The Princeton University Board of Trustees has agreed to drop President Woodrow Wilson’s name from its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and from the residential Wilson College.
The trustees voted to remove Wilson’s name at its June 26 meeting, on the recommendation of Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber.
The trustees cited Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies (that) make him an inappropriate namesake whose scholars, students and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its forms.”
The former Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs will be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. It had been named in Wilson’s honor in 1948.
The former Wilson College will be known as First College. Plans were already in the works to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening two new residential colleges that are under construction near Poe Field.
The Woodrow Wilson Award will continue to be awarded – with its name unchanged – to an alumnus or alumna on Alumni Day to recognize the recipient’s extraordinary public service. When Princeton University accepted the award from an anonymous donor in 1956, it took on a legal obligation to name the prize for Wilson, officials said.
Previous winners of the Woodrow Wilson Award include political activist Ralph Nader, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotormayor, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, former New Jersey U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and U.S. Army Lt. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Wilson, who graduated in 1879 from The College of New Jersey – Princeton University’s historic name – grew up in Georgia and South Carolina. He joined the Princeton University faculty in 1890, where he taught politics and jurisprudence.
Wilson served as the president of Princeton University from 1902-10. He served two years as the governor of New Jersey before being elected president of the United States, serving from 1914-21.
During his time in office, Wilson initiated the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission, which addressed price fixing. He also supported giving women the right to vote, which was established in the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was ratified in 1920.
Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts to establish the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I. It was formed in 1920 and subsequently dissolved. The United Nations was the successor to the League of Nations, created after World War II.
But it was Princeton University’s Black Justice League that initiated the movement to drop Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs. It began with student protests in November 2015, aimed at dismantling “the legacy of white supremacy and anti-Blackness on campus,” according to an online petition filed by the student-led group.
The student protesters occupied the Nassau Hall office of Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber for 32 hours on Nov. 18-19, 2015. They refused to leave until they reached an agreement with him and university officials.
As a result, the Princeton University Board of Trustees created an ad hoc committee to study Wilson’s legacy at Princeton University. In its April 2016 report, the committee recommended reforms to increase the university’s inclusiveness and to recount its history more completely – but it left the names of the school and residential college intact.
But last month, the trustees reconsidered its earlier conclusions in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, Eisgruber said. The killings of those Blacks drew “renewed attention to the long and damaging history of racism in America,” he said.
Eisgruber said that he and the trustees respected the Wilson Legacy Review Committee’s process and report, “including its presumption that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation would remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remained 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 (residential) college,” Eisgruber said.
Wilson actively discouraged Blacks from applying to Princeton University, which admitted its first Blacks to the undergraduate program in the 1940s.
“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,” Eisgruber said. Wilson’s action “added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today,” he said.
Two members of Wilson’s Cabinet, both Southerners, advocated for racially segregating their departments soon after he took office. Wilson did not object, although the expansion of the practice was stopped by the end of 1913 after he was presented with a petition signed by 20,000 opponents of segregation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor website.
“When a university names a school of public policy for a 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,” Eisgruber said.
Princeton University honored Wilson “not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of his racism,” Eisgruber said.
But that is ultimately the problem, he said. Princeton is part of an America that has disregarded, ignored or excused racism and which has allowed the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people, he said.
“The steps taken June 26 by the Board of Trustees are extraordinary measures. These are not the only steps that our university is taking to combat the realities and legacy of racism, but they are important ones,” Eisgruber said. “I join the trustees in hoping that they will provide Princeton 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.”