Princeton University’s Board of Trustees has voted to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of public and international affairs, saying the late president’s segregationist policies make him an “especially inappropriate namesake” for a public policy school.
“When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school,” university president Christopher Eisgruber wrote in a letter to the Princeton community regarding Friday’s vote by the board of trustees. “This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role. In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this University and its school of public and international affairs must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice.”
The school will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. In addition, trustees voted to change the name of a residential college that had been named for Wilson to First College.
“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 combating the scourge of racism in all its forms,” trustees said in a statement.
The decision is a significant shift for the university, which just four years ago decided Wilson’s name would remain despite a student-led campaign to have it removed. A committee convened by the university in 2015 to study the question instead recommended that Princeton instead focus on efforts to make the university a more inclusive place, including strengthening the pipeline to draw more underrepresented minority students into doctoral programs and diversifying campus art and iconography to better reflect the modern world.
But the board’s action Friday underscores how the outcry over the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans has forced institutions to re.-examine the legacy of leaders like Wilson, who despite being hailed for his embrace of progressive ideas also held racist views.
While still “recognizing and respecting” Wilson’s legacy, trustees concluded they could no longer allow the school to bear his name.
“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,” trustees said in their statement. “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. ”
Wilson has deep ties to the university. He graduated from Princeton and served as the university’s president from 1902 to 1910, where he was viewed as a transformational leader.
He was elected the 28th president of the United States in 1914 and reelected in 1918 and was responsible for enacting the first federal laws for establishing an eight-hour workday and restricting child labor. He supported women’s suffrage and won passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. He led the United States during World War I and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1919. But Wilson also advocated for the separation of races and opposed efforts by civil rights leaders to combat discrimination against black people.
(c) 2020, The Washington Post · Lori Aratani