Posters featuring racist statements made by former President Woodrow Wilson — arguably Princeton’s most celebrated alumnus — currently litter the school’s campus.
Similar to the naming debate centered on Calhoun College at Yale, students at Princeton are beginning to question the legacy of Wilson — for whom the university’s school of diplomacy, a residential college and campus café are named. Students argue that Wilson was one of the most racist presidents in American history, yet, in response to complaints, Princeton administrators have yet to engage in a formal discussion about Wilson’s controversial past. On Monday, members of the Black Justice League, a group of Princeton students focused on promoting justice and equality at the university, hung up posters displaying a few of Wilson’s more racially charged quotes — an effort to start a discussion not only about his racist legacy, but about exclusion at Princeton.
The same day, Wilglory Tanjong, a Princeton sophomore and member of the Black Justice League, published an op-ed in the Daily Princetonian describing Wilson’s racist tendencies and a Princeton administration reluctant to address this side of his legacy. Tanjong told the News that Princeton has yet to engage its community in a broader conversation about Wilson’s racism, adding that university officials should look to Yale for guidance on how to proceed.
“I definitely do wish that Princeton would be more responsive to the situation — our university can definitely learn from administrators at Yale,” she said.
The debate over the name of Calhoun College was sparked by the June massacre of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. The debate has attracted national attention and engaged multiple members of the Yale faculty and administration, among them University President Peter Salovey, who encouraged “thoughtful and public discussion” of the issue. Over 1,500 students have signed a petition calling for the college to be renamed.
Tanjong said the case of Wilson is in many ways grander than the Calhoun issue, because the name Wilson is inescapable on Princeton’s campus. While one residential college at Yale is named after John C. Calhoun — one of America’s most ardent defenders of slavery — Tanjong said Wilson’s name is omnipresent on campus as his namesake appears on several prominent buildings.
Tanjong added that it is important for places of higher education to question the legacies of honored alumni rather than treat them as infallible. But unlike in conversations taking place at Yale, Tanjong said, students are not necessarily set on erasing Wilson’s name from campus. Some simply wish to work with the university to determine how best to come to terms with Wilson’s past, Tanjong said.
Princeton history professor Rebecca Rix said it would be more effective for the university to have an open conversation about student concerns, both broad and specific to Wilson, rather than simply renaming the institutions in question.
“Sometimes a controversy is less about the thing at issue itself than about how competing narratives of memory and belonging tie into contemporary identities,” she said. “Just changing a name won’t change those narratives, but honest and substantive conversations might.”
Rix added that recognizing the darker sides of previously celebrated alumni, such as Calhoun and Wilson, could lead to anger and polarization amongst students. If the goal of these discussions is to increase feelings of belonging on campus, potentially negative reactions might have the opposite impact, she said.
Three Princeton students interviewed said that buildings and institutions honoring Wilson at Princeton should be renamed. However, zero of 12 Yale students advocated ridding Princeton’s campus of Wilson’s name. Still, students from both campuses largely agreed that Princeton administrators should spearhead a discussion addressing student concerns.
Yale history professor Jay Gitlin said it is unfair to judge historical figures based on present day standards.
“People were as imperfect in the past as they still are today — this is a very problematic, slippery slope,” Gitlin said. “Perhaps we should start naming things ‘building number two.’”
A Princeton student who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons said it is fair to compare the cases of Calhoun and Wilson, as both possessed racist tendencies. The student added that Princeton should take steps to recognize Wilson’s racist legacy, because failing to do so would more or less equate to rewriting history.
However, the student said she would be very hesitant to support the renaming of certain buildings, as Wilson did make many positive contributions to the United States-—such as leading the nation through World War I and is said to have played a large role in modernizing Princeton. The student that renaming would set a dangerous precedent.
“If we are to rename things like the school of public policy on such arguments, we will find ourselves renaming every institution in the world that was named after a historical figure,” the student said.
Gabe Ozuna ’15 said it is unfair to let one negative aspect of a person’s career overshadow a lifetime of admirable work, saying it is ridiculous to hold historical figures accountable to the moral standards of today.
Though Dylan Wrobel ’18 said he does not support the renaming of buildings and institutions honoring Wilson, he noted that Princeton has a responsibility to start a conversation similar to Yale’s.
“If a school has buildings named after people who were racist and doesn’t make an effort to teach about the bad things they did, then that school is doing a disservice to its students,” Wrobel said. “Princeton faculty and administrators as a whole should make sure they’re teaching the whole picture when talking about figures of the past.”
Woodrow Wilson was president from 1913 to 1921.