Wilson was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910, reshaping the university significantly at the outset of the 20th century. A Democrat born in Virginia before the Civil War, he was elected 28th president of the United States in 1912 and reelected in 1916. His two terms in the White House, as a leader of the Progressive movement, put a lasting stamp on the nation’s domestic institutions. He was a key international leader during and after World War I. But Wilson also espoused views on racial segregation that led to significant setbacks for African Americans in their quest for civil rights.
In November, student protesters occupied the office of Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber. They demanded that the university take steps to improve the racial climate on campus, including removal of the Wilson name from important buildings. Eisgruber agreed to refer the issue to the board of trustees.
To those who questioned the uprising over the Wilson legacy, students in a group called the Black Justice League wrote in December that Princeton for too long had papered over Wilson’s faults. “We have demanded that the university not just remove his name but also take responsibility for its history by formally recognizing Wilson’s racist legacy, either with a plaque or with a web page,” they wrote. “To continue to honor such a man in the present manner is to spit in the face of students whose presence on this campus Wilson would have abhorred.”
The New York Times editorial board sided with the protesters, writing in November that Wilson’s name should be removed from the prestigious school of public and international affairs: “The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist,” the editorial board concluded.
Eisgruber, who took office in 2013, said Monday that he had learned from the debate over Wilson’s record. Too often, he said, the university has spoken “almost hagiographically” about Wilson, trumpeting his virtues without exploring his faults. Eisgruber acknowledged that he had contributed to that problem. He recalled a 2014 commencement speech in which he discussed in uplifting terms Wilson’s time as a student at Princeton — when he went by the name “Tommy” — without considering his divisive racial legacy.
“I would never give that speech now in the way I gave it then,” Eisgruber said. “I was not sufficiently sensitive to what his racism would have meant to some of the students and families in my audience.” Eisgruber said it is high time for the university to present Wilson in a more balanced light. As an example, he pointed to a new historical exhibit on Wilson that opened at the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Princeton trustees decided to name the school of public and international affairs for Wilson in 1935, 11 years after his death. The university’s first residential college was named for him on the recommendation of students in the 1950s and ’60s. Brent Henry, an African American, lived in the Wilson College and studied at the Wilson School before graduating from Princeton in 1969. Henry, now a Princeton trustee, chaired a committee formed last fall to review Wilson’s legacy.
“Despite his racist attitudes, we felt it was more important to maintain the name and make sure everybody was aware of his flaws,” Henry said.
The views of committee members on the name question were not unanimous.
The committee, which sought input from historians and others, concluded: “There is considerable consensus that Wilson was a transformative and visionary figure in the area of public and international affairs [and] that he did press for the kinds of living and learning arrangements that are represented today in Princeton’s residential colleges.” But the committee also noted that some of Wilson’s “views and actions clearly contradict the values we hold today about fair treatment for all individuals, and our aspirations for Princeton to be a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community.”
The committee said it was especially concerned by Wilson’s actions as president of Princeton to prevent the enrollment of black students and as U.S. president to support the resegregation of the federal civil service.
Among the steps Princeton plans to take are:
- Building a pipeline to draw more underrepresented minority students into doctoral programs;
- Supporting initiatives to create “a more multi-faceted understanding and representation of Wilson on campus”;
- Diversifying campus art and iconography to better reflect the modern university;
- Changing the university’s informal motto from “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of all nations” to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
Samantha Newman, 18, a sophomore from San Diego who is African American, said she was disappointed that the university did not choose to rename Wilson College. “It is a social place where students are supposed to live,” she said.
Newman said she found it jarring that the college is named for “this figure who didn’t even want them to be there.” But Newman said she understands why Wilson’s name would remain on the school because of his role as one of America’s foremost diplomats.
Josh Freeman, 20, a sophomore from Chesapeake, Va., who is also African American, said he was glad that the name will stay on the school and the college. The university cannot change building names just because of Wilson’s “imperfect racial views,” he said. Freeman said he hopes the the campus will look now at Wilson “in a constructive way,” considering the pluses and the minuses.
Here is the full text of Princeton’s news release Monday:
Mary Hui contributed to this report from Princeton, N.J.