Princeton University has agreed to explore the removal of the name and images of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from buildings and school programs under a deal signed with protesters who objected to Wilson’s support of segregation, which was legal at the time. This action occurs as Harvard Law students have demanded the dropping of the school seal due to a connection to a slaveholder.
Princeton has long (and rightfully) been proud of its association with Wilson. Wilson, besides being the 28th President of the United States, was the thirteenth president of Princeton. He was also a member of the Class of 1879. As president, Wilson helped transform the school into a major world-class university, including a restructuring of departments and investment in new innovations and buildings. He was a brilliant academic whose writings are still widely cited (indeed, I have both praised and criticized those writings in different respects).
The recent protests were led by “Black Justice League” and involved a 32-hour sit-in outside Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber’s office. The students also demanded a cultural competency and diversity training program and to designate space on campus for “cultural affinity” groups. Eisgruber agreed to consider stripping the school of its most renown association and praised the protesters for their “willingness . . . to work with us to find a way forward”.
This would involve removing a large number of portraits and references, including Wilson’s name on the university’s world renown Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
While Wilson was a leader of the Progressive Movement he also supported racial segregation, which was not banned until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
I believe such an effort would unfair to Wilson and deeply regrettable for the university. Wilson was truly a great leader both for his achievements as an academic and a world leader. I have serious qualms about various views of Wilson including the position on segregation. There was also his support for the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress the war movement — leading to the Palmer raids. I have long been a critic of those Wilsonian era effects. However, his work also included his foundational work on the League of Nations and the creation of new international principles to avoid wars. He was a voice for incorporating moral principles into international law. Wilson was critical in moving American foreign policy from isolation to internationalism and many credit him with laying the bedrock principles for international law. He was a critic of European imperialism and called for national self-determination for ethic groups. While many may disagree with the policies, he also laid the foundation for banking reform under the Federal Reserve System as well as support for labor and collective bargaining. While many would later call his brand of idealism in international law naive, it was a different view of the role of international organizations. Indeed, while the League of Nations failed, it became a model for the United Nations. We can hold strong views against positions of past leaders like Wilson while recognizing that they played a transformative role in other areas like international law as well as academic contributions.
It is also important to note that segregation principles not just the majority viewpoint of Americans at the time but the law. Many people at the time — not the least of which was the United Supreme Court justices — believed that “separate but equal” was constitutional. Brown v. Board of Education was not handed down until 1954 in finding that segregation violated the Constitution. That was 30 years after the death of Woodrow Wilson.
The effort to sanitize our history ignores one of the key components of the intellectual exercise on campuses: to consider sources and writings in their historical and social context. This does not mean that Wilson should not be identified as a segregationist and his legacy balanced against such views. However, it is important to consider the time in which he lived and lead. There is much about Wilson to be celebrated and honored, particularly at the school that he helped make one of the world’s greatest educational institutions.