Last week, the president of Princeton University agreed to implement or consider the demands of student protesters who had taken over his office, including providing black students a cultural space on the Ivy League campus and initiating discussions about “cultural competency” training. Christopher Eisgruber also agreed to open a debate about Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton.
The 28th U.S. president is honored there with a school and a residential college named for him, but protesters said he is a symbol of the university’s long history of excluding all but white Christian men and demanded the removal of his name from those buildings. Wilson opposed the efforts of civil rights leaders and advocated for segregation. The debate about whether he should be revered for his contributions to Princeton and the nation or reviled for his racism went viral last week on social media.
The unrest at Princeton mirrored demonstrations nationwide as students at many colleges demanded changes in the way minorities are treated.
Mary Hui, a student at Princeton, wrote about reaction to the protests.
On Sunday, Eisgruber sent a letter to the campus community, explaining the ongoing debate, the changes that are already underway at Princeton, and what’s ahead. His full letter is included below.
By Mary Hui
PRINCETON, N.J. — Princeton’s student activists have got everyone talking.
A 32-hour sit-in and a marathon meeting inside the president’s’ office ended with President Christopher Eisgruber signing a document that promised, among other things, to consider the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university.
The activists see the agreement as the start of a long road ahead, as few of the changes they demanded will be made effective immediately. Perhaps most contentious — and the one that might be the hardest to accomplish — is their push to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university.
As part of the agreement reached between the Black Justice League and the Princeton administration, there will be discussion about the legacy of the nation’s 28th president, someone who is revered on the Ivy League campus in New Jersey and had long gone without much public scrutiny of his record.
“Before the protests, I was not as aware of how the legacy of buildings and institutions can directly affect one’s happiness,” said Rachel Stone, a junior from Chicago who was present at the sit-in at Nassau Hall. Now, she says, when she looks at Princeton’s buildings and admire their age and beauty, she also considers the complex history behind their names.
In addition to the removal of Wilson’s name, the student protesters demanded cultural competency training for the university’s faculty and staff; a cultural space dedicated to black students; and requisite courses for students on “the history of marginalized peoples.” The final agreement, while not fulfilling every demand, set in motion discussions on Wilson’s legacy, the process to consider erasing a mural of Wilson at a dining hall in a residential college named after him and “a commitment toward greater ethnic diversity of memorialized artwork on campus.”
The sit-in at Princeton was part of a larger wave of college campus protests across the country, from the University of Missouri to Yale, that have brought issues of race and bigotry at the nation’s campuses to the forefront of national debate. Students coordinated efforts and spread their messages with hashtags like #studentblackout. What set Princeton apart was its focus on a figure as widely known, and revered by many, as Wilson.
Cecilia Rouse, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, welcomes the discussion. Rouse agrees that changing a name would be an easy thing to do, and that much more difficult challenges remain, such as how to develop a curriculum that is less focused on Europe, how to have course readings that are more reflective of the world, and how to ensure that faculty are comfortable talking about race.
“Personally, I think that this is a great opportunity for … Princeton to reach a better understanding and to learn more about who Woodrow Wilson was” and to paint a “good, bad and ugly” portrait of him, Rouse said.
“The question is very worth asking,” said Claire Ashmead, a junior from Cleveland, of the debate about whether to remove Wilson’s name. It is not an easy question, but she believes that members of the Princeton community should understand their own identity, and that asking these questions will help them do that.
We should be “actively interrogating spaces on campus, why they are called what they’re called, and whether or not they are hostile,” Ashmead added.
For Josh Zuckerman, a senior from Atlanta and the editor-in-chief of a conservative campus magazine, the Princeton Tory, the university administration’s agreement to even consider removing Wilson’s name is already a dangerous precedent.
“I don’t like Woodrow Wilson any more than they do, but we can’t impose modern values on historical figures,” he said.
Responding to the protests, Zuckerman helped organize a petition that calls for “increased dialogue and the creation of a process that properly considers the input of all students and faculty, not merely those who are the loudest.” As of late last week, the petition had collected 684 signatures.
Zuckerman also is part of a new student group, called the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, formed in response to the protests. Today, the group sent a letter to Eisgruber requesting a meeting and expressing concern for “the importance of preserving an intellectual culture in which all members of the Princeton community feel free to engage in civil discussion and to express their convictions without fear of being subjected to intimidation or abuse.”
While the protests have brought together members of the black student body, they also have forced black students “to look to each other and actually figure out where they stand on this issue,” said Yaw Owusu-Boahen, a junior, who is not a member of the Black Justice League but participated in the sit-in.
“I decided to attend the sit-in to support the overall cause of making marginalized students feel protected on this campus,” said Owusu-Boahen, who is an executive adviser for the board of the Princeton African Students Association and is studying West African economic development in the Woodrow Wilson School. He noted that he personally experiences “microaggressions” on campus and feels like the protesters are fighting for him, even if he doesn’t identify with every element of the protests. “Regardless of what their specific demands are, I’m for the cause.”
Others think that even if Wilson’s name causes discomfort for certain students, and that Wilson’s legacy should be addressed, a name change is not the way to go. Francisco Varela, a graduate student in public policy in the Woodrow Wilson School, believes that the demand to change the school’s name is not representative of the student body, in part because the name Woodrow Wilson represents something different for different people
“Changing a name is not a solution nor a necessary condition to address this problem,” Varela said. “When I think of Woodrow Wilson, I think of the inclusive community that I am part of.”
Whether or not students agree with the specific details of the Black Justice League’s demands, Taimur Ahmad, a senior, thinks that this week’s sit-in speaks to a larger concern.
“Why do all of these students feel like their voices aren’t heard, that their experiences aren’t validated, that they feel unsafe?” he said. “That’s what this movement is really about.”
Princeton president’s message to campus
On Sunday, Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, sent an e-mail to the campus community describing the changes they are considering:
I write today to update all members of the Princeton University community about recent events on campus, to describe important initiatives already underway or currently being considered to make Princeton a more welcoming and supportive community for all of its members, and to outline a process that the Board of Trustees will use to collect information about the record of Woodrow Wilson and his legacy on our campus.
For more than a year, Princeton—like many other colleges in this country—has been the site of intense and often emotional discussions about racial injustice. These discussions emerged from and reflect disturbing national events, but they have often focused on the racial climate and the sense of inclusion at Princeton.
Although these conversations have often been difficult and uncomfortable, I have learned a great deal from them. I have heard compelling testimony from students of color about the distress, pain, and frustration that is caused by a campus climate that they too often find unwelcoming or uncaring. In some cases, these feelings are heightened or exacerbated by exchanges, frequently anonymous, on social media. These problems are not unique to Princeton—on the contrary, similar stories are unfolding at many peer institutions—but that does not make them any more acceptable. Our students deserve better, and Princeton must do better. We must commit ourselves to make this University a place where students from all backgrounds feel respected and valued.
Important efforts are under way. In December of last year, I charged a Special Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to develop recommendations that would enable our University to provide a more welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds. The task force included students, faculty members, and administrators, and it had strong representation from student leaders who had participated in the heartfelt discussions that led to its creation. We accepted every recommendation that the task force made—recommendations that ranged from additional funding for programming and for staff support in key areas to a review of our academic programs and requirements and our orientation programs for students and new faculty. The task force also recommended that we strengthen and reconceptualize the Carl A. Fields Center to make it more responsive to the needs of the students it is intended to serve; we have begun that work, but we also are taking more immediate steps to designate areas within the Center for several cultural affinity groups. Reports on our progress in carrying out the recommendations of the task force can be found on the Inclusive.Princeton.edu website.
The task force recommendations complement an earlier effort initiated by my predecessor, President Shirley Tilghman, in January 2012. She created a joint faculty and trustee committee and charged it with finding new strategies to diversify Princeton’s faculty, staff, and graduate student body. Increasing the diversity of these campus populations is essential to enhance our scholarly and educational excellence as well as to make our campus more fully inclusive. Co-chaired by Trustee Brent Henry ’69 and Professor (now Dean of the Faculty) Deborah Prentice, the committee published its report in September 2013. A number of important steps have been taken already and more are planned; the committee report, and an update about progress in these areas, can be found on the University’s website at: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S42/32/24O59/.
Even as we pursue the recommendations of these committees, more remains to be done. Recent events have focused renewed attention on the concerns of underrepresented students. Earlier this week, students occupied Nassau Hall for a day and a half to advocate for improvements in the climate for black students on campus. Last weekend, Princeton Latino and Latina students endured a traumatic experience at a LatinX Ivy League Conference at Brown University, and upon returning to our campus they and other students have written to request a number of further improvements that would make our University more inclusive. Other student groups are also addressing these issues, and I anticipate continuing discussion—and, I hope, constructive dialogue—over the coming months.
I care deeply about what our students are saying to us, and I am determined to do whatever I can, in collaboration with others, to improve the climate on this campus so that all students are respected, valued, and supported as members of a vibrant and diverse learning community.
Making further progress will require compassion, commitment, and imagination. It will also require that we discuss difficult topics civilly and with mutual respect. To be an inclusive community we must treat one another with respect even when we disagree vigorously about topics that matter deeply. When I spoke to the students who occupied Nassau Hall, I insisted that we would consider carefully the issues that troubled them, but that we would do so through appropriate University processes—processes that allow for full and fair input from the entire University community.
One of the most sensitive and controversial issues pertains to Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on the campus. As every Princetonian knows, Wilson left a lasting imprint on this University and this campus, and while much of his record had a very positive impact on the shaping of modern Princeton, his record on race is disturbing. As a University we have to be open to thoughtful re-examination of our own history, and I believe it is appropriate to engage our community in a careful exploration of this legacy. Since the Board of Trustees has authority over how the University recognizes Wilson, I have asked the Board to develop a process to consider this issue, and the Board has agreed to do so. The Board will form a subcommittee to collect information about Wilson’s record and impact from a wide array of perspectives and constituencies. This information will include a range of scholarly understandings of Wilson. Toward this end, the Board will solicit letters from experts familiar with Wilson, and it will make those letters public. The Board will also establish a vehicle to allow alumni, faculty, students, and staff to register their opinions with the subcommittee about Wilson and his legacy. In addition, members of the Board’s subcommittee will schedule visits to Princeton’s campus early in the spring semester to listen to the views of the University community, including its alumni. After assessing the information it has gathered and hearing the views of all parts of the Princeton community, the Board will decide whether there are any changes that should be made in how the University recognizes Wilson’s legacy.
These are turbulent and demanding times, but if we engage in thoughtful and meaningful conversation they offer hope for real progress. The quest for a diverse and inclusive community has been among Princeton’s most important goals at least since the presidency of Bob Goheen ’40 *48, and we have come a long way. But we have not come far enough, and making further progress will require hard work and good will. I am confident that Princeton’s extraordinary community—on campus, and throughout the world—is up to the task.
Christopher Eisgruber ’83