PRINCETON, N.J. — Princeton University will remove a wall-size photograph of Woodrow Wilson from a dining hall in response to concerns protesters raised this fall about the former president’s segregationist views.
“Its size and prominence in the Wilcox Dining Hall has seemed to us — as it has to President Eisgruber as well — ‘unduly celebratory’ and not in keeping with the spirit of Wilson College’s founding wish to have Princeton be a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, and one that embraces, respects, and values all its members,” Eduardo Cadava, the head of the residential college that is home to about 500 freshmen and sophomores, wrote in an email to residents Wednesday announcing the decision.
This fall, protesters took over the president’s office, demanding numerous changes to the racial climate on campus, including that the university strip the Wilson name off its buildings.
Wilson, who served as president of Princeton University, has long been honored by the Ivy League institution for his contributions to the school and the country. But he was a staunch supporter of racial segregation, and to many students he is a symbol of hatred and division rather than wisdom, scholarship and leadership.
The debate over his legacy echoed those at many institutions, as students pushed for buildings honoring founders and others to be renamed because their views are offensive to many today, while others countered that the traditions are important, that people should be judged in the context of their times, or that it would amount to whitewashing history.
Earlier this month, Princeton’s board of trustees announced that the Wilson name would remain on its well-known school of public and international affairs but that they would expand diversity efforts and provide a more nuanced look at his legacy, “recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings as well as the visions and achievements that led to the naming of the school and the college in the first place.”
The Black Justice League, the group of protesters who initiated the discussions, wrote in a statement at the time, in part, that, “Princeton continues to demonstrate its seemingly intractable investment in white supremacy and its vestiges. Princeton’s decision today demonstrates unambiguously its commitment to symbols and legacies of anti-Blackness in the name of ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ at the expense of the needs of and in direct contravention with the daily experiences of Black students at Princeton.”
A student who has been active in the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The enlarged photo of Wilson throwing out a first pitch at a Washington Senators baseball game in 1915 was installed on the wall in 2009 and will be removed within days, the university announced.
Cadava wrote about the college’s history; it was the only dorm founded by students. “More importantly, it was founded by students as part of a stance against elitism and exclusion. This fact gives the College a wonderful history of expansive inclusiveness, and one that is absolutely relevant to our discussions these last months.
“… In order to remain faithful to this wonderful history, I recommend that the Wilson ‘mural’ be removed,” Cadava wrote. That recommendation has been accepted. He called it “an effort to lay one stone aright today, in the hope that others can be lain aright in the future.
“I will only add that the University community owes the Black Justice League a felt debt for providing us with the occasion to reflect in a considered way about the issues that they raised. Had it not been for their insistence, we might not have undertaken this necessary task and I believe we are all in a better place because of our having done so.”
Bhaamati Borkhetaria, a freshman from New Jersey, welcomed the decision as she ate in front of the image Wednesday. Given the diversity of the students who eat in this dining hall and call Wilson College home, “to be constantly reminded of someone who’s known for being racist might be somewhat … uncomfortable.”
She sees a contradiction between the decision to keep Wilson’s name on the Woodrow Wilson School and the decision to take down the image. “In a perfect world we wouldn’t have a person with a racist ideology being honored everywhere … but he wasn’t just a racist. He is also part of the culture of the campus, and so to completely eliminate him might be a bit hard.”
“The university is still honoring his legacy for all the good things he’s done,” she said.
Bernado Da Silva, a junior from Florida, said he has always thought it should be removed; it was “worshiping the man,” he said. It was “overbearing, too big, too much.”
He was very happy with the decision. Wilson has a very complicated legacy, and he agrees with the need to separate the ideas of Wilson with Wilson as a person. “Taking it down was something that we had to do,” he said. “There was always too much about himself and not enough about the ideas that led to the formation of the college system” in Princeton.
Chance Melancon, a sophomore from Texas, said the decision was a small victory for the Black Justice League. He is black and doesn’t have an opinion about the issue, he said, but, “the mural wouldn’t have been taken down without the BJL raising awareness of their experience and pain on campus.”
“The BJL has a right to espouse their views, and the university should be rewarded for the decision to take down the mural.”
Here is Cadava’s message in full:
April 25, 2016
To the Wilson Community:
As you know, I was asked by President Eisgruber on November 19, 2015 to “begin a process to consider removing the Woodrow Wilson mural from Wilcox Hall.” In a subsequent letter, dated December 8, 2015 and uploaded on the Wilson College website, he encouraged me to consider waiting to initiate this discussion until the Trustee Committee began to publish its findings on Wilson’s legacy. The President’s suggestion was meant to enable the Wilson community to reap the benefit of these opinions so that our discussions could be better informed. I accepted this suggestion because I too believed that the issues raised this year in relation to Wilson’s legacy provided us with a great pedagogical opportunity. I also wanted to give our community time to learn about the complexity of Wilson’s legacy, about the history of Wilson College, and about the history of the mural.
Once the Board of Trustees began publishing these materials at the end of January and once we were all back for the spring semester, I initiated a process to move us forward in this task. The process included a series of discussions, meant to enable all of us to be more fully educated about the issues that have drawn so much attention on the Princeton campus and beyond. On February 8 I encouraged everyone in the Wilson community—students, faculty, and staff—to read the scholarly opinions on Wilson’s legacy posted by the Board of Trustees and to participate in the open forum organized by the Trustees on February 19. I also invited everyone affiliated with Wilson College to submit their thoughts and opinions on the matter in person or in writing beginning February 22.
In addition, I formed an Ad Hoc Student Advisory Committee, with twelve student members. The members of the committee conducted interviews with relevant members of the Wilson community, including alumni who lived in the College in previous years and even one of the founders of the early Wilson Society. I asked the members of the committee to attend the February 19 forum that the Board of Trustees’ Wilson Legacy Committee hosted and some of them also interviewed President Eisgruber. The students also read through the comments that members of our community submitted to our office—they were given access to the contents of the comments but not to the identities of the students or faculty who submitted them—and they also organized a public discussion on April 3 that included Wilson students, faculty fellows, staff, and a former Master of the College.
After a period of deliberation and discussion, this advisory committee was to submit a formal recommendation to me, which it now has done. Although the final decision about the mural’s future lies in my hands, I wish to register my gratitude for the service these students have provided to me, and to our community. I am very grateful for their time and generosity in helping with this process, and I am very proud of the care and thoughtfulness with which they have conducted themselves in all of this, especially since, at the beginning of the process, they were not in agreement about what should be done. That they could come together despite their differences, and proceed in a scrupulous, thoughtful, and respectful manner suggests a model for how we might move forward and make decisions collectively that can make both Wilson and the University a better and more welcoming place for everyone. The students have submitted their formal recommendation—in a thoughtfully laid out argument and summary of their process—and they are recommending that we remove the mural and that, in its place, we install an artwork or another visual representation that embodies the College’s unique history in relation to issues of inclusion and diversity. In what follows, I offer a formal statement of my own, in which I reiterate their thoughts and offer my own reasoning behind my endorsement of the students’ recommendation.
While the question of the Wilson mural was always meant to be separate from the Board of Trustees’ deliberations and decision about the Wilson name, in accordance with President Eisgruber’s charge, I want to say a few words about the history of Wilson College, since I believe this history is an essential context for the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendation and for my decision.
The distinctive history of Wilson College is very important to me. First of all, it is the only college founded by students. More importantly, it was founded by students as part of a stance against elitism and exclusion. This fact gives the College a wonderful history of expansive inclusiveness, and one that is absolutely relevant to our discussions these last months. This history can perhaps even guide us as we try to imagine what a truly democratic and egalitarian educational institution might look like. Indeed, the best way to honor this history today is to re-enact it with an even stronger and more historically informed sense of what inclusion and diversity might mean to us now. The history of Wilson College is more closely linked to its founding act of social justice and to the community of students that live in it at any given moment than to the name of any single person; for this reason, we may find something to learn from and admire in this history.
Wilson College grew out of a small group of students who, in reaction to the Bicker process, founded the Wilson Lodge in 1957 in order to provide “a place where individuals…could be accepted for who they are and not forced to conform to the narrow specifications of Bicker.” In response to the “Dirty Bicker” of 1958, Darwin Labarthe, the sophomore secretary of the Woodrow Wilson Lodge and soon-to-be-elected student body president, led a large group of his classmates into the Lodge, increasing its membership significantly. This momentum encouraged then President Robert Goheen to support this alternative to the clubs. Goheen raised funds, broke ground in 1959, and in 1960 opened Wilcox Hall and the New Quad, which became the locus of the renamed Woodrow Wilson Society. The students called themselves the Woodrow Wilson Society in recognition of Woodrow Wilson’s proposal while he was President of Princeton to establish a residential college system. This Society was run entirely by students for eight years, until 1968 when it became Princeton’s first residential college and indeed the template for the residential college system that followed.
What I have always admired about this history is that a group of students took a stance against discrimination in the name of diversity and inclusion and, in doing so, established an alternative community founded on principles of social justice. A story of the force of student agency, it speaks to what students can do to transform the landscape of Princeton. This is why, in 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the New Quad and Wilcox Hall, I held a celebration in honor of this early history and I invited the three students who were most actively involved in founding and expanding the Wilson Society—Darwin Labarthe, who became the student body president in his senior year, Robert Tellander, the tiger mascot, and a friend of theirs, Fred Kreisler—to come to talk to our students about why they had done what they did. At the same time, I inaugurated the Wilson College Signature Lecture Series. The series is meant to honor the College’s founding insistence on the ideals of equality, democracy, and inclusion. Every event in the series features a speaker or performer whose work aims to create a more just and less exclusionary world, and to enable a more open, diverse, and welcoming sense of community. Events in the series have featured, among others, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, Patricia J. Williams, Zadie Smith, Fazal Sheikh, Michael Eric Dyson, Eyal Weizman, Amy Goodman, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joshua Bennett, Chris Hedges, and most recently Peter Sellars and Reggie Gray’s production of FLEX-N. In each instance, the event has aimed at helping us imagine a future that will not simply be a repetition of the past. In light of the recent controversy over Woodrow Wilson’s legacy, it has been gratifying to know that, at Wilson College, we have always supported events that counter the parts of this legacy that have been the most disturbing to us.
It is against the backdrop of this legacy of equality and justice that we can turn to the issue of the Wilson mural. The mural has been at the center of ongoing discussions about what kinds of public art the University should promote in order to represent its values and aspirations. In this light, the history of Wilson College gives us a lens through which we can think about the placement of this image of Woodrow Wilson. What has also guided my thinking about the matter as well as that of the Ad Hoc Committee is the mural’s history. The first thing to say about the mural is that it is not a mural. It is instead a blown-up photograph that was initially presented as a design element in the 2009 renovations of the Wilcox Dining Hall by Michael Graves Architecture and Design. The Graves office recommended the photograph and the previous Master of Wilson College, Maggie Browning, along with Jon Hlafter from the Office of the University Architect, reviewed it and agreed to it. The early Graves designs for the space had the exact photo shown at a smaller scale. The image presents Wilson throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Washington Senators baseball game in April 1915 while he was the President of the United States. To refer to the image as a mural is to confer an artistic merit on the image that it does not really have and, because it was only installed in the Dining Hall seven years ago and mostly as a signature design element, it also does not have the longstanding value that other honorific memorials might have.
As the Ad Hoc Committee notes in its recommendation, “It is important to remember that the name of the college was chosen in honor not of Wilson, but of his vision for the residential college system…this means that the college was named not so much for a man as for his ideas, which creates a degree of separation between the two. However, the mural—which so clearly celebrates the man—begins to chip away at this degree of separation. The giant picture in the dining hall unavoidably brings the man Wilson into the college Wilson.” I want to stress the distinction the students make here because while the man Wilson has now been shown to have a mixed legacy—one that includes his contributions to Princeton and to the United States at large but also his unacceptable racial policies and segregationist views—the history of Wilson College is an honorable one. The College history deserves to be recalled and preserved, not simply in our memory but also in our ongoing efforts to create a sense of community that is inclusive rather than exclusionary, that is respectful of difference rather than neglectful of it.
In order to remain faithful to this wonderful history, I recommend that the Wilson “mural” be removed. Its size and prominence in the Wilcox Dining Hall has seemed to us—as it has to President Eisgruber as well—“unduly celebratory” and not in keeping with the spirit of Wilson College’s founding wish to have Princeton be a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, and one that embraces, respects, and values all its members.
I wish to close by recalling a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Man the Reformer.” There, in a passage that addresses the possibility of transformation and reform, he writes, “If we suddenly plant our foot, and say, — I will neither eat nor drink nor wear nor touch any food or fabric which I do not know to be innocent, or deal with any person whose whole manner of life is not clear and rational, we shall stand still. Whose is so? Not mine; not thine; not his. But I think we must clear ourselves each one by the interrogation, whether we have earned our bread to-day by the hearty contribution of our energies to the common benefit; and we must not cease to tend to the correction of these flagrant wrongs, by laying one stone aright every day.”
From my perspective—a perspective that I believe honors the wonderful history of Wilson College—the Ad Hoc student committee’s recommendation to remove the Wilson “mural” is an effort to lay one stone aright today, in the hope that others can be lain aright in the future. It is for this reason that I also make the same recommendation. I am pleased to say that the Council of Heads and the Campus Art Steering Committee have accepted my recommendation.
I will only add that the University community owes the Black Justice League a felt debt for providing us with the occasion to reflect in a considered way about the issues that they raised. Had it not been for their insistence, we might not have undertaken this necessary task and I believe we are all in a better place because of our having done so. I also wish to thank the students, faculty, and alumni who expressed their wish to either have the mural remain or have it removed. As the Head of Wilson College, I believe I am answerable to the entire Wilson community and I have gathered strength in this process by registering the different ways in which so many members of this community expressed their care. I trust that I have lived up to its expectations in putting into place the process I have followed and which has led to my recommendation. I also hope that, together, we can continue to work to make Princeton as inclusive as it indeed wishes and needs to be.
Head, Wilson College
Susan Svrluga reported from Washington