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13. Wilson, T. Woodrow, Class of 1879

Wilson, T. Woodrow, Class of 1879

Curators' Note

Princeton's assessment of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson has changed greatly since historian Arthur Link penned his biographic summary in Leitch's A Princeton Companion (1978). The curators of this museum have substituted a more recent text which is less hagiographic but still missing recent scholarship concerning Wilson, Princeton, and racism. We had previously referenced the 2016 re-evaluation of Wilson's legacy by the Trustees, which may be found here. We include below, prior to Wilson's bio, the statement, issued on June 27, 2020 by Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, reflecting further changes to the University's treatment of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson.

President's Statement

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.

Wilson, T. Woodrow, Class of 1879

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Oil on canvas by Stanley Grant Middleton, American, 1852–1942 Source: Princeton University Art Museum

Woodrow Wilson entered Princeton as a member of the Class of 1879. “Tommy,” as his classmates called him, was an eager student and an acknowledged leader. Not satisfied with the courses offered by the College, he supplemented the formal curriculum with an ambitious program of independent reading. Still feeling less than fully occupied, he became managing editor of the Daily Princetonian and organized a student club for discussion of public affairs. His classmates elected him speaker of the American Whig Society, one of two principal campus groups. Pursuing athletic interests, he became secretary of the Football Association and president of the Baseball Association.

After graduation, he went to law school at the University of Virginia and practiced in Atlanta. Disillusioned by the tedium and materialism of legal damage suits, he enrolled in Johns Hopkins for graduate work in political science and history. His doctoral dissertation, “Congressional Government,” led to teaching positions at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and finally Princeton.

As professor of jurisprudence, Wilson built up a strong prelaw curriculum. He was soon voted most popular teacher and became friend and counselor to countless students who were attracted by his warmth and high-mindedness. During the sesquicentennial celebration of 1896, he delivered the keynote address: “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”

When the trustees elected him president, Wilson proposed a $12.5 million program to transform Princeton into a full-scale university.

At the time this was a staggering sum, almost 25 times greater than the annual budget, but the trustees approved it immediately.

He began by creating an administrative structure — departments of instruction with heads that reported directly to him. In place of the aimless elective system, he substituted a unified curriculum of general studies during the freshman and sophomore years, capped by concentrated study in one discipline (the academic “major”) during the junior and senior years. He also added an honors program for able and ambitious students. Wilson tightened academic standards so severely that enrollment declined sharply until 1907.

Supported by the first all-out alumni fundraising campaign in Princeton’s history, he doubled the faculty overnight through the appointment of almost 50 young assistant professors, called “preceptors,” charged with guiding students through assigned reading and small group discussion. With a remarkable eye for quality, he assembled a youthful faculty with unusual talent and zest for teaching.

In strengthening the science program, Wilson called for basic, unfettered, “pure” research. In the field of religion, he made biblical instruction a scholarly subject. He broke the hold of conservative Presbyterians over the board of trustees, and appointed the first Jew and the first Roman Catholic to the faculty.

Before the end of his term, he authorized fellow members of the Class of 1879 to cast two heroic bronze tigers for the front steps of Nassau Hall. (Tigers appeared as mascots during McCosh’s tenure.) After modernizing the administration, the curriculum, and teaching methods, Wilson proposed the creation of quadrangles, or “colleges,” in which undergraduates of all four classes would live with their own recreational facilities and resident faculty masters. Membership would be by assignment or lot.

Twenty-five years after his death, the trustees named the School of Public and International Affairs for him. Sixty years after the defeat of his “quad plan,” they carved out an area of the campus — six dormitories and a dining and social center — as a distinct residential complex known as Woodrow Wilson College. The trustees also created the Woodrow Wilson Award — the highest honor the University bestows upon an alumnus in recognition of his or her distinguished public service.

Source: Princeton University