Princeton University removes Woodrow Wilson's name from school due to 'racist thinking, policies'

PRINCETON, New Jersey (WPVI) -- Princeton University has announced the removal of Woodrow Wilson's name from the University's School of Public and International Affairs due to the former president's "racist thinking and policies."

The school will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

In a statement Saturday, the Princeton University Board of Trustees said student protests at Princeton in November 2015 called attention to "Wilson's racism," and school officials responded by forming an ad hoc committee, chaired by alum Brent Henry, to study Wilson's legacy at Princeton.

"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 combating the scourge of racism in all its forms," the board said.

School officials said the committee recommended reforms, but it left the name of the school, as well as Wilson College intact. They said, however, "student and alumni interest in those names persisted," and the board revisited them this month as "the American nation struggled profoundly with the terrible injustice of racism."

"If the question before us were how to weigh Wilson's achievements against his failures, members of the Princeton community might reach varying judgments," the board said. "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 statement continued, "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."

"I'm very much in support of the decision. I think it shows that there's been a lot of work by activists groups, particularly the black justice league," said Nora Aguiar who is a current student.

Annemarie Belli graduated in 1984 and said, "I think this is definitely the best way to go. It's just not appropriate to have Woodrow Wilson's representing the school."

Some wonder why it took this long to happen.

"I think that if you wouldn't name something after someone today, it doesn't make sense to keep it from the fact that it's been named after him for 75 or 100 years or whatever it is," Rick Davidman said.

The board said it has taken action, "while continuing to recognize and respect Woodrow Wilson's exceptional achievements."

In 2016, the board issued a report on Woodrow Wilson's legacy at Princeton.

In that report, the board noted Wilson, a former Princeton faculty member and president, as transformative who "improved Princeton as much as or more than any other individual in the University's long history." Wilson was an undergraduate in the Princeton Class of 1879 and a faculty member for 12 years before becoming the University's 13th president in 1902.

They said while there are scholarly disagreements over his 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," the board said. "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 naming of the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson Collge was honorific, the board said, not the result of any donor's gift. The University has previously indicated that it plans to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening two new residential colleges now under construction.

For now, the college will 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 board, however, said the Woodrow Wilson Award given out during Alumni Day will still bear the former president's name.

"The Woodrow Wilson Award, unlike either the College or the School, is the result of a gift. 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," the board said.

In response to the board's decision, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber issued the following statement:

When I wrote to you on Monday morning, June 22, 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, June 26. 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.
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