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Princeton University strips Woodrow Wilson’s name from school, citing his racist past

Princeton University on Saturday, June 27, 2020, announced it would strip the name of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from one of its residential colleges and its school of public and international affairs, housed here at Robertson Hall in a 2015 file image. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Princeton University on Saturday announced it would strip the name of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from its school of public and international affairs and one of its residential colleges, following letters and calls from students and alumni.

“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’s board of trustees said in a statement following a vote on Friday.

A historic turning point, the decision follows years of controversy and protests by students at New Jersey’s Ivy League university, who decried Wilson’s place on campus, given his racist views and policies, including keeping Black students from enrolling at Princeton when he headed it.

Students renewed their calls in recent weeks for Wilson’s name to be removed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police last month. A letter was signed by more than half of current students in the public affairs school and about three-quarters of its Class of 2020, according to the Princetonian, the student newspaper. A petition by graduate students and alumni followed.

“We condemn this School’s complicity in this country’s violent history of white supremacy through its perpetuation of the legacy and iconography of Woodrow Wilson,” students wrote.

The decision also comes less than a year after Princeton unveiled a 39-foot-tall sculpture, Double Sights, with quotes highlighting the positive and negative aspects of Wilson’s legacy. That project grew out of a 2016 trustees’ committee decision, which also included keeping Wilson’s name on the school and the college.

In recent years, colleges across the country have been called upon to recognize and account for their racist pasts and those calls have been renewed in recent weeks. Monmouth University, also in New Jersey, earlier this month announced it would remove Wilson’s name from a prominent campus building. The School District of Philadelphia also carries the former president’s name on a middle school; a spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether it would be retained.

Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber said the university will continue to recognize the positives that Wilson brought to Princeton, “converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university,” while also noting his failures.

“Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism,” Eisgruber said in a statement. “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.”

Wilson, a Nobel Prize winner who has been ranked among the nation’s greatest leaders, led Princeton from 1902 to 1910 before going on to the U.S. presidency, where he led the nation through World War I and created the League of Nations aimed at maintaining world peace. But he also supported the resegregation of federal civil service and espoused racist views.

Princeton’s trustees named the public affairs school after him in 1948 and later its residential college. Over the last decade, concerns have mounted. In 2014, anger flared across the campus — as at other colleges — over the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Mo., and the grand jury decision not to indict the white officer who shot him. Students in 2015 staged a sit-in at the president’s office, posted Wilson’s racist quotes around campus, and projected onto Robertson Hall — home to the Wilson school — The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic and one Wilson had screened at the White House.

Princeton agreed to study Wilson’s history and place at the university, given the concerns and anger expressed. But in April 2016, a 10-member trustees committee decided against removing his name from both the public affairs school and the college, while committing to work on diversity and inclusion issues, and more fully educate people about Wilson’s legacy.

The committee said Princeton must be “honest and forthcoming about its history” and open “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.”

Over the last several years, Princeton, one of the nation’s oldest and elite universities, has taken other steps to embrace and reconcile its complicated past, including naming spaces on campus for enslaved people who were prominent in the university’s history.

The university also commissioned campus portraits of eight distinguished and diverse faculty and alumni; that is after naming a building for the writer and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and a lecture hall in its public and international affairs school for Sir Arthur Lewis, the Black economist, professor, and Nobel Prize winner. The school also installed multicultural artwork in public spaces and created online historical tours featuring African Americans and women important to the school’s history.

But students in recent weeks have said that efforts have fallen far short. They have called on Princeton’s now former Woodrow Wilson school to do much more, including pursuing reparations, hiring more Black faculty, providing antiracist training for faculty, and featuring antiracism prominently in its curriculum.

“The removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs has come after five years of hostility and delay, including harassment and threat of expulsion of Black student activists. While the University would like to count their action today as a win, it is not theirs to claim,” student organizers said in a statement issued Saturday. “ … We call on the University to match symbolism with meaningful action and address the systemic anti-Black racism that exists at this institution.”

Going forward, the public affairs school will be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and the residential college as “First College,” the school said. The university will retain Wilson’s name on an alumni undergraduate prize that was created as a result of a gift.

The Double Sights installation also will remain, the school said.

Students in their letter this month said the installation “falls profoundly short” in addressing Wilson’s legacy.

A university spokesperson said: “The installation is meant to tell a fuller story about the complex legacy of Wilson, with his own words contrasted with strong critiques by his contemporaries on issues of racism, sexism, and discrimination at home and abroad.”


© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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