Over a hundred students and administrators participated in the first Whig-Clio Senate debate of the spring semester centered on the controversial legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879.
The resolution that the Wilson School should be renamed failed by a vote of 33-37.
According to Whig-Clio president Allison Berger ’18, speaker and audience invitations were extended both to the Black Justice League and Princeton Open Campus Coalition.
Maya Aronoff ’19, the first pro-resolution speaker, said that it is damaging to celebrate Wilson because of the broader institution and nation-wide implications of his racist ideals.
Wilson was racist against minorities, made racist jokes in meetings and re-segregated the federal bureaucracy, Aronoff noted. She added that as a result of his policies, facilities from bathrooms to dining halls in Washington DC were segregated and many African-Americans working in public service lost their jobs.
His racism expressed itself in seemingly minor acts of respect, Aronoff said, as he frequently omitted addresses like “Dear Madam” in letters addressed to African-American workers.
His accomplishments were not strong enough to outweigh his racism and the ideas he espoused for on an international level contradicted his domestic policy, Aronoff noted.
Though the purpose of the Fourteen Points was to advance freedom and democracy, situations often went awry with Wilson’s belief in white supremacism, Aronoff said. Wilson believed that black people couldn’t govern themselves and discouraged the admission of African-American students, Aronoff added.
Removing Wilson’s name is not equivalent to wiping him out from history, Aronoff said, noting there was a time when Wilson’s name wasn’t attached to the school.
Josh Freeman ’18, a member of the POCC and the first con-resolution speaker, noted that students can’t let Wilson’s racism overshadow his accomplishments.
These accomplishments stand both in international and University history. While serving as University president, Wilson increased the size of the faculty, advocated for the residential college system, appointed the first Jewish and Roman Catholic faculties and established the engineering school, Freeman said.
The Fourteen Points and League of Nations gave birth to the concept of international peace, Freeman added.
Wilson earned his place today, Freeman noted.
Freeman further questioned whether societies should evaluate legacies differently when standards of morality have evolved.
Following opening statements, one audience participant questioned the standard for renaming buildings because of singular aspects. If the case were true, she stated, the entire US will have a lot of renaming to do.
It is also unfair to say that one student’s offense is more valued than another student’s, said another participant.
Aronoff responded to these claims by explaining that the question is not merely a building but a major. There’s a difference between a building that one can walk out of and a defining characteristic, a diploma that follows one through life, she said.
Several audience members also made analogies to the legacy of Bill Frist ’74, who actively supported the Defense of Marriage Act in 2004. Frist Campus Center is a place to feel home and be comfortable, a student argued.
Many students also questioned the need to name a major after an individual, when no other majors have done so.
When students are majoring in a name, a name that you do not want to be associated with, the line is drawn, one student noted.
However, another student stated that becoming a Wilson School major is an active choice that prospective Wilson School majors are consciously aware of and accept.
Multiple students claimed that it is questionable whether reminders of America’s controversial past should be eliminated from the present so people can feel comfortable at the University. The real world will be much more different, one student said.
A member of the audience also noted that Abraham Lincoln, who took the presidency only a few decades before Wilson, made similar public assertions about the “superior position” of whites.
In his closing remarks, Theodore Furchtgott ’18 noted that Wilson was a prominent leader of his day who appointed a supreme court justice who fought against robber barons.
We live a society far more progressive, and it’s uncomfortable to think that some figures didn’t want to extend equality for all, Furchtgott said, adding no one is flawless and Wilson is no different.
According to Shea Minter ’19, the closing pro-resolution speaker, the primary argument against the resolution appears to be a fear of change, which is not conducive to social progress.
The University cannot whitewash the past by keeping Wilson there and pretend he’s inscrutable, Minter said.
There will be a rippling effect, she said, we can have more debates about other related issues after this one on a national or international scale.
The event was co-sponsored by the Whig-Clio Society, the Black Justice League and the Open Campus Coalition. It took place at 7:30 p.m.