Princeton Dumps Wilson’s Name Over ‘Persistent’ Racism

Princeton University is removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges.

Princeton Dumps Wilson’s Name Over ‘Persistent’ Racism
People walk on Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey, U.S. (Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg)

Princeton University is removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges after trustees concluded that the 28th U.S. president’s “racist thinking and policies” made him “an inappropriate namesake.”

The Ivy League school’s trustees made the decision Friday, according to a statement released on Saturday.

It comes at a time of widespread rethinking of America’s racial legacy. The Black Lives Matter movement, energized by a series of high-profile deaths of Black Americans, have resulted in the removal of Confederate monuments, flags, and symbols of racism across the U.S.

Deleting Wilson’s name at Princeton may be the most high-profile act to date. The policy school will now be known as “The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.”

Wilson was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910 and, as a Democrat, served as governor of New Jersey before winning the 1912 presidential election. Wilson, born in Virginia in 1856, spent his early years in the South, including in Georgia and South Carolina.

“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential, even by the standards of his own time,” Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in the statement.

Civil Service

“He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice,” he added. “He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.”

Princeton established its School of Public and International Affairs in 1930, in the spirit of Wilson’s interest in preparing students for leadership. It was named in honor of Wilson in 1948, according to the Princeton website.

Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress in 1918 laid down a statement of principles for peace later used to end World War One. He was known for his role in the Paris Peace Conference, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended war between Germany and the Allied Powers, and establishment of the post-war League of Nations.

During his first term in office, Wilson oversaw the creation of the modern U.S. central bank, signing the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.

Fraught History

Chartered in 1746, Princeton says it is the fourth-oldest college in the U.S. It’s been led by only 20 presidents, dating back to Colonial times. It’s also among the richest colleges.

As one of America’s oldest universities, Princeton has a fraught history with race and gender. It admitted its first black undergraduates in 1945, decades after other Ivy League schools. It didn’t accept women as undergrads until 1969 -- and even then, did so over opposition from some alumni.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama, one of the school’s most well-known Black graduates, recalled Princeton as “extremely white and very male” in her autobiography, “Becoming.”

“If in high school I’d felt as if I were representing my neighborhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race,” she wrote. “Anytime I found my voice in class or nailed an exam, I quietly hoped it helped make a larger point.”

The university had discussed removing Wilson’s name before, following student protests at the New Jersey school in November 2015. At the time, a committee that studied Wilson’s legacy at Princeton decided to retain the name.

Princeton student and alumni interest in the issue has persisted, and the trustees returned to the subject this month as the U.S. struggled profoundly with the injustice of racism, the university said in its statement.

Kudos to All

“As a Princeton alumna, I am THRILLED,” Keisha Blain, president of the African American Intellectual History Society, said on Twitter. “Kudos to the courageous faculty, students, and staff.”

Student activists renewed their effort to call for removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name in recent weeks, as BLM protests took on a global scale, sparking changes across corporations, governments, the sports world and beyond. Two groups of students at the school this week submitted demands for anti-racist action to administrators.

“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,” the trustees said. “Our commitment to those values must be clear and unequivocal.”

Protest organizers said changing the name was only “one small part” of their demands, and urged more “transformative change” at the school.

New Diplomas?

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who holds a master’s degree from the public policy school, applauded the decision on Twitter and asked, “will we be getting new diplomas.”

The U.S. is seeing a paradigm shift in what’s acceptable in terms of public memorialization and representation, said Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University.

Harris added, “I am concerned that this decision was made only after the loss of Black life through extraordinary violence, rather than through reasoned discussion and debate, which is supposedly the hallmark of the university.”

“Nothing has changed in Woodrow Wilson’s record in the interim between which the university decided to keep the name, and today’s decision,” said Harris, whose research includes the history of U.S. slavery.

Eric Yellin, an associate professor at the University of Richmond, said Princeton “is trying to signal that it wants to be a place where students of color and historically marginalized students feel at home.”

“I don’t know what it means for reality on the ground for students of color at Princeton -- for Black students in particular. There’s a long history of finding Princeton a difficult place to be,” said Yellin, the author of “Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America.” “It certainly is a powerful signal of an intent to make change.”

Trustees at another New Jersey school, Monmouth University in West Long Branch, voted this month to remove Wilson’s name from its marquee building. It’s unclear how Princeton’s decision may affect other institutions in the U.S. that bear Wilson’s name, including high schools and elementary schools in several states.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.