The decision to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College was a milestone in the larger campus conversation about anti-racism and academic freedom that spanned the summer months, inspired by the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests for social justice. Petitions and letters from faculty, students, and alumni staked out positions on a range of issues — and in one case sparked condemnation from President Eisgruber ’83.
On June 22, Eisgruber issued a public call for members of his cabinet to “identify specific actions that can be taken in their areas of responsibility to confront racism,” setting an Aug. 21 deadline. Recent Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) graduates and current undergraduate and graduate students were among the first to publicly respond, releasing a pair of petitions that called for removing Wilson’s name from the school and included demands for curricular changes, greater hiring of diverse faculty, reparations for early Princeton leaders’ roles in slavery, and divestment from private prisons.
Others, however, felt some demands would lead to limitations on speech and research. As a result, students from the Princeton Open Campus Coalition and alumni writing in support of the group pushed back against the SPIA petitioners, arguing for a “robust protection of free thought, speech, and academic pursuit.”
The following week, a letter signed by more than 300 faculty and staff outlined a more detailed anti-racism agenda, urging the University to “take immediate concrete and material steps” to acknowledge racism in all forms and work against it. Proposed changes included anti-racism and anti-bias training for faculty and administrators; the creation of a scholarly center devoted to anti-racism; reconsidering the use of standardized tests in admission; and addressing Princeton’s history with slavery as part of orientation for first-year students.
The letter also critiqued a lack of “significant demographic change” on the Princeton faculty, noting that only 4 percent of full professors are Black. It proposed rewards for departments that support faculty of color and consequences for departments that do not demonstrate progress in diversity.
One demand — for the creation of “a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication” — drew criticism on social media as a potential threat to academic freedom. Jenny E. Greene, a professor of astrophysical sciences and one of the letter’s co-authors, told PAW “more discussion is needed” on that point but that the proposal was sparked by experiences on campus. “We heard a lot about students encountering racism in classes and faculty encountering racism from colleagues, and I think that should be confronted,” she said.
That faculty letter inspired a sharp reply from classics professor Joshua Katz in an essay posted July 8 on Quillette.com. Katz, who is the faculty representative to PAW’s board, wrote that while the letter offers “plenty” of ideas he supports, “there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.”
Reaction came swiftly, much of it focused on one comment: Katz’s description of the Black Justice League (BJL), a student group, as a “small local terrorist organization.” The BJL had started the debate over Wilson when it staged a 33-hour sit-in in Eisgruber’s office in 2015. Katz’s characterization drew national press coverage, a rebuke from Eisgruber, and ultimately the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that supports civil liberties on college campuses.
Though Princeton’s chief spokesman told The Daily Princetonian that the administration “will be looking into the matter [Katz’s comment] further,” Eisgruber later clarified that Katz was not under investigation and expanded on his comments in a Prince column, writing: “... we are in an era when many people mistakenly treat free speech and inclusivity as competing values. Universities must nevertheless remain steadfastly devoted to both free speech and inclusivity. We need the benefit of multiple voices and perspectives, and we need real engagement among them.”
Six senior University officials, including the vice president for campus life and the deans of the faculty, college, and graduate school, issued a joint statement on speech and inclusivity July 28, writing that they would “continue to uphold both of these principles that are so vital to Princeton’s mission.”
But debates over speech and language continued: In late July, creative writing lecturer Michael Dickman was criticized for his poem in the July/August issue of Poetry magazine in which the narrator recalls his grandmother’s use of racist language. Poetry apologized and removed the poem from its website; the magazine’s editor resigned.