A mural of former University and United States President Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, will be removed from the wall of Wilson College dining hall over the next few days.
The photograph, commonly referred to as a mural, depicts Wilson throwing the first pitch for a baseball game and covers one wall of the Wilcox dining hall. It was installed during the 2009 renovations of the dining hall.
In its place, a piece of artwork that represents the College’s history with respect to inclusion and diversity will be installed.
Eduardo Cadava, head of Wilson College, wrote in an email to students in Wilson College on Tuesday morning that although he was charged with the final decision, he endorsed student suggestions to remove the murals.
Cadava did not respond to requests for comment.
University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, who described the mural as “unduly celebratory,” also voiced his support for the decision, adding that given its nature and context, the mural was the wrong place for that kind of depiction for Wilson.
In February, Cadava formed an ad-hoc Student Advisory Committee with 12 students who worked to collect student opinions and speak with alumni and administrators. The Committee submitted a formal recommendation on April 14 which Cadava supported, he wrote.
“The students have submitted their formal recommendation — in a thoughtfully laid out argument and summary of their process — and they are recommending that we remove the mural and that, in its place, we install an artwork or another visual representation that embodies the College’s unique history in relation to issues of inclusion and diversity,” he wrote.
According to Denay Richards ’19, a member of the committee, Cadava had mostly left the decision process to students on the committee.
“He pretty much left it to us to decide how to proceed. Professor Cadava said that he would like the recommendation to be based on what the students, as opposed to the alums or himself, had thought,” she said.
Some members of the student committee members had met with Eisgruber during his office hours in March and a few alumni, according to Richards.
She also noted that the committee had a diverse array of opinions and that not everyone was in agreement from the get-go.
Tyler Lawrence ’16, another member of the ad-hoc committee, noted that the Committee had solicited opinions from Wilson College students at large and that the ratio of those in favor of removing the mural to those against was 2:1.
“However, it also seemed possible to us that this feedback was not necessarily a reflection of the general campus opinion,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Committee reasoned that even if a majority of students were not in favor of removing the mural and the feedback was unrepresentative, the results were also “telling,” he added.
“It meant that those in favor of removal felt strongly enough that it was in some way harmful to provide us their opinions, while those opposed to removal did not feel so strongly,” he said.
Another member of the committee, Caleb South ’19, said that although he is aware that the decision will be disappointing and upsetting to some, he hopes it will lead to further discussion throughout the University community about problematic aspects of the University’s past and the possibility of changing the status quo.
“I hope that the mural will be replaced by something more reflective of what Wilson College is and should be, which will remind all those who eat in Wilcox Hall of their duty to act in the service of humanity,” South said.
Though the final recommendation was made unanimously, the letter submitted to Cadava was not signed by every member. Lawrence said that it is unclear whether the students did not sign to suggest opposition or due to time constraints.
The Committee noted in its recommendations that that the name of the College was chosen in honor of Wilson’s vision for the residential college system and not for the man himself.
The report further explained that the mural was added in 2009 when the dining hall was renovated by architect Michael Graves. As the College is currently aware, the mural was not an intentional feature of Wilson dining hall’s new look but rather a choice to fill an otherwise blank wall space, the report said.
“The giant picture in the dining hall unavoidably brings the man Wilson into the college Wilson,” the report read.
Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees made the decision not to remove Wilson’s name from the residential college and the Wilson School. Along with the decision, the Trustees also released a number of recommendations, including reforming campus iconography. Cadava was separately tasked with the decision to remove or keep the mural.
Eisgruber stated that he doesn’t believe the two decisions are at odds with each other.
“I have felt that it would be entirely consistent and indeed the right thing to leave Wilson’s name in the College and the School but to take down the photo of him,” Eisgruber said.
The photograph celebrated the personal and private aspects of the man, Eisgruber said, echoing the sentiments of the Committee. He added that an important part of the conversation in questioning Wilson’s legacy is to distinguish his accomplishments from deficiencies in his character.
Furthermore, he added that it is appropriate for different bodies to handle different situations.
“We ask different bodies to make judgments about this because of the different consequences at stake and the roles they have in our community.”
Not to re-name the Wilson School was a decision by the Board of Trustees to, in the first place, commemorate Wilson’s contributions to the University and the nation, he said. Regardless, according to Eisgruber, in both cases the decisions were made with significant input from the community.
“We understood that the decision about the name of the College and the decision about the mural were separate processes which did not necessarily overlap,” South noted, “however, we realized that the Trustees' decision might have a major impact on our recommendation, especially if they decided to remove the Wilson name. We thought carefully about the implicit message that our recommendation would send when considered in conjunction with theirs.”
Cadava added in his statement that the mural was inconsistent with the history of Wilson College. The College was the only one founded by students as a stand against elitism and exclusion, he added.
Eisgruber said he expects the removal process to be expeditious.
“This is not an important artwork, this is a reproduction of a photograph so there are no concerns there with artistic preservation,” he said.
“There is no other portrait on campus like this. It is out of line with the rest of campus iconography,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence further noted that moving forward, he would like to see more substantive representation of the University’s history across campus. In particular, he stated that he believes there needs to be increased description of other former University presidents like James McCosh and John Witherspoon.
Richards described the decision as a step in the right direction. However, she noted that there are many other challenges the campus still faces.