A Woodrow Wilson portrait in Mudd Library in 2016.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die. 

There’s more to the picture than meets the eye, hey hey, my my.  

  Neil Young, 1978

As we used to say in the halcyon days of rock, the big hits just keep on comin’. There have been years as bad as 2020, if not far worse — the historian Barbara Tuchman has taught us this in ways that actually make us not only wiser as a people, but more prepared to become wise out of the rubble of our mistakes. It is, however, bad enough that rather than delve into new corners of Princeton’s history, which is often more fun, we need to go over some old ground.

It’s time to revisit Thomas Woodrow Wilson 1879.

Happenstantially, this is the 200th column I’ve written in this space, so at least the math is fairly straightforward. Tommy Wilson appears by name in 52 of those pieces, 26 percent of them, not including citations of the ex-Woodrow Wilson School, the ex-Wilson College, the Woodrow Wilson Award, the Wilson papers, stuff like that. Just him, 26 percent of the time. He spent 24 years on the Princeton campus, or 8.8 percent of its existence, and he left for good 110 years back, or as we say in Technical Historian Talk, more than a century ago. Why would he matter so disproportionately in the context of a 275-year epoch? We’re going to take another stab at explaining that, on two different levels: the intriguing tactical/operational things he did at and to the University, and the strategic reasons we can’t possibly avoid talking about him if we want to understand the institution, not 110 years ago, but today.

In no particular order, because many of them were happening simultaneously during his mere eight years as president of Princeton, here are the Wilson things we’ve cited to date in this space:

  • He was a lawyer with a Ph.D. (I leave it to you to contemplate the pluses and minuses) and created the pre-law program that continues as a benchmark of the Princeton education.
  • A rock star in intellectual circles, he wrote like crazy — the history of the American people in five volumes; the history of Congress; essays on democracy; books on the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington. Many are available on Kindle today.
  • His keynote speech, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” at the 1896 sesquicentennial remains the bedrock of the University’s service identity, and the principal means wherein we remain tied to its Revolutionary roots. The annual Woodrow Wilson Award to an outstanding undergrad alum is an honor, not because of the title, but because of the speech’s fervid call to action for all Princetonians.
  • He created the academic departments as the basis of a true research institution, eight years after the trustees grandiosely named the place a university, based mainly on a flurry of new academic gowns in 1896.
  • He created a program of two years of basic coursework followed by two years of academic concentration as the undergraduate norm, unique at that time, in place today.
  • He doubled the size (and arguably more than doubled the quality) of the faculty in one lightning strike by adding 50 new, young go-getters in 1905. These preceptors were the core of Princeton’s academic ascendance over the next 40 years.
  • He created a structure in which those 50 could thrive and the students would be challenged (whether they liked it or not): the precept.
  • The first non-clergyman ever to preside at Princeton, he hired the University’s first Roman Catholic and Jewish professors and dragooned the trustees into publicly pronouncing the University to be non-denominational, although its 1748 charter already assured that.
  • He completely squelched the idea of Black students at Princeton, any time it arose. 
  • He oversaw a cynical attempt to expunge the documentation of Princeton’s few existing Black degree holders from the McCosh administration’s records.
  • He detested the social snobbery of the clubs; he attempted to get rid of them and replace them with egalitarian undergraduate residential quads, beginning his demise as president. The vision would be partially fulfilled 60 years later.
  • He was a vocal proponent of integrating the new graduate school closely with the undergraduate experience (coincidentally under his watchful eye), a fight he lost to graduate school dean Andrew Fleming West 1874. That and the clubs caused him to leave Princeton.
  • As president of the United States, he actively resegregated the federal Civil Service, leading to extensive added hardship in the American Black community for decades.
  • He revolutionized American foreign relations and its role in the world, leading to involvement in World War I, in which 152 Princeton alumni died. His global efforts on behalf of the League of Nations afterward were recognized by a Nobel Peace Prize. This also motivated faculty to propose the School of Public and International Affairs, the first of its kind in the world, which began in 1930.

There is huge consequence here, of course, but still, is it qualitatively 26 percent of Princeton’s history? The answer lies in a concept I’ve belatedly labeled All Roads Lead to Wilson, something of a historical anomaly in which the various strivings of the college that gathered academic momentum under James McCosh until 1888 took a huge pause (nap?) under the pitiful President Francis Landey Patton (whose appointment is one of the two worst decisions ever made by the trustees), and revived about 30 minutes after Wilson took office in 1902. Wilson grabbed many (but not all) great ideas from McCosh, vastly improving some of them and pushing them forward, making them his own, and adding some unique aspects, his hideous views on race among them. But they all inevitably now lead back to Wilson, through his successors, and there the buck stops, either at his presidency or his 1896 speech. Academically, and in part socially, Princeton is today the place Wilson made, and no less a global thinker than Toni Morrison noted that in 1996 in her “The Place of the Idea; The Idea of the Place,” 100 years after Wilson’s “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” So 26 percent may even be an underestimation of sorts.

The question of the day remains: Does understanding all this justify the removal of Wilson’s name from Wilson College and the Wilson School? Or allowing it to remain on the Woodrow Wilson Award? I think perhaps the fairest way to consider that is to also ask the reverse question: Did his example justify their naming in the first place? Is this the person who authored, and in a very real sense died for, the Fourteen Points? Is this the person who knowingly condemned thousands of capable Black citizens to substandard lives solely because of their race (an ignorant concept in itself)? 

The trustees decided this conundrum one way four years ago. They decided it another way amidst the unrelenting disaster and ferment of 2020. As both are more than fully justified (let’s just admit it), I’m tempted to allow Jesus’ wisdom regarding casting the first stone to prevail, and counsel we not throw any of them at the trustees. But I would note as an afterthought that while Neil Young reassures us that rock and roll can never die, he also has something to say about the caprice of history when it comes down to individuals:

Out of the blue and into the black.
They give you this, but you pay for that.
And once you’re gone, you can’t come back
when you’re out of the blue and into the black.