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The glacial pace of change

At 9:30 Monday morning, an email from President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 reached the Princeton community announcing that the Trustees had come to a decision regarding Woodrow Wilson’s name. Within the hour, the Prince had published a story on the non-change (followed shortly thereafter by articles from the NY Times to BuzzFeed). As of this writing, the Prince’s Facebook post carrying this breaking news story had precisely one comment: “meh.”


Indeed, on the face of it, the Trustees’ decision means little — “meh” is a word invented for just this situation. Wilson’s name will remain — on the College, on the School, and on the various associated awards and endowed professorships. Instead the University will change its “informal motto,” establish an array of programs and initiatives aimed at complicating Wilson’s legacy and increasing academic diversity, and “diversify campus art and iconography.”

But if these changes are carried out in spirit and not just in letter, and if this year’s discussions on Princeton’s tortured relationship with race, racism and Wilson continue, the report will be an important part of a generations-long effort to make Princeton the center of open and vigorous scholarship that it can and should be.

It is, frankly, unsurprising that the name was not removed. Social change — especially at ossified 300-year-old academic institutions — simply does not happen overnight. The protests this November were a remarkable success for student activists, but only because they overcame the institutional and bureaucratic barriers to even acknowledging and even addressing wrongs, not because they ensured all demands would be met.

But there has, in fact, been some success. With the community’s — indeed, the world’s — attention on the stark yes-or-no decision of the name change, Princeton has silently been awakening to the other issues the protest brought forward. With little fanfare, cultural spaces were created in the Fields center, and the title of the Master of the college was changed to “Head.” Perhaps more importantly, the Wilson School has acknowledged Wilson’s racism in an exhibition opening this week: “In the Nation’s Service? Woodrow Wilson Revisited.” The Trustees’ acknowledgement that they “deplore” Wilson’s more, well, deplorable actions is a welcome step, as is recognizing that Princeton “has venerated him in a way that has not been forthcoming or transparent about this harmful aspect of his legacy.”

This veneration — of Wilson in particular and of white patriarchs in general — is a larger issue than the name alone. Just as Wilson must and shall no longer be exclusively venerated, the canon that Princeton elevates must and shall no longer be exclusively old rich white men. The Trustee Committee has laudably encouraged reconsideration and reconstruction of Princeton’s iconography, recognizing that Princetoniana — the idea of Princeton — is a mythos, and that who we place in the pantheon of that mythos’ past matters in the present.

Other changes will come even more slowly, even less visibly, except to those whom they aid immensely. The Trustee Committee’s decision to launch initiatives to diversify the academic pipeline are welcome and critical. Diversity issues have to be addressed in terms of the supply of students, and that means addressing retention, improving mentorship and creating positive environments. Efforts like affirmative action are easier on paper, but without addressing the supply of students and scholars in the pipeline, affirmative action is inevitably merely cosmetic and even harmful. Whatever this program looks like, it will be built slowly and deliberately and must include the input of students and scholars throughout, but if done right it will ultimately do more to diversify faculty nationwide than any name change or quota ever could.


Yes, Princeton changes slowly. Perhaps most illustrative of this is that the advocacy of alumna and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 was not sufficient to change even Princeton’s “informal” motto, “In the nation’s service and the service of all nations.” Indeed, even that change will take a student occupation of Nassau Hall, a specially convened Trustee Committee, and a future vote of the Trustees before “all nations” can be changed to “humanity.” One imagines that the bureaucratic machinery necessary to change the formal Latin motto would require a committee including the Ghost of John Witherspoon, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands (Head of the House of Orange-Nassau), God (class of aught) and Jeff Nunokawa.

Even as the wheels of academic bureaucracy turn, the conversation — which could not have occurred without the protests — continues and should continue. Recognizing the important role of activism, the University has not pursued disciplinary action against November’s demonstrators and has updated its disciplinary policy to add more transparency and accountability for activism-related disciplinary issues.

What it all means is that massive, symbolic activism does remove some barriers to social change but is not sufficient in itself to do so. I think Princeton’s activists understand this — their presence, along with that of their faculty and staff allies, in discussions and processes since November shows this, and I hope that all students will continue to be involved in the future. Princeton has made remarkable progress in the past century, and in the past months — but sustained, open efforts on all sides are the only way to ensure that this whole process doesn’t end with “meh.”

Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at

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