Brown University, in a detailed report, has acknowledged its historical ties to the slave trade, but other universities seem to prefer to let bygones be bygones

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... Soon after the Brown report was issued, the University of Pennsylvania's student newspaper published an article asking whether Penn had any closeted skeletons of its own. The headline read: "Penn says 'all clear' as Ivies decry slave ties."

The source for that claim is Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the university's archives and records center. Several years ago, administrators asked him to find out whether Penn had any historical connections to slavery that they should know about. With rumblings about reparations in the news, it's not surprising that officials were curious.

Mr. Lloyd looked through the minutes of trustee meetings and the correspondence of university administrators dating back to the founding of the university, in the mid-18th century. "I found that Penn's founders did not participate, to the best of my knowledge, in the slave trade," he says.

He did find evidence of slave ownership, including trustees who owned plantations in Delaware and Maryland. But there is a big difference, according to Mr. Lloyd, between slave owners and people involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Traders, he argues in essence, were much worse.

It's an argument that Steven H. Hahn calls "ethical hairsplitting." Mr. Hahn is a professor of history at Penn and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Belknap, 2003). While there is a distinction to be made between slave owners and slave traders, he argues, there is no moral gulf between the two. Nor does he believe that making such a distinction means Penn is "all clear."

"If there were slave owners who were financially important at the University of Pennsylvania, or they were in leadership positions, then there is a tie-in," says Mr. Hahn.

As for whether Penn should conduct an investigation like Brown's, he doesn't see why not: "It seems that we should want to find out about our past."...

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