Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and international Affairs
Dear Commons Community,
Princeton University has announced plans to remove the name of former President Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school because of his segregationist views, reversing a decision the Ivy League school made four years ago to retain the name.
University president Christopher Eisgruber said in a letter (see below) to the school community yesterday that the board of trustees had concluded that “Wilson’s racist views and policies make him an inappropriate namesake” for Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and the residential college.
Eisgruber said the trustees decided in April 2016 on some changes to make the university “more inclusive and more honest about its history” but decided to retain Wilson’s name, but revisited the issue in light of the recent killings of George Floyd and others.
Wilson, governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913 and then the 28th U.S. president from 1913 to 1921, supported segregation and imposed it on several federal agencies not racially divided up to that point. He also barred Black students from Princeton while serving as university president and spoke approvingly of the Ku Klux Klan.
Earlier this month, Monmouth University of New Jersey removed Wilson’s name from one of its most prominent buildings, citing efforts to increase diversity and inclusiveness. The superintendent of the Camden school district also announced plans to rename Woodrow Wilson High School, one of the district’s two high schools.
“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time,” Eisgruber said, adding that the former president’s segregationist policies “make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school.”
The trustees said they had taken what they called “this extraordinary step” because Wilson’s name was not appropriate “for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms.”
The school will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, he said. Princeton had already planned to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening two new residential colleges currently under construction but will change the name to First College immediately.
Eisgruber said the conclusions “may seem harsh to some” since Wilson is credited with having “remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university,” and he went on to become president and receive a Nobel Prize.
But while Princeton honored Wilson despite or perhaps even in ignorance of his views, that is part of the problem, Eisgruber said. “Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people,” he said.
Four years ago, a 10-member committee gathered input from Wilson scholars and more than 600 submissions from alumni, faculty and the public before concluding that Wilson’s accomplishments merited commemoration, so long as his faults were also candidly recognized. The committee report also said using his name “implies no endorsement of views and actions that conflict with the values and aspirations of our times.”
Princeton will retain Wilson’s name on an award given annually to an undergraduate alumnus or alumna since it stems from a gift that requires that the prize be named for Wilson and honor his “conviction that education is for ‘use’ and … the high aims expressed in his memorable phrase, ’Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” the trustees said.
My colleague, John Wallach at Hunter College made me aware of Eisgruber’s letter.
Dear Members of the Princeton Community,
When I wrote to you on Monday morning, I noted that the Princeton University Board of Trustees was discussing how the University could oppose racism and would soon convene a special meeting on that topic. The meeting took place yesterday. On my recommendation, the board voted to change the names of both the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College. As you will see from the board’s statement , the trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.
As most of you know, the board previously considered whether to remove Wilson’s name after a group of student activists occupied my office in November 2015. The Wilson Legacy Review Committee conducted a thorough, deliberative process. In April 2016, it recommended a number of reforms to make this University more inclusive and more honest about its history. The committee and the board, however, left Wilson’s name on the School and the College.
The board reconsidered these conclusions this month as the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks drew renewed attention to the long and damaging history of racism in America. Board Chair Weezie Sams ’79 and I spoke individually to members of the board, and it then met on June 26.
The board continues to respect, as do I, the Wilson Legacy Review Committee’s process and report, including its description of Wilson’s historical record and its “presumption that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation … will remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remain valid.” The board nevertheless concluded that the presumption should yield in this case because of considerations specific to Wilson’s racist policies and to how his name shapes the identities of the School and the College.
Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.
Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school. When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school. This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role. In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this University and its school of public and international affairs must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice. The School will now be known as “The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.”
The University had already planned to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening two new residential colleges currently under construction. Rather than ask students in the College to identify with the name of a racist president for the next two years, the University will accelerate retirement of the name. The College will instead be known as “First College” in recognition of its status as the first of the residential colleges that now play an essential role in the residential life of all Princeton undergraduates.
These conclusions may seem harsh to some. Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today — including its research excellence and its preceptorial system — were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership. He went on to the American presidency and received a Nobel Prize. People will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures. Part of our responsibility as a University is to preserve Wilson’s record in all of its considerable complexity.
Wilson is a different figure from, say, John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, whose fame derives from their defenses of the Confederacy and slavery (Lee was often honored for the very purpose of expressing sympathy for segregation and opposition to racial equality). Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.
That, however, is ultimately the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people. When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore, or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.
The steps taken yesterday by the Board of Trustees are extraordinary measures. These are not the only steps our University is taking to combat the realities and legacy of racism, but they are important ones. I join the trustees in hoping that they will provide the University, the School of Public and International Affairs, and our entire community with a firm foundation to pursue the mission of teaching, research, and service that has defined our highest aspirations and generated our greatest achievements throughout our history and today.
With best wishes,
Christopher L. Eisgruber