Woodrow Wilson’s name will remain on Princeton University’s public policy school, despite calls to remove it because the former U.S. president was a segregationist, the Ivy League university announced Monday.
Princeton was challenged to take a deeper look into Wilson’s life in the fall, when a group of students raised questions about his racist views. The Black Justice League held a 32-hour sit-in inside the Princeton president’s office, demanding Wilson’s name be removed from programs and buildings, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and for other changes to make the university more diverse and inclusive.
University leaders concluded that Wilson’s accomplishments merited commemoration, so long as his faults also are candidly recognized. Princeton also pledged to adopt other changes, including establishing a pipeline program to encourage more minority students to pursue doctoral degrees and diversifying campus symbols and art.
Wilson was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910, and the country’s 28th president from 1913 until 1921. He is credited with creating the Federal Reserve system, led the U.S. into World War I and tried to preserve a lasting peace afterward. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for being the architect of the League of Nations.
But he also supported segregation — including in the federal government — rolling back progress for the emerging black middle class in the nation’s capital at the turn of the 20th century. As president of Princeton, he also prevented the enrollment of black students.
The debate over Wilson’s name was part of a wave of racially motivated activism on college campuses across the country this school year that began with protests at the University of Missouri. There, black students — including members of the school’s football team — successfully protested for the ouster of Missouri’s president.
In recent months, college leaders have moved to change mascots, building names, mottos and other symbols some have deemed offensive or outdated. Most recently, Harvard University has taken steps to remove university references tied to slavery.
At Princeton, a 10-member committee looked at Wilson’s legacy and the state of race relations on campus. It gathered input from Wilson scholars and more than 600 submissions from alumni, faculty and the public.
In the end, the committee concluded Wilson’s accomplishments were among “the reasons Wilson’s name was associated with the school and the college,” but added that some of his views “clearly contradict the values we hold today.”
Using his name “implies no endorsement of views and actions that conflict with the values and aspirations of our times,” the committee report read. “We have said that in this report, and the university must say it in the settings that bear his name.”
Eric Yellin, a University of Richmond history professor and a Wilson biographer who served as a member of the committee, told The Associated Press that the debate about commemorating Wilson has highlighted the question of whether college campuses are inclusive.
“It’s really important not to take Wilson’s racism and put it in the category of ‘everybody was a racist,’” Yellin said. “Not everybody was president, or as articulate about why segregation was important. Not everybody had the same number of opportunities to change the world.”
The board of trustees’ decision came on the same day that the school opened an interactive exhibit putting Wilson in context for his era while emphasizing that he was a man apart from it — for better and worse. “In the Nation’s Service? Wilson Revisited” will run through Oct. 28.
His faults are laid bare from the beginning of the exhibit. One panel quotes him: “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Daniel Linke, archivist at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton and curator of the exhibit, said: “What we were trying to do here is take the line that separates ‘Wilson good’ and ‘Wilson bad’ and expand it.”
Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Wilson School, said students have opened a helpful dialogue.
“It’s important for students to understand great people are complicated,” said Rouse. “We have to learn to live with that complexity. … We can sandblast a name from the building, but to actually change how we operate, and what our community is like is much harder.”