice,” DeGioia said.

It’s easy for higher education institutions, the federal government, corporations and other large organizations to focus on current, short-term considerations, like the next quarterly report, the coming fiscal year, or the following semester, and to avoid tackling hard questions and long-term problems.

What Georgetown demonstrated is a willingness to face its history openly and honestly. Any longstanding organization will have skeletons in its closet that might be easier left behind a closed door. But true leadership in our increasingly complex and diverse society demands that they be taken out and scrutinized in the light of the values the institution holds today.

Especially when the questions raised will only generate more questions—and uncomfortable ones at that—the easiest course of action is to leave the past in the past. Universities—again, like most organizations—find it pretty easy to celebrate past accomplishments. Georgetown is a compelling reminder that organizations must also be willing to own the objectionable parts of their history as well. They have to identify and acknowledge the places and ways in which they have fallen short. That’s a hard course to take, and only strong and confident institutions will do it.

But even more important, Georgetown has demonstrated what is an increasingly uncommon quality in any organization: moral leadership. Moral leadership is not just about “owning the past,” it is about integrity and authenticity. A prerequisite for moral leadership is an organizational framework that places a high value on understanding, justice and a stronger future and a willingness to take action to make that happen. Georgetown did not toot its own horn by claiming this mantle—but it is exactly what it has shown.

Both owning your history and moral leadership are particularly worth noting. In today’s polarized, tumultuous public environment, where every remark can blow up on social media, it is increasingly rare to see institutions and their leaders voluntarily and publicly wrestle with their past and to exhibit moral, authentic leadership.

In modern American society, to quote T.S. Eliot, the public arena is far too often “narrow, nasty and negative.”

Georgetown and Jack DeGioia have reminded us that it can also be thoughtful, broad and uplifting.

Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education. The council represents nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and other higher education leaders.