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U. renames Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College

Video by Zachary Shevin ’22

The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College will both be renamed to omit reference to Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, according to a University announcement on Saturday afternoon.

The Woodrow Wilson School will now be known as the “The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.” Wilson College, which had already been scheduled for retirement after the completion of two new residential colleges, will be known as “First College” for the remaining duration of its time as a residential facility.

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Organizers for “Change WWS” — which called for the policy school’s renaming earlier this week — told The Daily Princetonian they “appreciate the University’s swift response” but demand more substantive action.

According to President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83, the decision took place at a June 26 “special meeting” attended by the Princeton University Board of Trustees on possible actions the University could take to “oppose racism.”

“The trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms,” Eisgruber wrote.

In a statement to the policy school’s community, Dean Cecilia Rouse wrote that she “unequivocally” supports the decision. 

“I have often been asked if not Wilson, then who should the School be named for?” she wrote. “I am glad we are not going down that path. Connecting the School to a certain person signals that the School stands for much of what the honoree believes. I feel that for a policy school to be the best, it has to be a place where a true diversity of backgrounds and beliefs exist.”

Eisgruber also penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post published Saturday evening, titled “I opposed taking Woodrow Wilson’s name off our school. Here’s why I changed my mind.”

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“For me, the decision was wrenching but right,” he wrote. “Wilson helped to create the university that I love. I do not pretend to know how to evaluate his life or his staggering combination of achievement and failure. I do know, however, that we cannot disregard or ignore racism when deciding whom we hold up to our students as heroes or role models.”

The University’s Twitter account added soon after the announcement that “more information about how to request a revised diploma will be available soon.”

In April 2016, the University announced that both the residential college and policy school would continue to bear the Wilson name — rejecting a central demand that the Black Justice League (BJL) had raised the previous November. The Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton made this recommendation, writing that “the University needs to be honest and forthcoming about its history.” 

Following the committee’s recommendation, the University erected an installation, entitled “Double Sights,” to explore the former University president’s “complex legacy.” Over 200 students, alumni, and faculty members protested at the dedication in October — with speakers reiterating the BJL’s call to remove Wilson’s name from campus buildings.

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In a statement to the ‘Prince’ on Thursday, University Spokesperson Ben Chang wrote that the Board of Trustees was discussing anti-racism initiatives, which would “provide the Board with an opportunity to consider the recommendations in the 2016 report on Woodrow Wilson’s legacy in light of current circumstances.” In his message to the campus community, Eisgruber stated that “the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks” played a role in renewed considerations of the University Trustees.

Eisgruber’s letter acknowledged the “complexity” of Wilson’s record, noting that “[p]eople will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures.” He noted that Wilson “remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university,” and cited that many of the University’s distinguishing features, including its “research excellence” and the “preceptorial system” had their beginnings under Wilson’s leadership — a leadership which eventually lead him to the White House.

Yet Eisgruber made it clear that such achievements do not overshadow Wilson’s history of blatantly racist and segregationist policies. 

During his time as University President, Wilson actively prevented Black applicants from matriculating, writing, “It is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” He also infamously screened “The Birth of a Nation,” a racist film that the Ku Klux Klan used as a recruiting tool, in the White House. During his time in the Oval Office, Wilson also dismissed 15 of 17 previously appointed Black supervisors.

“Wilson is a different figure from, say, John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, whose fame derives from their defenses of the Confederacy and slavery,” Eisgruber wrote. “Lee was often honored for the very purpose of expressing sympathy for segregation and opposition to racial equality. Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.”

In their own collective statement, the Board of Trustees clarified, however, that Wilson’s name will not be removed from the Woodrow Wilson Award — the highest honor for an undergraduate alumnus or alumni conferred annually on Alumni Day. 

“The Woodrow Wilson Award, unlike either the College or the School, is the result of a gift. When the University accepted the gift, it took on a legal obligation to name the prize for Wilson and honor his “conviction that education is for ‘use’ and … the high aims expressed in his memorable phrase, ‘Princeton in the Nation’s Service,’“ they wrote. “The University will continue to recognize extraordinary public service by conferring the award as currently named.”

This past year’s recipient of the Wilson Award — American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Executive Director Anthony Romero ’87 — said at Alumni Day that the former President would be “spinning in his grave like an Olympic figure skater as an award in his name is bestowed on the executive director of an organization literally established to oppose a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, flagrantly unconstitutional Palmer Raids that he oversaw and engineered.”

The Trustees added that the Wilson Award “explicitly honors specific and positive aspects of Wilson’s career” and “unlike the School or the College, does not require students to identify with the Wilson name in connection with their academic or residential programs.”

The monumental entrance to First College, formerly Wilson College, one of the University’s six residential colleges, on a recent sunny afternoon.
Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

In an email to students of the newly-named residential college, “Head of First College” AnneMarie Luijendijk wrote that for many community members “the association with Wilson’s name has been a constant minder of exclusionary practices.” 

“This renaming has been a long time coming and would not have happened without our students,” Luijendijk noted, citing the Black Justice League’s 2015 protests and other recent displays of student activism against the Wilson name.

Luijendijk emphasized the democratic nature of the college’s founding — founded by a dozen members of the Class of 1959 to provide a place “where individuals … could be accepted.”

“Our college was indeed the first of the residential colleges at Princeton, founded by a group of students expressly to be an inclusive community.  I encourage you to take a look again at the history of the college: students established our community, and drew the template for the Princeton residential college system,” she wrote. “I have always found that part of our history very inspiring. Those values of inclusion and social justice still continue, and will continue to inform our community ideals and practices.”

Earlier this week, two groups of public policy students — comprising over three quarters of graduating undergraduate concentrators, over 60 percent of current concentrators, and more than 450 students and alumni of the master’s and Ph.D programs — sent two letters to University and then-Wilson School administrators. While the first letter, drafted by Class of 2020 graduates, demanded the removal of Wilson’s name from the policy school, both letters emphasized substantive transformation over symbolic gesture.

“Even if you remove the name, that doesn’t mean anti-Black racism is going to go away on campus,” explained Harshita Rallabhandi GS in an interview earlier this week. “There are institutions out there without the names of white supremacists and who continue to be racist, you know?”

These letters also contain calls for the University to formally divest from private prison affiliates and pay reparations for its ties to slavery. The graduate-student-specific letter also called for the University to cut ties with the Princeton Police Department.

They also called for the hiring of more Black faculty, the addition of new courses focused on race and identity, the promotion of anti-racist research on campus, and both a graduate and undergraduate policy school curriculum that teaches about race more effectively.

“Our administration and our faculty are responsible for bringing that into the classroom — being humble and doing the urgent learning they need to do to more urgently teach us what we need to learn,” noted domestic policy student Clarke Wheeler GS. “At the end of the day, in 2020, not including the phrases like ‘institutionalized racism’ — or ‘racism’ in general — in the coursework no matter what the course is — seems inexcusable.” 

In a statement to the ‘Prince’ this morning, the authors of the undergraduate petition wrote on behalf of the “Change WWS” organization that “while we appreciate the University’s swift response, changing the name of the School was one small part of our list of demands, which emphasizes the need for transformative change in the School — to pedagogy, faculty, programming, scholarly recognition, and anti-discrimination procedures.”

“We demand that the School live up to the task of its mission as a school of policy ‘in the service of humanity,’” they continued, “and contribute its resources and research to the work of redressing and repairing Princeton’s history in slavery, the prison-industrial complex, segregation, and displacement. Moreover, these demands are only the first step in cultivating truly anti-racist futures in scholarship, research, and students’ experiences at Princeton.”

Eisgruber’s letter emphasized that while the “steps taken yesterday by the Board of Trustees are extraordinary measures,“ they are not the only steps “our University is taking to combat the realities and legacy of racism.”

“I join the trustees in hoping that they will provide the University, the School of Public and International Affairs, and our entire community with a firm foundation to pursue the mission of teaching, research, and service that has defined our highest aspirations and generated our greatest achievements throughout our history and today.”

On Monday, Eisgruber formally charged every member of the University’s Cabinet — the institution’s senior-most academic and administrative leaders, including School of Public and International Affairs Dean Cecilia Rouse — “to identify specific actions that can be taken in their areas of responsibility.” Cabinet members have until Aug. 21 to prepare reports on how the University can fight racism within their spheres of campus operations.

“As President Eisgruber told the Cabinet, Princeton has a responsibility to stand up against racism and to bring its scholarly and teaching resources to bear to create a more just and equal society,” Chang noted. “The President has signaled that every aspect of the University’s life – from teaching to research to operations to partnerships – can and must address these issues.” 

A number of individuals affiliated with the University and the former Wilson School, including professors and prominent alumni, were quick to announce their excitement online, taking to Twitter just moments after the change was announced, while others — like Senator Ted Cruz ’92 — seemed to express their discontent.










Last updated on June 27 at 10:13 p.m. 

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