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Graduate students hold signs reading “Vote Yes on DEI” in February.
Photo courtesy of Aaron Charlop-Powers

On the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 25, graduate students from the Woodrow Wilson School (WWS) gathered in Wallace Hall to voice their support for a pilot program, in which they would take a new, half-term distribution requirement centered around questions of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). As the students demonstrated, a council of faculty deliberated the issue in an adjacent room. 

The council has yet to release the status of its deliberations, including whether it has reached a decision.

In addition to undergraduate degrees, the Woodrow Wilson School offers Masters degrees in Public Administration and Public Policy, as well as PhD’s of Philosophy in Public Affairs. 

The idea for the pilot program arose in early 2019 out of a WWS DEI standing committee, comprised of faculty, students, and administrators. The program would require students to complete one half-term course related to diversity and inclusion from a list pre-authorized by administrators.

The proposal takes inspiration from the newly announced Culture and Difference distribution requirement for undergraduate students, which will commence with the Class of 2024 this fall.  

According to video footage obtained by The Daily Princetonian, the hall was evenly lined with upwards of 50 students, who held up white signs in support of the pilot program. Student representatives, faculty, and administrators walked by to enter the room where the council was deliberating.

“I would say that it was among the most meaningful moments I have had while here at Princeton, seeing my classmates proudly demonstrating student support,” said Emily Apple, a graduate student at WWS studying domestic policy.

Student activism calling for increased emphasis on issues of diversity and inclusion is not new at the WWS. Since its inception in 2017, much of the pressure for reform has come from a group named Students For Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED).

SEED remains a heavy driving force in the campaign to adopt the DEI pilot program.

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Vice-Dean of WWS Miguel Centeno wrote, “The first step is for the WWS faculty council to consider the proposal. The council can either decide it needs more time and information to consider or it can vote it out of committee for the full faculty to consider.”

He clarified neither where in the process the committee lies nor its leaning at this time. 

Centeno did, however, confirm that the question before the committee is “whether a course focused on diversity and public policy should be mandatory” (emphasis in original). He underscored that the school currently offers numerous courses focused on “public policy and divided societies.”

Francisco Diez, a member of SEED and a WWS graduate student focusing in economics and public policy, told the ‘Prince’ that adopting the DEI distribution requirement would not only serve as an important indicator of the Wilson School’s commitment to diversity, but also constitutes an academic necessity for a program that seeks to teach public policy. 

“I think it would be a mistake, a professional mistake, if students were not given an understanding of the distributional effects that their policies will necessarily have,” he said.

“I think some of the largest mistakes that have been made on the part of the policy makers in the last 40, 50 years,” he added, “have in large part been due to willful ignorance of policies’ distributional effects.”

Many students agree. According to an online poll conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Action Committee, the initiative has strong support from the graduate student body, with 75 percent of students in support. 

Support varies, though, given a breakdown by different demographics and fields of study. 

Among WWS students studying international relations, international development, and domestic policy, support was relatively consistent at 74 percent, 86 percent, and 84 percent, respectively. Support among economics and public policy students, however, dipped to 48 percent, with 43 percent actively opposing the measure. 

Additionally, the proposal garnered considerable support among students of color,  LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities, as well as low-income students and female students. 

Though all graduate students interviewed by the ‘Prince’ endorsed the potential change, several outlined the concerns they had heard articulated by some of their peers. Some students remain skeptical about the change, wondering how relevant the requirement is to their field of study or worry about its potential ideological bias.

Responding to concerns regarding a potential ideological bias in the policy, Diez said, “There is a concern that this would be at the exclusion of ideological diversity, but there is an understanding that courses that would pass the requirement have focuses on how you bridge divides across ideological diversity as well.”

According to sources privy to the internal deliberations of the faculty council, questions along these lines were prevalent in early conversations around the issue. To these sources, this indicated that some voting parties may have serious concerns about the policy. 

Though WWS graduate students are currently engaged in discussions specifically surrounding the distribution requirement, domestic policy student Clarke Wheeler sees student activism surrounding DEI as ongoing.

“Across the board, people are trying to think of ways to even beyond the vote express student support for and accountability to students regarding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” she said.

The ‘Prince’ will be actively following updates around WWS’ decision as more information becomes available. 

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