The Princeton University Board of Trustees has decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of public and international affairs and a residential college because of Wilson’s racist views.
The trustees met on Friday to discuss how the school could oppose racism. The trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college. The move is a shift from the board’s 2015 decision not to remove Wilson’s name after student activists occupied the university president’s office demanding name changes. A committee recommended various reforms to make Princeton University more inclusive and more honest about its history in 2016, but the committee and board left Wilson’s name on the school and the college at the time.
“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,” Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber said in a written statement on Saturday.
The decision comes less than a week after a student-led coalition sent a letter to university officials demanding that Wilson’s name be stripped from buildings, among other measures. The coalition also started circulating a petition this month that has been signed by hundreds of people calling on the university to remove Wilson’s name.
Monmouth University officials decided a week ago to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name from a building to take a stance on racism, and students called on Princeton officials to follow suit.
In his written statement, Eisgruber acknowledged Wilson’s racism and its impact on American society.
“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,” Eisgruber said in his statement. “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. Eisbruger said the university will accelerate the 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.
“These conclusions may seem harsh to some,” Eisgruber said in his statement. “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.”
Eisgruber said 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,” Eisgruber said. “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.”