What should schools do with their troubling heritages?

Woodrow Wilson was the President of the United States during World War I and championed the League of Nations, and as well as serving as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910.

Woodrow Wilson was also a racist who was an active segregationist. He played a role in expanding segregation in federal civil service and had sympathetic views toward the Ku Klux Klan during his presidency from 1913 to 1921.

Last November, more than a hundred Princeton students held a 32-hour sit-in in the office of the university’s president, Christopher Eisgruber. Before entering the president’s office, protest leaders from a campus group called the Black Justice League read a list of demands: add a diversity requirement to the core curriculum; create a safe space dedicated to minorities; and require mandatory cultural competency training for the faculty. The demand that garnered the most attention, however, was that the school strip the name and image of Woodrow Wilson from all of its institutions and buildings.

Wilson looms over the university: he is the namesake of its school of public policy and international affairs, as well as one of its residential colleges; his image covers the wall of a dining hall; a beloved song by the university’s musical-comedy troupe calls Princeton a “Wilsonic temple.” The sit-in was intended as one of the first steps in the group’s campaign to ignite a conversation about Wilson’s legacy at Princeton.            

Students of color cannot learn in a building that is named after a man who oppressed thousands of people who looked just like them. In order to progress, the United States and other countries should eliminate offensive memorabilia of the past from public facilities. In the case of Princeton University, I believe that the institution should rename all buildings that are smeared with the name of Wilson to build a safe community. By keeping the current names of several buildings on campus, Princeton is only perpetuating the pain and blatant racism felt by many of their students.

After several months of debate, Princeton University announced that—despite demands from student protesters—it will not rename buildings that honor 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 university is not shared by contemporary Princetonians.

Princeton’s board of trustees noted that buildings that bear Wilson’s name 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.” 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 and digital exhibit: In the Nation’s Service? Woodrow Wilson Revisited. The multimedia show explores Wilson’s views against African American students attending Princeton while he served as the university’s president. The exhibit also highlights Wilson’s contributions, including reforming Princeton’s academic curriculum and introducing discussion-based classes. 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.

Although I support Princeton’s positive progress in creating a program to encourage students of color to go further, the university needs to do more. This issue is so complex because many argue that Wilson’s legacy is not simply one of racism. Part of what makes Woodrow Wilson a difficult figure is that he is so important in American history and Princeton’s history. And what happens if other campuses across the country look at their own history and discover their founder was racist as well, what then? 

Image: Woodrow Wilson. Image source: The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. 

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