The school will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. In addition, trustees voted to change the name of a residential college that had been named for Wilson to First College.
“We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms,” trustees said in a statement.
Student activists said the trustees’ decision, while welcome, is only the first of many actions that the Ivy League university must take to address the challenges that black students on campus face.
“The removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs has come after five years of hostility and delay, including harassment and threats of expulsion of Black student activists,” student activists said in a statement. “While the University would like to count their action today as a win, it is not theirs to claim. Hundreds of students and alumni have endorsed a comprehensive set of demands. We call on the University to match symbolism with meaningful action and address the systemic anti-Black racism that exists at this institution.”
The decision is a significant shift for the university, which just four years ago decided Wilson’s name would remain despite a student-led campaign to have it removed. A committee convened by the university in 2015 to study the question recommended that Princeton instead focus on efforts to make the university a more inclusive place, including strengthening the pipeline to draw more underrepresented minority students into doctoral programs and diversifying campus art and iconography to better reflect the modern world.
But the board’s action Friday underscores how the outcry over the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police has forced institutions to reexamine the legacy of leaders like Wilson, who despite being hailed for his embrace of progressive ideas also held racist views.
While still “recognizing and respecting” Wilson’s legacy, trustees concluded they could no longer allow the school to bear his name.
“Identifying a political leader as the namesake for a public policy school inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for those who study in the school,” trustees said in their statement. “We must therefore ask whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades. This question has been made more urgent by the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, which have served as tragic reminders of the ongoing need for all of us to stand against racism and for equality and justice. ”
Wilson had deep ties to the university. He graduated from Princeton and from 1902 to 1910 served as the president of the university, where he was viewed as a transformational leader.
He was elected the 28th president of the United States in 1912 and reelected in 1916 and was responsible for enacting the first federal laws to establish an eight-hour workday and restrict child labor. Wilson initially did not support women’s suffrage but eventually came to support giving women the right to vote, in part because of the growing political strength of the movement, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
He led the United States during World War I and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. But Wilson also advocated for the separation of races and opposed efforts by civil rights leaders to combat discrimination against black people.
This article has been updated to clarify Wilson’s role in the women’s suffrage movement.