Statement on the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College | Office of the President

by Christopher L. Eisgruber

Dear Members of the Princeton Community,

When I wrote to you on Monday morning, I noted that the Princeton University Board of Trustees was discussing how the University could oppose racism and would soon convene a special meeting on that topic.  The meeting took place yesterday.  On my recommendation, the board voted to change the names of both the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College.  As you will see from the board’s statement, 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.

As most of you know, the board previously considered whether to remove Wilson’s name after a group of student activists occupied my office in November 2015.  The Wilson Legacy Review Committee conducted a thorough, deliberative process.  In April 2016, it recommended a number of reforms to make this University more inclusive and more honest about its history.  The committee and the board, however, left Wilson’s name on the School and the College.

The board reconsidered these conclusions this month as the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks drew renewed attention to the long and damaging history of racism in America.  Board Chair Weezie Sams ’79 and I spoke individually to members of the board, and it then met on June 26.

The board continues to respect, as do I, the Wilson Legacy Review Committee’s process and report, including its description of Wilson’s historical record and its “presumption that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation … will remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remain valid.”  The board nevertheless concluded that the presumption should yield in this case because of considerations specific to Wilson’s racist policies and to how his name shapes the identities of the School and the College.

Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.  He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice.  He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.

Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school.  When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school.  This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role.  In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this University and its school of public and international affairs must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice.  The School will now be known as “The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.”

The University had already planned to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening two new residential colleges currently under construction.  Rather than ask students in the College to identify with the name of a racist president for the next two years, the University will accelerate retirement of the name.  The College will instead be known as “First College” in recognition of its status as the first of the residential colleges that now play an essential role in the residential life of all Princeton undergraduates.

These conclusions may seem harsh to some.  Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university.  Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today—including its research excellence and its preceptorial system—were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership.  He went on to the American presidency and received a Nobel Prize.  People will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures.  Part of our responsibility as a University is to preserve Wilson’s record in all of its considerable complexity.

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 (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.

That, however, is ultimately the problem.  Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people.  When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore, or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.

The steps taken yesterday by the Board of Trustees are extraordinary measures.  These are not the only steps our University is taking to combat the realities and legacy of racism, but they are important ones.  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.

With best wishes,

Christopher L. Eisgruber

June 26, 2020

The Princeton University Board of Trustees has today voted to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the University’s School of Public and International Affairs, which will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.  We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms.

Student protests at Princeton in November 2015 called attention to Wilson’s racism, and we responded by forming an ad hoc committee, chaired by Brent Henry ’69, to study Wilson’s legacy at Princeton.  The committee recommended valuable reforms to increase Princeton’s inclusivity and recount the University’s history more completely, but it left the names of the School and College intact.  Student and alumni interest in those names has persisted, and we revisited them this month as the American nation struggled profoundly with the terrible injustice of racism.

If the question before us were how to weigh Wilson’s achievements against his failures, members of the Princeton community might reach varying judgments.  We believe, however, that these times present the University with a different question.  Identifying a political leader as the namesake for a public policy school inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for those who study in the school.  We must therefore ask whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades.  This question has been made more urgent by the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, which have served as tragic reminders of the ongoing need for all of us to stand against racism and for equality and justice.  Our commitment to those values must be clear and unequivocal.  We believe that the continued use of Wilson’s name on a school of public affairs does not reflect those values and thereby impedes the School’s and the University’s capacity to pursue their missions.

We take this action while continuing to recognize and respect Woodrow Wilson’s exceptional achievements.  The board today reaffirms its belief that the April 2016 Report of the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton accurately and persuasively summarizes the strengths and deficiencies of Wilson’s record at Princeton and in the broader world.  As that report documents, during his time on the faculty and as a transformative president, Wilson improved Princeton as much as or more than any other individual in the University’s long history.  Though scholars disagree about how to assess Wilson’s tenure as president of the United States, many rank him among the nation’s greatest leaders and credit him with visionary ideas that shaped the world for the better.

As our nation wrestles with its history in this moment, it is important, especially at institutions committed to seeking the truth, that we recognize the complexity of historical figures and that we examine the entirety of their impact on the world.  Though we conclude today that Wilson’s racism makes him an inappropriate namesake for the University’s School of Public and International Affairs, we recognize that Princeton has a continuing responsibility to remember his achievements even as we honestly and publicly contend with his failures.

            One of Princeton’s residential colleges also currently bears Wilson’s name.  That naming, like the naming of the School of Public and International Affairs, is honorific, not the result of any donor’s gift.  The University has previously indicated that it plans to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening the two new residential colleges now under construction south of Poe Field.  Rather than ask students in the College to identify with the name of a racist president for the next two years, the University will accelerate retirement of the honorific naming.  The College will instead be known as “First College” in recognition of its status as the first of the residential colleges that now play an essential role in the residential life of all Princeton undergraduates.

            The University’s highest honor for an undergraduate alumnus or alumna is conferred annually on Alumni Day and also bears Wilson’s name.  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.’”  The University will continue to recognize extraordinary public service by conferring the award as currently named.  The award explicitly honors specific and positive aspects of Wilson’s career, and it, unlike the School or the College, does not require students to identify with the Wilson name in connection with their academic or residential programs.

Princeton University Board of Trustees

https://president.princeton.edu/blogs/statement-school-public-and-international-affairs-and-wilson-college