During the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) meeting on Nov. 14, Nakia White Barr, the assistant vice president in the Office of the President and the secretary of the CPUC Committee on Naming, announced that the Committee is considering a proposal to remove or replace the statue of John Witherspoon.
“Over the next few weeks, the naming committee will be holding listening sessions for faculty, students, staff, and alumni to share their views on the issue,” Barr said.
This announcement comes after a petition for the removal of the Witherspoon statue circulated in the inboxes of students and faculty this summer and was discussed with University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 earlier this fall, who referred the group to the CPUC Committee on Naming, according to the three graduate students who started the petition.
The petition, which garnered almost 300 signatures by the time of publication, recommended that the statue be removed and that the current text surrounding it be replaced with a plaque with a description of Witherspoon’s legacy, in line with the language on the Princeton & Slavery project website.
“John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president and founding father of the United States, had a complex relationship to slavery,” the website reads. “Though he advocated revolutionary ideals of liberty and personally tutored several free Africans and African Americans in Princeton, he himself owned slaves and both lectured and voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey.”
The website goes on to explain in more detail the complicated history surrounding Witherspoon and his views on slavery.
The petition that called for replacing or removing the statue was started by Waner Zhang, Kathryn Rech, Brendan Kolb, and Giulia Weissmann, all of whom are graduate students in the Department of Philosophy, along with Boris Kment, a professor in the department. Zhang, Rech, and Kolb published the petition back in July.
Zhang, Rech, and Kolb wrote a joint statement to The Daily Princetonian and explained their process of starting the petition, communications with Eisgruber and members of the Committee on Naming, and the outcome they hope will come as a result of their efforts.
“[Eisgruber] indicated to us that, in all questions of removing iconography, the Board of Trustees follows the advice of the CPUC Committee on Naming,” they wrote. The group delivered the petition to the Committee, and also elaborated on some of the petition’s points in the feedback form provided to them by the Committee.
In the CPUC meeting, Barr stated that the concern with the statue, which was installed in 2001 in Firestone Plaza, “is with regard to the aesthetic considerations and the placement of the statue.”
“The Committee will evaluate this question with consideration of established principles to govern renaming and changes to campus iconography which provide among other things that the process should be open to community input,” she added.
Zhang, Rech, and Kolb said they started the petition after hearing concerns from individuals in the Department of Philosophy and in the wake of an opinion column published in the ‘Prince’ last fall. Before the petition was circulated, they said that an unofficial committee had started in their department around the start of the calendar year to address the statue.
“The basic line of reasoning we hit on as a committee was, we think the statue should be removed, because we believe it has an adverse impact on a major public University space by glorifying Witherspoon and holding him up as a model of humanity,” they wrote.
“Because Witherspoon was a slave owner and an opponent of abolition, we believe this elevation of Witherspoon is more than inappropriate, and can create a sense of dissonance with the University’s claim to be ‘in the service of humanity,’” they added.
The group argued for an informational plaque to be put in place of the statue as a way for the University to “remember Witherspoon without exalting him in the way that the statue does.”
If the statue is not removed, the group wrote that an informational plaque recognizing the nuanced aspects of Witherspoon’s legacy, “in contrast to the purely positive plaques currently in place,” would be an improvement. But they argue that “the statue itself is grand enough that it will continue to exalt Witherspoon even if written criticism is present nearby.”
“We think adding a plaque does not remove the problem with the statue,” they wrote. “[The] University can take this as an opportunity to create a more friendly and more inclusive environment for students and community members of color."
The CPUC Committee on Naming was originally developed as an ad-hoc committee in 2016 to increase University community involvement in naming buildings to recognize individuals who would bring a diverse presence to the campus. The Committee has remained a part of CPUC as naming concerns have persisted in the campus community.
According to Barr, invitations to faculty, students, staff, and alumni for listening sessions related to the proposed statue removal will be going out soon. The Committee on Naming’s website includes a feedback form through which members of the University community can share their thoughts and recommendations.
“The Committee welcomes your engagement on this important process and looks forward to hearing a range of perspectives,” Barr said.
“We hope that [the University community] agree[s] with the petition, and pass[es] on a recommendation to the Board of Trustees that the statue should be removed,” Zhang, Rech, and Kolb added in their joint statement.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Zhang, Rech, and Kolb were the only three people who generated the petition for the removal of the Witherspoon Statue. In fact, while they were the only three to publish the petition, Weissmann and Kment also helped generate it. The 'Prince' regrets this error.
Lia Opperman is an assistant news editor for the ‘Prince’ who often covers University affairs, political coverage, and student life. Please direct any corrections requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.