Wilson report 2016
In 2015, Princeton's Board of Trustees undertook an examination of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson in response to concerns expressed about Wilson's legacy in light of his views of race. An excerpt from that report follows.
Wilson was an undergraduate in the Princeton Class of 1879 and a faculty member for twelve years before becoming the University’s 13th president in 1902. His impact on Princeton as president was profound and enduring, as he transformed an intellectually lethargic campus into a renowned institution of higher learning. Many leading colleges and universities of his time adopted his reforms, and many of them flourish to this day: he raised academic standards and established a modern administrative and departmental structure; he revised the undergraduate curriculum around a concept of distribution requirements followed by departmental specialization, while also introducing independent work for seniors; in an effort to stimulate original thought over rote learning he introduced the preceptorial system, for which he garnered trustee approval to hire 50 dynamic young teachers and scholars as preceptors, at a time when the entire faculty numbered just over 100; he promoted the library and art museum as teaching instruments, and he hired the first Jewish and the first Catholic faculty members; and he sought unsuccessfully to replace the socially exclusive eating clubs with a system of residential quadrangles that would have incorporated many of the features of today’s residential colleges.
Despite some efforts to make Princeton more inclusive and diverse, Wilson indisputably opposed the idea of admitting black students to the Princeton of his time. He noted on one occasion that “the whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no negro has ever applied for admission.” When a black student in 1909 did inquire about attending, he replied “that it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”
As U.S. President, Wilson created the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission; instituted tariff reform and the modern income tax; enacted the first federal laws to establish the eight-hour workday and restrict child labor; appointed the first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, to the Supreme Court; and fought for and won passage of the nineteenth amendment, which granted suffrage to women. He reshaped governmental processes and recalibrated relationships between the President and the Congress in ways that continue to this day. He led the nation during World War I and sought through his proposed League of Nations to set in motion what was described as “the one great idea of the [twentieth] century in the field of international relations, the idea of an international organization with permanent processes for the peaceful settlement of international disputes.” In 1919 he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
At the same time he presided over an expanded and formalized segregation in the federal workplace that went well beyond what it had been when he entered office, especially in the two departments with significant numbers of black employees (the Treasury and the Post Office), an action that one historian said “devastated not only careers but also the very foundation of full citizenship for African Americans.” Some historians fault him for his curtailment of civil liberties during World War I, for sending troops to a number of Caribbean and Latin American countries, and for bringing his racial views to issues of foreign policy.