May 4, 2016

University Removes Wilson Dining Hall Mural


RECONSIDERING WILSON’S LEGACY: A mural depicting Woodrow Wilson throwing out the first ball at a 1915 Washington Senators baseball game was removed on Saturday from Princeton University’s Wilson College dining hall, in accordance with the decision of Wilson College Head Eduardo Cadava and the recommendation of an undergraduate student committee. (Photos by Donald Gilpin)

A large mural depicting the image of Woodrow Wilson was removed Saturday from the dining hall of Wilson College at Princeton University, at the behest of Wilson College Head Eduardo Cadava. 

In accepting the recommendation of a student committee assigned to consider the demand for removal of the mural made by the Black Justice League during its Nassau Hall sit-in last fall, Mr. Cadava reflected on the difficulties involved in considering the mixed legacy, both progressive and racist, of Wilson, who served as Princeton president and New Jersey governor, as well as U.S. president.

Describing the mural С an enlarged photograph overlaid in reddish orange, which depicts Wilson throwing out the first pitch at a 1915 Washington Senators baseball game С as “not in keeping with the spirit of Wilson College’s founding wish to have Princeton be a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, and one that embraces, respects, and values all its members,” Mr. Cadava suggested that the mural be replaced with a “visual representation that embodies the college’s unique history in relation to issues of inclusion and diversity.”

There are no specific plans yet for a new mural. The Wilson mural was originally installed in 2009 as part of a renovation of the dining hall.

In 1957 students founded Wilson Lodge in reaction against the exclusionary policies of the Princeton eating clubs. The University opened Wilcox Hall and the New Quad dormitories in 1960 in honor of Wilson’s idea of establishing a residential college system at Princeton, and in 1968 Wilson became the first of the University’s six residential colleges. Mr. Cadava noted that Wilson College was founded by students “as part of a stance against elitism and exclusion.”

A Difficult Decision

In their research and deliberations, the 12 members of the Wilson Mural Committee, all Wilson College undergraduates, attended events of the trustees’ Wilson Legacy Committee, read scholarly reports on Wilson, conducted interviews with members of Wilson College and organized a public discussion at the College.

“The decision-making process on the mural was thus student-driven from beginning to end,” the committee members wrote in a letter to the Daily Princetonian, “from the student activists who initiated this important conversation to the student committee members and the many other students whose input we sought through a public meeting earlier this month and through the many thoughtful written comments we received from other students.”

The students’ letter continued, “The name Wilson College was chosen for a very specific aspect of Wilson’s legacy: the vision—though it was not achieved in his lifetime—of a more inclusive system of residential colleges, allowing social and intellectual communities to prosper outside of the exclusive club system. As Wilson’s deplorable views and actions have been acknowledged (in a long over-due process), the question becomes how to honor Wilson’s vision of inclusivity without embracing his prejudice, discrimination and paternalism.”

Quoting the Black Justice League’s concern that “the way we lionize legacies sets precedents,” the committee wrote, “How we remember the past matters… symbols matter,” though admitting that “the mural is only a small part of the college, and we hold no illusions that its removal will cure the many structural and social inequities that still plague this school.”

The trustees committee, though not mentioning the mural in particular, noted that the lack of diversity in campus iconography “perpetuates a representation of Princeton that is not welcoming to members of the community who come from diverse backgrounds.”

Mr. Cadava said that the University community owes a “felt debt” to the Black Justice League for focusing attention on the racist aspects of Wilson’s views. The committee’s recommendation to remove the Wilson mural is an effort to “lay one stone aright today, in the hope that others can be lain aright in the future.”