The University Board of Trustees has commissioned a special committee to study the legacy of former University President Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, and determine whether or not the Wilson School and Wilson College should be renamed, in light of demonstrations by the Black Justice League, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said.
Eisgruber explained that the committee has created a website to collect observations and opinions about Wilson, and to share these findings with the greater University community. According to the website, the committee will be meeting in the spring semester to review perspectives on Wilson’s legacy.
Committee chair Brent Henry ’69 said that of the demands of the Black Justice League, only the question of renaming the Wilson School and Wilson College fell under the purview of the Board of Trustees. He explained that the committee has enlisted the help of scholars and biographers to post their views of the issue on the website, and the committee will conduct in-person interviews with students and faculty in the spring.
“We really want to hear from people, and more importantly, have a dialogue and hear from as many people as possible,” Henry said.
Other members of the committee include Board of Trustees chair Kathryn Hall ’80, Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg ’71, Margarita Rosa ’74, Denny Chin ’75, Angela Groves ’12, Katherine Bradley ’86, Robert Hugin ’76, Robert Murley ’72 and Ruth Simmons. The committee will also be staffed by members of the administration.
Groves deferred comment to Hall and Vice President and Secretary of the University Robert Durkee ’69. Murley, Bradley and Berg declined to comment. Hall, Rosa, Chin, Hugin and Simmons did not respond to a request for comment.
Durkee noted that the scholars and biographers were selected based on recommendations from the faculty and other scholars.
“These will be people who are recognized and highly knowledgeable about Wilson’s legacy,” Durkee said. “Part of the goal of this is to not only encourage a conversation but help inform the conversation.”
One hundred and seventy-one people have submitted entries to the website as of Monday evening.
Henry explained that the committee will convene periodically to discuss the findings of the interviews and the submissions during the second semester. He said that while this is a rough timeline, the committee could broaden its purpose if need be.
“If any of the on-campus interviews or submissions turn up new avenues that we think are fruitful to pursue, we will pursue them,” he said.
Henry said that while the committee will be making periodic check-ins with Eisgruber, the Trustees will ultimately have the final say in the decision whether or not to rename the Wilson School and Wilson College.
Dean of the Wilson School Cecilia Rouse said that while the Trustees have not reached out to her or the Wilson School for input, she has encouraged alumni to provide input on the website.
“I respect the Trustees’ process, and I stand at the ready to provide any assistance that they would like,” she said.
In addition, Rouse noted that University Archivists are developing an exhibit on Wilson to present an accurate depiction of him. Depending on the findings of the Trustees, that exhibit will be temporary if the Wilson School is renamed or will remain permanent otherwise.
Johns Hopkins University Political Science Professor Michael Hanchard GS ’91, who wrote a column on the Wilson renaming issue in the Huffington Post, noted that the call for dialogue from the Trustees is a good thing, and he said that the website will further aid in that dialogue. Former staff writer and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer Arthur Carey ’72, who wrote a column for Philly.com, also said that he approves of the Trustees’ decision to set up the website.
“It seems like they are casting a wide net to harness as many opinions and perspectives as possible,” he said. “As an initial step, it’s a very good one.”
Carey and University Professor of Literature and Comparative Literature Emeritus John Fleming GS ’63 said that theywere impressed by the quality of people on the committee. Fleming is the former Master of Wilson College.
“We are going to see a greater degree of sophistication in the discussion than we have seen thus far,” Fleming said. “It’s been pretty simple-minded until now.”
Fleming added that it is important for the Trustees to consider the impact and legacy Wilson has had on the University and to keep in mind that not all human beings are perfect. He noted that Wilson was responsible for turning the University from a small liberal arts college into a world-class research University, and that he was the one who invented the preceptorial method.
Carey said that Wilson revolutionized the school by opening it up to students of all backgrounds and creating an environment to encourage intellectually stimulating discussions and research.
“Students today are direct beneficiaries of Wilson’s vision and his leadership,” he said. “It’s not a fair fight to disband Wilson’s legacy, because he isn’t around to defend himself.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison History Professor Emeritus John Milton Cooper ’61, who authored the book “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography,” in 2009, said that while Wilson had many flaws, he produced many influential pieces of legislation that are still important today.
“He really got significant things done, like the League of Nations,” Cooper said. “Clearly this man did an awful lot that was very significant and very good.”
But Cooper noted that despite all of these achievements, Wilson’s record on race and civil liberties kept him from transcending greatness. He noted that Wilson’s cabinet attempted to introduce segregation and marginalize African-Americans in the federal government, and showed the pro-Ku Klux Klan movie “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House.
However, he added that Wilson publicly denounced lynching, campaigned against racist Democrats in the South and invited Booker T. Washington to his inauguration. Washington was a black educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute, the first formal school for African Americans.
Rouse explained that the renaming issue is generating a dialogue between members of the faculty, students and alumni of the Wilson School, who all possess a wide range of opinions on the issue. On the whole, she noted that the experience has been very positive for the University community.
“This is a learning moment for us all to learn who Woodrow Wilson really was to understand the reasons the school and college were named after him and understand his works,” she said.
Henry noted that although the committee is debating Wilson’s legacy, the overarching purpose is to determine how best to deal with the University’s complicated history.
“It’s not just about Wilson’s legacy, but there’s also input we are seeking from others as to how campuses like Princeton ought to be looking at their legacy,” Henry said. “We want to make sure everyone who comes to the University feels a sense of belonging.”
Staff Writer Andie Ayala contributed reporting.