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The Right Side of History

History can be complicated, and institutions that span centuries are lucky if they don’t find themselves on the wrong side of it on occasion. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that a lot of American colleges and universities are struggling today with the moral implications of their complicated pasts.

In 1838, the priests who ran the Jesuit college that eventually became Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to sugar plantations in Louisiana for the modern equivalent of $3.3 million. That now-infamous sale—which saved the institution at the cost of condemning 272 enslaved men, women and children to even greater suffering—illustrates the conundrum institutional leaders face today as they look back at times when their predecessors failed to rise above the ethical blind spots and moral outrages of their times.

The history of institutional involvement in slavery is, perhaps, the most extreme example of this. In his 2013 book, Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder argues that in addition to church and state, America’s early colleges were “the third pillar of a civilization based on bondage.” In recent years, institutions like Harvard, Brown, Princeton and Emory have also investigated and publicly acknowledged their own historic ties to the slave trade.

Since you can’t change the past, institutions that find themselves on the wrong side of history have to find ways to atone for it today. Georgetown has announced a number of real and symbolic reparations, including a monument to the slaves who were sold, preferential admissions for their descendants and the renaming of buildings in their honor. Similarly, Yale recently decided to rename the residential college that has been, since its construction in 1933, named for John Calhoun, known as slavery’s most forceful political advocate.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from all this, it’s probably that it would be far better to avoid such situations to begin with. But how do you do that? It’s tempting to say: Just do the right thing, even when it’s hard. And in the final analysis, there’s probably no better advice to be found. But at the same time, you only have to look at today’s heated debates over a range of questions to see that culture and self-interest cloud our ethical vision, and people on both sides of an issue can feel morally righteous. Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine how anyone could have ever defended such a barbaric practice as slavery, and yet, we know that in the first half of the 19th century, the topic was angrily debated in this country and became so deeply divisive that it eventually led to civil war.

So what are the divisive issues of our own time that, at some point in the distant future, will seem so ethically obvious that people will wonder how on earth anyone could have gotten them wrong? And what will be the final verdict of history, once time has peeled away the layers of self-interest, political animosity and cultural bias that trouble our ethical sight today? These are questions we probably should all ask ourselves from time to time.

For my part, I think climate change is likely to top the list. Someday, I believe, when the disruptive realities of a warmer world are indisputable facts on the ground, the denial and inaction of many of today’s leaders will be viewed as criminal acts of willful blindness. Philosopher Miranda Fricker suggests that people of all eras should be judged according to “the best standards that were available to them at the time.” By that standard, I think climate deniers will have a lot to answer for someday.

My list doesn’t end there, however. It would also include such things as LGBT rights and the treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants in this country—which I would argue are the civil rights issues of our time.

In all of these issues, I’m proud to say that the college that employs me to create this magazine puts its money and its people power where its values are. I feel confident that Pomona’s efforts to do the right thing—including its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030, its sustained efforts on behalf of the LGBT community on our campus, and its leadership in the fight for the undocumented students known as “Dreamers”—will, on these issues, at least, put it very much on the right side of history.