Some of our weakness is born in us, some of it comes through education;
it is a big question as to which gives us the most trouble.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
One ought to reserve an hour a week for receiving letters and afterwards take a bath.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
An Open Letter to the Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Committee:
As you have generously requested observations and opinions from the Princeton community, I write to offer my views on Woodrow Wilson’s place in today’s Princeton; and I write as well for publication in the “Rally ’Round the Cannon” space so kindly provided me by the editors of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, to encourage other alumni to do the same. These are not questions solely of objective criteria, and there can be no corner on the wisdom required to address them, so a wide range of ideas is imperative.
Before addressing Wilson’s weaknesses, perhaps I’d best note my own. While I’ve written on Princeton’s history in relation to the African American community, from the inspiring efforts of alumni such as Isaac Norton Rendell 1852 and John Doar ’44; to the shaming example of Paul Robeson, who grew up within sight of FitzRandolph Gate and attended segregated grammar schools in Princeton, but of course in 1915 was offered no chance of attending the University; to the complex efforts of Bob Goheen ’40 *48, Doug Brown 1919, and Carl Fields to create a vibrant black community at Princeton in the 1960s; still there is one thing I’ve never done. I’ve never written, “Woodrow Wilson was a racist” (in today’s sense). Not because he wasn’t, but because it was so thoroughly and publicly documented, I assumed everyone knew. The recent reaction of many students and alumni since this question has arisen again shows that to have been naïve to the point of idiocy. I apologize on my part for the major oversight, and look forward to the views of scholars and biographers to be posted on your site.
And so, to the business at hand. What makes the naming of a school and college at Princeton in honor of Woodrow Wilson problematic is that he is not just some random alumnus who donated a few million dollars or became president of the United States, but is instead someone who is intellectually and operationally at the heart of the University to this day.
Woodrow Wilson Lodge in 1956 was so named by the students who formed it as an alternative to bicker because Wilson as University president 50 years earlier had championed the idea of residential colleges to challenge Prospect Street’s social hegemony. As it evolved into the Wilson Society and then in 1968 into Wilson College – the University’s first – that rationale remained, and remains relevant today. Nonetheless, it is one association with Wilson that is imposed on individuals, by random assignment as freshmen, and so the college’s members, present and former, should certainly have a major say in its future. Current head of the college Eduardo Cadava’s efforts to facilitate these discussions are very promising, and must be encouraged by all as a teachable moment – for everyone. If the college were, in the end, renamed for someone such as the great teacher Julian Jaynes, its first head, based on the wishes of its constituency, it would be arguable, but hardly objectionable.
The Woodrow Wilson School is a tougher case, especially when considered as one of the highest-profile public faces of the University. Wilson’s influence in the national and global arenas includes both his most egregious public act – the resegregation of the federal government – and major advances that ring through history – for instance, the appointment of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, its first Jewish justice; the creation of a Federal Reserve System that would, a century hence, rescue the United States from a second Great Depression; the elucidation of the Fourteen Points that have stood firmly as both a goal for and a stern upbraiding of world leaders as empires, oligarchs, and decades have passed. Additionally, his fundamental reconstruction of Princeton’s faculty in eight short years created from scratch the academic atmosphere in which such a school could even be imagined. The very idea of the school of public affairs was conceived by his supporters at Princeton as the most fitting tribute to Wilson; renaming it would be a criticism of their judgment as well. Still, would the George Kennan ’25 School of Public and International Affairs be a comedown? Not necessarily. The faculty and alumni of the school certainly have among them the expertise and breadth of vision to be heard on the question, and deep attention paid.
Oddly, the renaming question that most concerns me is the Woodrow Wilson Award , the annual recognition of an outstanding undergraduate alumna/us. For 60 years, it has stood explicitly as a tribute not to Wilson, but to his visionary ideas, embodied in his 1896 address: “ Princeton in the Nation’s Service .” Since I’ve found it dangerous to assume familiarity with history, please allow me to quote (the emphasis is mine):
Our life grows tense and difficult; our resource for the future lies in careful thought, providence, and a wise economy; and the school must be of the nation. I have had sight of the perfect place of learning in my thought: a free place, and a various, where no man could be and not know with how great a destiny knowledge had come into the world — itself a little world; but not perplexed, living with a singleness of aim not known without: the home of sagacious men, hard-headed and with a will to know, debaters of the world's questions every day and used to the rough ways of democracy; and yet a place removed — calm Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun, not knowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer; and Literature, walking within her open doors in quiet chambers with men of olden time, storied walls about her, and calm voices infinitely sweet; here “magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn,” to which you may withdraw and use your youth for pleasure; there windows open straight upon the street, where many stand and talk intent upon the world of men and business. A place where ideals are kept in heart in an air they can breathe; but no fool’s paradise. A place where to hear the truth about the past and hold debate about the affairs of the present, with knowledge and without passion; like the world in having all men’s life at heart, a place for men and all that concerns them; but unlike the world in its self-possession, its thorough way of talk, its care to know more than the moment brings to light; slow to take excitement, its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith: every eye within it bright in the clear day and quick to look toward heaven for the confirmation of its hope. Who shall show us the way to this place?
The Wilson award recipients represent the answer to this question. Their feelings on the naming issue are extremely relevant. Would the Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48 Service Award be as meaningful? Possibly, although a bit different.
So, that’s what I think: Each existing tribute has substantive arguments in favor. As with almost any human symbol of whom I’ve ever heard, there are in Wilson’s case arguments against, which should not be belittled. I favor keeping each name, but those immediately involved in each activity should step up and be heard with respect.
But, to be honest, that was not my first reaction when I heard of the Wilson renaming controversy in November. What I thought was “That’s a good (if troubling) question, and I know who should decide it: Brent Henry.”
Brent Henry ’69, whom I’ve been lucky to know for 50 years or so, is profoundly unique in this arena. A sit-in demonstrator himself at New South with the Association of Black Collegians in March 1969, two months later he was elected one of Princeton’s first young alumni trustees and its first African American trustee. This indication of widespread alumni respect has continued over decades, through many volunteer positions including chair of the Alumni Council and co-chair of Connect. He has returned to the trustees twice since his first term, and currently serves as vice chair. There are dozens – literally – of active Princeton alumni I know and deeply respect whose regard in turn for Henry is almost unbounded. I’d let him cast my vote on Woodrow Wilson any time.
And then, members of the committee, he was named your chair. The group itself is hugely impressive and suited to the task: Here a Ruth Simmons, who oversaw the airing of similarly charged historical issues – slave trading, for one – as president of Brown; there an A. Scott Berg ’71, biographer of Wilson whose understanding (along with others such as W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 and John Milton Cooper Jr. ’61) will be crucially insightful; here an Angela Groves ’12, another young alumni trustee, who can impart the nuances of the recent student experience; there a Denny Chin ’75, wise judge by profession, and recipient of the Wilson Award himself.
In the spirit of your open invitation for comments I know, of course, that you’ll consider all the views submitted and not simply accede to my faith in Henry’s wisdom and your own, but I feel it’s imperative for my fellow alumni to grasp that the folks whose little pictures grace the committee page are not just well-heeled board members of some sort, but a group whose personal experiences, with Wilson’s persona and impact as well as Princeton’s African American legacy, are as substantial as any other 10 human beings you could find. And recalling my previous errors of omission, I’m moved to mention it explicitly here. After the committee’s work is done, somebody or another is going to be pissed at you, guaranteed; it is magnanimous of you to volunteer in those circumstances.
Personally, I’m more than happy to support the recommendations of a committee that has been so carefully and impressively formed and organized. While the immediate genesis of these issues had some unhealthy aspects on all sides, the solution has the potential to be a strong step forward for Princeton (and let us hope, the understanding of history); I thank you, the committee, for your extraordinary commitment to pursuing that positive end on behalf of us all.
Dei sub numine viget.
Gregg Lange ’70
Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio. He was a recipient of the Alumni Council’s Award for Service to Princeton at Reunions 2010.