Princeton Confronts Woodrow Wilson’s Controversial Legacy

The New Jersey university announced that it would not rename buildings that honor the former president.

Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. (Photo: Zane R./Flickr)

Apr 4, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

After several months of debate, Princeton University announced Monday that—despite demands from student protesters—it will not rename buildings that honor its former school president and the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Instead, the school plans to make clear that Wilson’s support of racial segregation and his vocal opposition to allowing students of color entry into the prestigious university is not shared by contemporary Princetonians.

Princeton’s board of trustees noted that buildings that bear Wilson’s name—including the university’s public policy and international affairs school and a residence hall—must make clear that “use of his name implies no endorsement of views and actions that conflict with the values and aspirations of our times.”

In November 2015, student group the Black Justice League staged a 32-hour sit-in at Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber’s office in protest of the deference given to Wilson. The students relented after the administration agreed to consider scrubbing the school’s homage to Wilson. The Black Justice League did not respond to TakePart’s request for comment. However, Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton, commended the student group for its efforts.

Following the sit-in, the board of trustees subsequently created a 10-person subcommittee to consider removing Wilson’s name from campus. It recruited historical scholars to weigh in on Wilson’s legacy, conducted nearly a dozen on-campus group discussions, and created an online forum in which more than 600 people submitted their opinions about renaming Princeton buildings. A report from the subcommittee notes that only a small minority of submissions advocated for the university to rename either the public policy school or the residence hall.

While the report recommends that the Ivy League institution keep Wilson’s name, it also calls on the school “to be honest and forthcoming about its history.”

“This requires transparency in 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 report reads.

One of the ways in which the school is expanding transparency is with an on-campus exhibit: In the Nation’s Service? Woodrow Wilson Revisited. The multimedia show—which runs through October and can be viewed online—explores Wilson’s staunch views against African American students attending Princeton while he served as the university’s president from 1902 to 1910, along with his role in expanding segregation in federal civil service and his sympathetic views toward the Ku Klux Klan when he was U.S. president from 1913 to 1921.

The exhibit also highlights Wilson’s contributions, from reforming Princeton’s academic curriculum and introducing discussion-based classes to winning the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the treaty that ended World War I.

While the exhibit focuses specifically on contextualizing Wilson’s legacy, university officials note that the controversy over the former president points to larger issues regarding on-campus race relations.

As part of Princeton’s pledge to make the school inclusive for all its students, the committee also proposed a program to encourage more students of color to pursue doctoral degrees and to investigate naming opportunities and on-campus art from alumni who helped diversify Princeton.