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Name of Woodrow Wilson Honorary Debate Panel faces contention

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

The Woodrow Wilson Honorary Debate Panel (WWHDP) has been the subject of contention and student activism of late, as the American Whig-Cliosophic Society (Whig-Clio) subsidiary reckons with the legacy of its namesake.

Once a staple on campus, the name of former University President Woodrow Wilson Class of 1879 has been removed from a number of high-profile institutions — including the now-renamed First College and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

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University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 explained the change in June 2020, writing, “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.”

Wilson served as President of the United States after his tenure at the University. During this time, he resegregated parts of the federal government, verbally supported the Ku Klux Klan, and refused to admit Black students to the University.

Despite the other renamings, the WWHDP retains the former president’s name — at least for now.

According to the American Whig-Cliosophic Society website, the WWHDP “sponsors and promotes prize debates,” hosting competitions in which various members of the community are invited to compete in a range of speaking events. As a consequence of various bequests, the events boast prizes worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, WWHDP President Courtney Cappelli ’22, citing the same issues as Eisgruber, indicated the presence of a movement to remove Wilson’s name from the group’s official title.

“As all the issues were occurring last year, with Black Lives Matter, and even before then, I think there were many voices on campus who wanted to get Woodrow Wilson’s name off of anything possible,” she said.

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“And so I sent an email to the trustees and to Kauribel [Javier ’19], who was the Whig-Clio coordinator, and was told that it’s being worked on,” Cappelli continued. “Since then it’s been about a year and a half and we’re still not seeing any progress, and I’d really like to see the name changed.”

Javier, former Whig-Clio Program Coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, did not respond to several requests for comment from the ‘Prince’. 

President of Whig-Clio Julia Chaffers ’22 agreed with Cappelli’s sentiment.

“[Wilson’s] policies … were defined, in many ways, by racism, and not just in the context of his time … we want to be an inclusive and diverse and welcoming society where people can have political discourse in constructive and productive ways,” she said. “I just think what he stood for and what he did and what he said throughout his life goes against all of the things that make up the mission of Whig-Clio.”

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Chaffers is a Senior Columnist for the Opinion section of the ‘Prince’.

Chaffers additionally noted that her predecessors had already informally started referring to the organization without Wilson’s name, rendering it “The Honorary Debate Panel.”

Clyde “Skip” Rankin ’72, Chairperson of the Whig-Clio Board of Trustees, indicated that, while the Board is receptive to the wishes of students, especially Whig-Clio leadership, legal constraints surrounding endowments and the wishes of donors might complicate potential changes.

Regarding the name of the panel, Rankin indicated that he “can go either way.”

Rankin further explained the considerations necessary in renaming the panel. The Board must ensure that the act of renaming would not violate the terms under which individuals gave money to the panel or the panel’s founding charter.

“If the students wish to change [the name], I would not object,” the attorney and former Whig-Clio president said, “but I just want to make sure we’re not interfering with any particular donor intent, and how the history of this was set up.”

“We’re looking into the history of the naming,” he continued, “because the trustees will look into the matter about renaming it but we also want to be very careful we’re not violating any of the establishment documents.”

The University has encountered this variety of complication before. Despite the school’s pivot away from Wilson in June 2020, legal and monetary complications required that he continue to serve as the namesake of the Woodrow Wilson Award, the highest honor for an undergraduate alum. 

“The Woodrow Wilson Award, unlike either the College or the School, is the result of a gift,” the University Board of Trustees wrote in a statement last year. “When the University accepted the gift, it took on a legal obligation to name the prize for Wilson … The University will continue to recognize extraordinary public service by conferring the award as currently named.”

Rankin attributes the delays surrounding renaming to inaccessible records in the University library system, specifically those at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, the primary archival source on campus. Mudd Library, which reopened two weeks ago, had been undergoing renovation for a few years.

“What we’re waiting to get, frankly, is the records, which are in Mudd Library,” he said. “I just inquired about that two weeks ago, for a variety of things, but apparently access is still restricted.”

Large collections of the documents in Mudd Library are also available through online databases maintained by the University, including some about the WWHDP. It is unclear which specific papers Rankin and the Board require to proceed.

Regardless of its cause, Wilson’s continued presence as the panel’s namesake has not gone unnoticed, causing some students to avoid WWHDP competitions.

“He had a strong belief about not allowing African Americans into the [University],” said Khari Franklin ’24, a member of the Whig-Clio subsidiary Princeton Mock Trial.

“I would not want to participate in, feel welcome in, feel accepted by a space, a club, an activity, where there was an endorsement of Woodrow Wilson, a seeming continuation of his legacy,” he noted.

When asked if he would ever consider participating in the WWHDP, Franklin took a clear stance.

“With the name Woodrow Wilson? No,” he said.

Rankin indicated he does not perceive Wilson’s name as a continuation of the former President’s legacy, further noting that concerns like Franklin’s are important to the Whig-Clio Board.

“I certainly would hope they don’t think the name is ... endorsing certain issues associated with Mr. Wilson,” he stated. “So if that’s troubling people, that would certainly be something we would take into account at the Board level.”

Chaffers indicated that she has been reexamining the historical individuals who retain prominence in Whig-Clio, especially in the context of the University’s decision to remove Wilson’s name from other campus institutions.

Earlier in her tenure as president of Whig-Clio, Chaffers encountered a debate regarding whether the organization should rescind an award from Senator Ted Cruz ’92 (R-Texas) following his involvement in the Capitol Riots on Jan. 6, 2021. Although the Whig-Clio Board of Trustees ultimately decided to allow Cruz to retain his James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service, images of the senator were removed from the group’s website.

“[We’re] reevaluating who we want to emphasize and who we want to elevate as the faces of the society,” she said. “I think naming is really important, symbols are really important for communicating the values of an organization and so, for us, sort of stepping away from Wilson for numerous reasons, but most recently because the University is stepping away from Wilson, makes the most sense.”

Despite the University’s decision to remove Wilson’s name from several prominent bodies, Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss noted that matters relating to the WWHDP fall squarely in the domain of Whig-Clio.

“Student organizations serve and are led by students,” Hotchkiss wrote in an email to the ‘Prince,’ “and each organization is responsible for its governance and decision-making.”

All the same, Rankin indicated that he spoke with Eisgruber about the WWHDP.

“The president of the University did reach out to me … and he said that, really, it was independent of the trustees’ decision about the Wilson School and College, and that the trustees’ decision was not that Wilson’s name had to be cancelled in any context where it might be used.”

Should Wilson’s name be removed from the debate panel, conversations remain about who or what may replace him. Some favor cutting any namesake to create “The Honorary Debate Panel” while others would prefer to rename the institution after another prominent alum.

Sam Kagan is a senior writer with experience reporting on university finances, alumni in government, university COVID-19 policy, and more. He previously served as a news editor and now leads the surveys section. You can reach Sam at skagan@princeton.edu or on Twitter @thesamkagan.

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