July 1, 2020

University Removes Woodrow Wilson’s Name From Public Affairs School and Residence College

By Donald Gilpin

In a reversal of a decision made four years ago, Princeton University announced, on June 27, that the name of Woodrow Wilson will be removed from its School of Public and International Affairs and from the residence college that used to bear his name.

Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber announced that the decision was made at a June 26 special meeting, where the University’s Board of Trustees considered actions Princeton University could take to oppose racism.

“The trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms,” Eisgruber stated. 

Wilson graduated from Princeton in 1879 and served as president of  the University from 1902 to 1910 before going on to become the 34th governor of New Jersey and the 28th president of the United States.

In a letter to the Princeton University community, Eisgruber noted the “complexity” of Wilson’s record, citing Wilson’s contribution to making Princeton a great research university but also emphasizing Wilson’s racist attitudes and actions. 

Wilson blocked African American applicants from entering Princeton (“It is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton,” he once wrote). During his time in the White House, Wilson dismissed 15 of 17 previously appointed black supervisors, among other racist and segregationist actions.

The Woodrow Wilson School will now be known as The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and Wilson College, which had already been scheduled to be closed in the next two years after the completion of two new residential colleges, will be known as First College. It was the first of Princeton’s residential colleges.

Following demonstrations in November 2015 led by Princeton University student members of the Black Justice League and a sit-in in Eisgruber’s Nassau Hall office, the University recommended a number of reforms to enhance inclusivity and to be more “honest and forthcoming” about its history, but it rejected the protesters’ demand to remove Wilson’s name from campus buildings.

“The board reconsidered these conclusions this month as the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks drew renewed attention to the long and damaging history of racism in America,” Eisgruber wrote in his June 27 letter.

Noting that Wilson segregated the federal civil service, “taking America backward in its pursuit of justice,” Eisgruber noted, “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.  He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.” 

He continued, “Wilson’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.  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.”

Responses to the Princeton trustees’ decision were varied throughout the University community and beyond. In letters to Princeton University and Woodrow Wilson School administrators, students, and alumni have called for changes in addition to the removal of Wilson’s name from the school, including hiring more black faculty, developing a curriculum that more effectively teaches about race and identity, promoting anti-racist research, as well as the University’s divestment from private prison affiliates and payment of reparations for its ties to slavery.

Eisgruber acknowledged that efforts to oppose racism at Princeton University must continue. “The steps taken yesterday by the Board of Trustees are extraordinary measures,” he wrote. “These are not the only steps our University is taking to combat the realities and legacy of racism, but they are important ones.”

Former first lady and Princeton University 1985 graduate Michelle Obama later in the day Monday tweeted that she “was heartened to see my alma mater make this change and even prouder of the students who’ve been advocating for this kind of change on campus for years. Let’s keep finding ways to be more inclusive to all students at Princeton and at every school across the country.”