After years of debate, Princeton University announced Saturday that it would remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s revered school of public policy.
The school, known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs since it took its name from the former president since 1948, will now be called The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
The decision was made by the Princeton Board of Trustees at a meeting on Friday, and also includes removing Wilson’s name from one of the university’s six resident universities, which consist of multiple bedrooms, common areas, and a dining room.
“We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose academics, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its forms,” they wrote. the Trustees. in a sentence.
The move was recommended to the Trustees by Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber.
“Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a school of public policy,” Eisgruber wrote in a statement. “When a university names a public policy school for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for students studying at the school.”
The controversy surrounding the school’s name has swirled for years, sparked by a fight to balance Wilson’s accomplishments with his racist beliefs.
Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, served two terms from 1913 to 1921. His legacy stands out as leading the United States during World War I, creating the League of Nations (the predecessor to the United Nations), and instituting the Federal Reserve Bank system.
Before occupying the White House, Wilson served as the 38th Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913.
But Wilson also had segregationist views that influenced his actions as president and governor. As president, Wilson segregated the federal civil service, which had been integrated at the time. When leading the Garden State, Wilson refused to hire black people in his administration.
Wilson is deeply connected to Princeton, having served as president of the university for eight years, beginning in 1902. He also graduated from the university in 1879.
“Wilson remade Princeton, turning it from a sleepy university into a great research university,” wrote Eisgruber.
Just as his time in public office was clouded by racist views, so was Wilson’s tenure at the helm of Princeton. This was evident in his views on the acceptance of black students at the university.
“All the temperament and tradition of the place [Princeton] they are such that no black has applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will take a practical form, ”Wilson once wrote.
In their statement, the Trustees explained that the current state of affairs in the United States, as the nation grapples with systemic racism in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Tayler, and other unarmed black people by the police, It has changed the way Princeton should view the memorials to Wilson.
“If the question before us was how to weigh Wilson’s accomplishments against his failures, members of the Princeton community could go to different trials. However, we believe that these times present the University with a different question, ”wrote the Trustees. Identifying a political leader as the name of a public policy school inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for those who study at the school. Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to be named after a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after being integrated for decades. ”
The Trustees emphasized that the university still has a responsibility to remember Wilson’s complete legacy.
“Although we conclude today that Wilson’s racism makes him an inappropriate namesake for the University’s School of Public and International Affairs, we recognize that Princeton has an ongoing responsibility to remember his accomplishments even as we honestly and publicly struggle with his failures,” they wrote. the Trustees.
Eisgruber said the university’s work against systemic racism will continue beyond the changes.
“The steps taken yesterday by the Board of Trustees are extraordinary measures,” said Eisgruber. “These are not the only steps our university is taking to combat the realities and legacy of racism, but they are important.”
Wilson’s honor on the Princeton campus has been a dizzying controversy in recent years.
In 2015, Princeton students organized a sit-in to call for the removal of Wilson’s name from campus buildings, the removal of a Wilson mural, and for the university to recognize Wilson’s racist legacy. The Rev. William Barber, a prominent member of the NAACP, joined the sit-in. The students also garnered the support of Cornel West, current US Senate candidate Lawrence Hamm, faculty members, and alumni.
In response to student protests, later that year Princeton formed a committee to examine Wilson’s history. Months later, in the spring of 2016, that committee recommended that Wilson’s name remain in the school of public policy, but that the university take steps to improve diversity on campus.
Shortly after the committee made its recommendations, a photo of Wilson was removed from a Princeton dining room.
In 2017, as part of the fight against his racial history, Princeton launched the Princeton and Slavery Project, detailing the ways in which slavery is part of the university’s past.
Princeton is not the only school to reconsider the honorifics for the former president. Earlier this month, Monmouth University announced that it would remove Wilson’s name from a building on campus. The Monmouth Board of Trustees said the decision was intended to help foster diversity and inclusion on the school’s Long Branch campus.
Also earlier this month, school officials in Camden announced that the district would rename Woodrow Wilson High School. Camden’s decision came after a grassroots push by community members to rename the school.
Beyond Wilson, New Jersey schools are pushing to remove a variety of controversial figures from their campuses.
This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. to clarify that Wilson’s name is also being removed from a residential university, rather than a residence.
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Michael Sol Warren can be contacted at [email protected].