In October 2019, as some 1,400 Black alumni and guests gathered on campus for the Thrive Conference, a historic deal proceeded in private: Kwanza Jones ’93 and her husband, José E. Feliciano ’94, officially committed to donate over $20 million to the University “in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion” — according to Jones, “the largest gift by underrepresented people of color” in the University’s 274-year history.
Last week, in an “open love letter” to President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83, Jones called on the University to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, the residential college, and other campus buildings. Five days later, Eisgruber announced the University will do just that — the Wilson School has been renamed the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and Wilson College, First College.
For Jones, CEO and co-founder of the SUPERCHARGED Initiative and an alumna of the School of Public and International Affairs, the University’s silence on Wilson’s racism was equivalent to “acquiescing” to it. “There’s explicit harm for the students who are now at Princeton and those who are to come,” she told The Daily Princetonian.
“If by silence you are saying racism is okay — then what is it you’re teaching the students who are our nation’s and world’s future leaders?” she said.
Jones also raised another consequence that would result from Nassau Hall’s continued endorsement of Wilson’s legacy: “In the long-term, the University is going to see an adverse impact to their bottom line.”
“Diversity is changing around the world. By 2045, the U.S. is going to be a majority-minority country,” she said. “Patrons, donors are not going to want to give if they’re not seeing themselves represented, or if they feel like the University is disregarding them. You’re disregarded if you have names on buildings, where — literally — it’s a structure whose namesake is representative of a racist practice, which it feels like the University is still condoning.”
But while Jones feels the decision to remove Wilson’s name “helps Princeton be on the right side of history,” it is far from enough. “History is written by what we do today, and tomorrow, and each day afterwards,” she wrote to the ‘Prince.’
“Both the President and the Board of Trustees mentioned the ‘extraordinary’ step that was taken,” she continued. “Inequity resulting from structural racism is extraordinary. Police violence against Black people is extraordinary. Removing the name of a racist, former Princeton and U.S. President from buildings … Extraordinary? No. Instead, it was absolutely necessary.”
Jones’s experience with racism at the University is personal.
In a “prelude” to her open letter, published June 25, she described the incidents of both racism and sexism she endured as an undergraduate. They include numerous voice messages left on her phone by a fellow student saying, “You’re a n****r bitch”; a white student telling her after a lecture, “I hate all Black people at Princeton. They only got in because of affirmative action and that’s why my friend didn’t get in”; and a senior University administrator telling her after she requested postponing a three-hour final exam due to debilitating menstrual cramps, “my wife and daughter never have cramps so you shouldn’t either.”
As an alumna and a donor, this feeling of being unwelcome and “disregarded” persisted. In June of 2018, after she and her husband had donated $1 million to the University earlier that year, she said they were turned away from a donor event in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall, a moment that left Jones “shocked, saddened, frustrated, dismayed, and outraged.”
“I was excited as I took the 5-minute walk from Nassau Inn to Nassau Hall,” she wrote in the prelude. “With each step, I reflected on the combination of hard work, sacrifice, preparation, dedication, and dose of luck that led to me and José … being invited to attend the gathering for the critical few … With each step, I was filled with pride and gratitude to those who had come before; those who helped make it possible for us to be in a position to have a seat at the table, in the room where it happens.”
“What should have been the kickoff of a major Reunion celebration, instead turned into an unceremonious exit through the hallowed halls of Nassau Hall,” she explained.
Asked to comment on Jones’ account, University Spokesperson Ben Chang wrote, “Princeton is committed to being a place where everyone feels welcome, and we deeply regret that a member of our community was disrespected in any way.”
“We value Kwanza as a leader in our alumni community and welcome her input, especially at this critical moment in Princeton’s history,” he added.
But when Jones first reached out to Eisgruber in July 2018 about the incident, “his apology felt like a non-apology.”
“There’s no way Chris knows absolutely everything that’s going on on campus, with the faculty, with the staff … it’s just not possible. So I understand he was apologizing for something he may not have had the full context about,” she said. “But his first apology, though sincere, was not sufficient … because it seemed as if the fault, and the blame, for us being turned away was on us, not on the University representative’s actions.”
Despite those experiences and many others, Jones boasts a “perfect annual giving record” — she has donated to the University every year since her graduation — and said she thinks “very highly of our university,” speaking of Princeton’s potential to be a “beacon for what is just, what is fair, what is equitable, and what is right.”
She feels a particular obligation to confront racism at her alma mater. “When we look at systemic racism, it’s not just about white people needing to make changes. It’s about all of us,” she said.
“All people have to do the work of dismantling systemic racism … Black people, Brown people, Asian people, white people … it takes everyone to do it, and to know that they have a hand in making it happen,” she added. “Justice is in the hands of just us ... all of us, individually and collectively.”
In that spirit, she and Feliciano made their October 2019 donation, which was “years in the making.”
“It may be $20 million now,” she said, “but it may be a lot more in the future.” Because of the mid-March campus evacuation prompted by COVID-19, the University postponed a public ceremony to honor the donation, she explained.
Regarding the removal of Wilson’s name, Jones wrote, “I’m grateful for the first steps and eagerly anticipating the announcement of plans for what comes next.” One place to start in her view: undergraduate and graduate students’ recent demands.
“In general broad strokes, I would say … Yes. Yes, I am supportive [of the demands],” she said. “But it seemed to me like they were speaking only about the Wilson School, and that to me is not enough. Some of the recommendations they made need to be applied throughout the entire university.”
Jones found the students’ use of the word “demands” of particular interest. “The demands were verbalized as such because there had been continuing conversations, continuous requests … they moved from the level of a ‘request’ to the level of a ‘demand’ because voices weren’t being heard and actions weren’t being taken.”
On the “Double Sights” marker, which Jones admitted she has not yet seen “in real life, only in numerous photos and videos,” she said, “I think this specific marker needs to be taken down. I think it needs to be removed, reimagined, and then rebuilt with participation from students, faculty, and alumni.”
Such a “remixed monument,” she believes, “would show the promise of what this moment offers ... the ability to be changed, a nod to the history of racist practices, and the moment that Princeton came together to dismantle racism and create something better.”
“Imagine if you have been subject to abuse by someone and you cannot get away from the abuser because you live with them perhaps, or you work with them perhaps. That to me is what this is,” she added. “Having this monumental marker there is akin to being forced to live with your abuser or oppressor. Remixing it shows you have reclaimed your power and are no longer victimized.”
On specific anti-racist policies the University could adapt, one proposal Jones stressed was anti-racist training, but not just for faculty: “everyone, campus-wide — if you’re being paid by Princeton ... you have to go through continuous anti-racism training. Make it part of an ongoing job requirement.”
Additionally, Jones believes, anti-racist classes should be “required coursework,” not just for public policy students but for everyone.
“Similar to taking required foreign language classes … it needs to be like that. Everyone has to do an anti-racist class, but the difference is, unlike some foreign languages which you may not use, this one will actually matter in your daily life,” she said. “We won’t tell you which one you have to take, but you have to take one.”
Lastly, Jones said the University has an opportunity to partner with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — “but not in a paternalistic way.”
“There are HBCUs that have been so instrumental in the education of people of color, especially Black people, when they could not go to Princeton … Yale, Harvard,” she explained. “Those schools are still here and they’re having challenging, difficult times, especially now because students who might have gone to HBCUs are now going to PWIs — predominantly white institutions.”
“Princeton could do a partnership,” she added, “Let’s have an internship program, a summer program, a semester program… get people to understand and see things from a different perspective, and truly experience how it feels not being the predominant ethnicity. I think it would help people develop empathy.”
On the University’s progress toward racial justice, Jones is certain of one thing: “There needs to be more.” In that effort, she believes Black Princetonians are essential.
“I’ve had conversations with Black alumni who say, ‘I’m never going back, I didn’t have a good experience there, Princeton is not for me,’” she said.
“In those conversations, despite the way I was treated at Princeton … I say, ‘Hey, Princeton is your place. You have to take ownership of it. Because if you don’t take ownership, we’re going to continue having the same issues. Princeton belongs to all of us.’”