Princeton University removes Woodrow Wilson’s name from school over 'racist thinking'

View of the pool in Scudder Plaza in front of Robertson Hall (home of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs), Princeton, New Jersey, October 2, 2011. The 'Fountain of Freedom' sculpture (by James Fitzgerald) is partially illum

Princeton University has announced that it has removed the name of President Woodrow Wilson from the University’s School of Public and International Affairs, which will now be known as The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

“We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms,” the university said in a statement.

Students had already protested the use of Wilson’s name at the school in 2015 and in response, 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.”

The school said it decided to reexamine the issue in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and the national conversations that followed.

“If the question before us were how to weigh Wilson’s achievements against his failures, members of the Princeton community might reach varying judgments. We believe, however, that these times present the University with a different question. Identifying a political leader as the namesake for a public policy school inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for those who study in the school. We must therefore ask whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades,” the school said in its statement. “This question has been made more urgent by the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, which have served as tragic reminders of the ongoing need for all of us to stand against racism and for equality and justice. Our commitment to those values must be clear and unequivocal.  We believe that the continued use of Wilson’s name on a school of public affairs does not reflect those values and thereby impedes the School’s and the University’s capacity to pursue their missions.”

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.

University President Christopher Eisgruber said in a letter to the school community Saturday that “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 board said that it was reaffirming its belief that the April 2016 Report of the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton accurately and persuasively summarizes the strengths and deficiencies of Wilson’s record at Princeton and in the broader world. As that report documents, during his time on the faculty and as a transformative president, Wilson improved Princeton as much as or more than any other individual in the University’s long history. Though scholars disagree about how to assess Wilson’s tenure as president of the United States, many rank him among the nation’s greatest leaders and credit him with visionary ideas that shaped the world for the better.

“As our nation wrestles with its history in this moment, it is important, especially at institutions committed to seeking the truth, that we recognize the complexity of historical figures and that we examine the entirety of their impact on the world. Though we conclude today that Wilson’s racism makes him an inappropriate namesake for the University’s School of Public and International Affairs, we recognize that Princeton has a continuing responsibility to remember his achievements even as we honestly and publicly contend with his failures,” the school’s statement read. 

One of Princeton’s residential colleges also currently bears Wilson’s name. The university said that that naming, like the naming of the School of Public and International Affairs, is honorific and not the result of any donor’s gift, and that the university has previously indicated that it plans to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening new residential colleges now under construction. 

Instead of asking students in the College to identify with the name of a racist president for the next two years, the University will accelerate the retirement of the honorific naming. 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.

“The University’s highest honor for an undergraduate alumnus or alumna is conferred annually on Alumni Day and also bears Wilson’s name. The Woodrow Wilson Award, unlike either the College or the School, is the result of a gift,” the university said. “When the University accepted the gift, it took on a legal obligation to name the prize 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 University will continue to recognize extraordinary public service by conferring the award as currently named. The award explicitly honors specific and positive aspects of Wilson’s career, and it, unlike the School or the College, does not require students to identify with the Wilson name in connection with their academic or residential programs.

With the Associated Press.


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