Citing the former Democratic president’s “racist thinking,” the Princeton University Board of Trustees announced Saturday it has voted to rename the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The decision comes amid widespread calls throughout the nation to “cancel” figures from American history who have been linked to or accused of racism.
“The Princeton University Board of Trustees voted today to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the University’s School of Public and International Affairs, which will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs,” Princeton said in a statement.
“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.”
— Princeton University (@Princeton) June 27, 2020
Many historians say that Wilson, a Democrat who served as America’s 28th president from 1913 to 1921, has a complicated legacy.
While he led the U.S. through World War I and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, his views and record on the issue of race have long been a subject for debate.
Wilson “engaged in conduct that today would be viewed as reprehensible, including denying college admission to African American students, re-segregating the federal government, and other actions that advanced the cause of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to Monmouth University, which said this month that his name would be removed from Woodrow Wilson Hall, a campus building.
“At the Paris Peace Conference following World War I, he blocked a Japanese proposal to include racial equality as a founding principle of the League of Nations,” Politico reported in 2015. “And he hosted a private White House screening of the notorious D.W. Griffith film ‘Birth of a Nation,’ which vilified African-Americans and venerated the Ku Klux Klan.”
Wilson is also responsible for creating the graduated income tax, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission, as well as for supporting various antitrust and labor laws, according to The New York Times.
“Historians usually say, ‘Here was this amazing liberal progressive who was a racist, which is too bad, now let’s go back to talking about the good things,’” Eric Yellin, a Richmond professor who wrote a book about federal work force segregation under Wilson, told The Times in 2015 amid controversy over Princeton students’ demands that Wilson’s name be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs.
“But it’s important to see that Wilson had a whites-only progressive view,” Yellin said.
Due to the student protests, Princeton formed a committee to study Wilson’s legacy at the university. Prior to being elected president, Wilson, a Princeton graduate, was president of the university from 1902 to 1910.
“The committee recommended valuable reforms to increase Princeton’s inclusivity and recount the University’s history more completely, but it left the names of the School and College intact. Student and alumni interest in those names has persisted, and we revisited them this month as the American nation struggled profoundly with the terrible injustice of racism,” the university’s Saturday statement read.
“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,” the statement added.
“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. 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.”
The university said it respects Wilson’s achievements and has a responsibility to continue doing so “even as we honestly and publicly contend with his failures.”
One of the university’s residential colleges, Wilson College, will also be renamed, Princeton said, though it was already set to be closed.
“The University has previously indicated that it plans to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening the two new residential colleges now under construction south of Poe Field,” the school’s statement read.
“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 honorific naming. 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.”
In a statement of his own, University president Christopher L. Eisgruber predicted that the decision will be criticized.
“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,” he said.
While the university never meant to honor Wilson specifically due to his views on race, Eisgruber said that “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,” he added.
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