Yom Kippur for Universities?

How indeed does a University atone for its sins? Brown U convened a committe to study the issue of how to deal with the links between Brown and the slave trade. The Times reports today -- Panel Suggests Brown U. Atone for Ties to Slavery -- that the institution will issue a report with recommendations.

There are major glaring issues associated with this process. First, as I insinuated in the title, is there such a thing as the institutional guilt of a University? Is a school an entity that has a personification, a personality, a conscience, a sense of morality and guilt? I do not think the answer to this is so clearly yes.

Second, is it proper to judge 18th century founders by 21st century standards? The report speaks of guilt and of "acknowledging and taking responsibility for Brown’s part in grievous crimes." I'm certain that trading in slaves, owning them and using them to construct university buildings was legal, ethical and moral by the social norms of the 18th century. So what were the crimes?

Is this process of study and introspection not getting close to a reductio ad infinitum? A friend of mine used to say, "Behind every great fortune is a great crime." How far behind do we go? Every social institution can be traced to some taint in the past. Are we responsible to ferret all of that out?

Is it right for Brown President Ruth Simmons, who is black and a descendant of slaves, to use her position and power to divert university resources for a partisan investigation that is now establishing a new form of post facto morality and faux collective guilt?

Those are some of my questions. Here is some of the article:
BOSTON, Oct. 18 — Extensively documenting Brown University’s 18th-century ties to slavery, a university committee called Wednesday for the institution to make amends by building a memorial, creating a center for the study of slavery and injustice and increasing efforts to recruit minority students, particularly from Africa and the West Indies.

The Committee on Slavery and Justice, appointed three years ago by Brown’s president, Ruth J. Simmons, a great-granddaughter of slaves who is the first black president of an Ivy League institution, said in a report: “We cannot change the past. But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges.”

The report added, “In the present instance this means acknowledging and taking responsibility for Brown’s part in grievous crimes.”

The committee did not call for outright reparations, an idea that has support among some African-Americans and was a controversial issue at Brown several years ago. But the committee’s chairman, James T. Campbell, a history professor at Brown, said he believed the recommendations “are substantive and do indeed represent a form of repair.”

The committee also recommended that the university publicly and persistently acknowledge its slave ties, including during freshmen orientation. Dr. Campbell said he believed that the recommendations, if carried out, would represent a more concrete effort than that of any other American university to make amends for ties to slavery.

“I think it is unprecedented,” Dr. Campbell said, adding that a few other universities and colleges have established memorials, study programs or issued apologies, but not on the scale of the Brown recommendations. It was not clear how much the committee’s recommendations would cost to carry out.

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