Alumni, students, faculty, and staff had a chance to share their views in February with the Wilson Legacy Review Committee, a special committee of the University’s board of trustees set up to consider Woodrow Wilson 1879’s legacy and how the University should recognize it.
Two public sessions — at the Feb. 15 CPUC meeting and a forum later in the week in Richardson Auditorium — sparked clashing viewpoints from dozens of participants on issues related to whether the University should rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, one of Princeton’s residential colleges, because of Wilson’s documented racism.
The CPUC session was more academic, with audience members asking questions and offering suggestions to the committee. Two professors urged the committee to treat the potential renaming of the school and the residential college as separate issues.
“We are asking our undergraduates to live in Wilson College, while the people in the Wilson School are there specifically for what the school offers. Those are real distinctions,” said physics professor Peter Meyers.
Other suggestions included finding a way to showcase Princetonians from underrepresented groups whose stories may have been overlooked in the past, facilitating a discussion about Wilson and Princeton’s history during freshman orientation, and removing the Wilson name but not renaming the buildings after other individuals.
The forum in Richardson, which drew about 100 alumni, students, faculty, and staff, was more emotional, with participants differing on Wilson’s legacy and the idea of renaming campus buildings. Several members of the Black Justice League — the group that coordinated the Nassau Hall sit-in in November to protest the racial climate on campus — attended to voice their demand that Wilson’s name be removed from the school and the college. While some alumni expressed disagreement with the BJL, others stated their support.
“As a black female student, when I go into the Woodrow Wilson School knowing that he actively worked so that I could not gain admission to this university, there is a conflict,” said Mariana Bagneris ’15. “There’s always going to be that notion of knowing that you don’t belong at a place that you worked for, got good grades for, and were accepted to just like everyone else.”
Harvey Rothberg ’49 said a plaque should be installed at the Woodrow Wilson School to address Wilson’s achievements and his faults.
“I absolutely believe that the name of Woodrow Wilson should be preserved,” Rothberg said. “I think that it’s essential that all students — black, white, as well as alumni and visitors — should be aware of who Wilson was and his accomplishments, which were mostly good and occasionally not so good.”
Jean Hendry *80 said that even if the Wilson name is physically removed from buildings, his presence will remain on campus. “Whether or not the committee chooses to remove Wilson’s name, you can never remove Wilson from Princeton because his educational legacy to this university is so strong.”
“We are looking at what the impact of the naming issue is going to be not just on the students here currently, but the impact [on] students going forward,” said committee chair Brent Henry ’69 at the Feb. 15 meeting. “Talking about race is difficult ... but these conversations are long overdue. ... And we’re really going to be thinking about how keeping or changing the name will have an impact on the University as an educational institution and how this affects people’s sense of belonging to the University.”
Henry said the committee hopes to make a recommendation to the full board of trustees during the spring. The board is scheduled to meet April 2 and May 30.