Princeton Protesters Demand Removal of Woodrow Wilson’s Name

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Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs is seen in Princeton, New Jersey, on November 20, 2015. The school has pledged to consider renaming buildings dedicated to former President Woodrow Wilson, the latest U.S. campus effort to quell student complaints of racism. Dominick Reuter/REUTERS

Now, it’s a liberal icon under siege.

On Monday, nobody seemed to be thinking much about Woodrow Wilson, who has been dead since 1924. Now it’s Friday, and he’s taking over the Internet.

Protesters from the Black Justice League, an African-American civil rights group at Princeton University, are demanding that the Ivy League college remove Wilson’s name from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Students staged a 32-hour sit-in at the office of the university's president, Christopher Eisgruber, who agreed late Thursday night to consider the name-scrub. Students also want to remove a plaque with Wilson’s name on it from a campus dining hall.

The controversy began trending on social media Friday morning and made national headlines, spurred by a climate of protests over racial discrimination in higher education. Earlier this month, students at another Ivy League school, Yale, clashed with faculty over the issue of ethnically insensitive Halloween costumes. Protesters at the University of Missouri recently forced out the school’s president, angered by his handling of discrimination complaints.

Eisgruber signed a deal stating that he would attempt to put the demands through an administrative process, which ended the sit-in. But as the head of an elite university controlled in large part by trustees, alumni and donors, he may not be able to effect the change alone. The current deal is a stopgap to give the administration time, but if Eisgruber comes down with a decision unfavorable to students, it’s likely that protests will continue.

Students at the sit-in also demanded that the university create a cultural space on campus dedicated to African-Americans (some universities have African-American dorms or cultural centers), as well as mandatory “cultural competency” classes for all faculty and students.

The choice of Woodrow Wilson is a provocative one. A symbol of progressive and liberal politics for decades, he hitherto hasn't been cast in the same category as the slaveholders or profiteers whose names have been targeted for removal at other schools. Wilson was president of Princeton University for 10 years, where, among other things, he took on the campus’s vested interests by curtailing the power of the school’s famed eating clubs. That stand helped propel him to be elected governor of New Jersey as a Democrat in 1910. He became the 28th president of the United States two years later.

Wilson changed international politics by bringing America into World War I and helping establish the League of Nations, which later gave rise to the U.N. His name is heavily associated with the university to this day: To apply to Princeton, high school students have to write a series of personal essays, and one of the essay prompts directly refers to a speech Wilson gave called “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”

Members of the Black Justice League argued to Eisgruber that Wilson was a racist, and that the presence of his name on campus represents an undue emotional burden on minorities, particularly African-Americans. During an exchange in the president’s office that put the Larry Summers scene from The Social Network to shame, students argued that an ideology of racism should negate Wilson’s accomplishments in academia and politics, at least when it comes to honoring his legacy on campus. Students also argued that the school was “built on the backs” of minorities, and that they shouldn’t “owe” any deference to the administration’s opinions or Wilson’s contributions.

Eisgruber acknowledged that Wilson was a racist; given his documented support for segregation, the point seems beyond argument. Born in Georgia during the Confederacy, Wilson was raised and taught largely in Virginia, and continued to show his Jim Crow roots later in life. 

Protests are occurring all over the country, but the issue of naming and memorialization as a form of discrimination has mostly cropped up at private schools. Georgetown University recently rededicated two campus buildings that were originally named for school presidents who sold slaves (of course, Georgetown refers to George Washington, who was himself a slave owner).

At Amherst College, a small liberal-arts school in Massachusetts, students have spoken out against the legacy of Jeff Amherst, who was involved in the French and Indian War and is thought to have given smallpox blankets to Native Americans.

Campus protesting is nothing less than a powder keg in the media world. Pundits like Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have chided what they see as political correctness. But other writers have sided with protesters and civil rights groups, who consider such arguments tone-deaf at best.

The salient question seems to be whether the hurt feelings caused by certain language—the name of a building, for example—are material concerns serious enough to warrant institutional change. Some argue that the universities themselves reinforce privilege, regardless of the names on buildings. (For most of its history, the Ivy League hasn’t exactly stood for inclusivity.)

The late Amherst graduate David Foster Wallace, no slouch in the privileged-white-guy department, summarized the terms of the debate well (though it’s clear what side he was on) without using the "free speech" argument:

“Mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language's political symbolism...enables the...conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness...that a society's mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes.”