Student protesters filled Princeton’s historic Nassau Hall Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the university president’s office and refusing to leave until their demands to improve the social and academic experiences of black students on campus are met — starting with an acknowledgement of famous alumnus Woodrow Wilson’s “racist legacy” and the removal of his name from all buildings.
At a time when protests over race are spreading across the country, gaining heat at many campuses — forcing administrators to step down, buildings to be renamed and course-offerings to be changed — the sit-in at one of the world’s most prestigious universities was another sign of the movement’s impact.
But it’s a movement that has also generated opposition — as at Dartmouth, where some students reported being frightened by protesters screaming and swearing at them about being racists last week, at Yale where a debate about free speech clashed with demands from students angry about the racial climate on campus, at Claremont McKenna College where some students said protests turned hostile, and in a few places such as the University of Missouri and Howard, with racist death threats.
But it’s a movement that continues to gain strength and lead to changes.
At Princeton, the protest came on the same day university officials announced that the leaders of the residential colleges would change their traditional names, effective immediately, from “master” to “head of the college.”
Protesters at Yale have demanded a similar change, concerned that the term “master” has ugly connotations associated with slavery.
“The former ‘masters’ of our six residential colleges have long been in conversation with the Office of the Dean of the College about their anachronistic, historically vexed titles,” Dean of the College Jill Dolan said in a statement. “We believe that calling them ‘head of the college’ better captures the spirit of their work and their contributions to campus residential life.”
“Though we are aware that the term ‘master’ has a long history of use in universities (indeed since medieval times), it seems to me by now to be anachronistic and unfortunate for the positions we hold,” Sandra Bermann, head of Whitman College, said in a statement. “We are glad to take on the designation as ‘head of the college’ that describes our role more aptly.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Princeton’s Black Justice League pushed harder.
The group demanded that the name of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, a segregationist who some believe supported the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan, be removed from a residential college, from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and any other buildings — and that his mural be scrubbed from the dining hall.
It demanded “cultural competency training” for all faculty and staff, including discussion of “the true role of freedom of speech and freedom of intellectual thought in a way that does not reinforce anti-Blackness and xenophobia.”
The organizers demanded that classes on “marginalized peoples” be added to the university’s required courses. “Learning about marginalized groups, their cultures, and structures of privilege is just as important as any science or quantitative reasoning course,” the group wrote in its demands.
And it demanded a space for black students on campus. The document ends with a request that President Christopher Eisgruber sign it.
Wilglory Tanjong, one of the student organizers with the Black Justice League on campus, said they began with a demonstration in front of the hall and are now holding a sit-in “indefinitely.”
Earlier this fall, Tanjong wrote a piece for the Daily Princetonian, “On the Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a Racist Bigot.”
Tanjong wrote of her efforts to convince administrators that they should not honor Wilson. “I was told that Princeton honors Woodrow Wilson because of the contributions he made to higher education, America and the world. I was also reminded that Wilson did more to improve Princeton than anyone else…” There was no disagreement that Wilson was racist, Tanjong wrote, but rather that the same could be said for many of the country’s historic leaders.
Tanjong argued that the university must “acknowledge that our past was white-centered, white-focused and plagued with white supremacist ideology. That Princeton was built for wealthy, white, cisgender, Christian males. That everyone who does not fit that definition was not meant to be here. That our campus culture still tells people who don’t align with that demographic that they still are not meant to be here.”
On Wednesday afternoon, speaking by phone from the president’s office, Tanjong said the protesters had had a heated discussion with Eisgruber. According to Tanjong, the president had agreed that black students should have their own space on campus, but did not agree to their other two demands. She said he objected to the idea of renaming the buildings because all people are flawed, and the university honored Wilson for the good he had done for the university. She said he didn’t want to force staff to undergo training; he thought they could choose to have it but it should not be required.
Martin A. Mbugua, a spokesperson for Princeton, wrote in an e-mail, “President Christopher L. Eisgruber and Jill Dolan, Dean of the College, spent about an hour speaking with a group of students in the president’s office. We expect the conversation to continue beyond today’s meeting.”
Mbugua confirmed that the president supported the idea of a cultural space for black students, did not agree to the idea of mandating a ‘cultural competency’ course, and did not agree to remove the Wilson name from buildings. In the latter case, Eisgruber “was expressing what he believes, not a decision. The conversation about that will continue.”
Tanjong said the protest will continue. “The university locked the doors to Nassau Hall earlier today, so we are concerned that once we leave, we will not be able to re-enter in the morning. Thus, we are not planning to leave.”