The members of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University have grievously erred in removing the name of Woodrow Wilson from the School of Public Policy and International Affairs. They have inappropriately applied our own contemporary racial beliefs to their judgment of a great man born in the American South in 1856. Instead, they should have simply restated the inviolable tenets of our present egalitarian Princetonian culture and noted the simple fact that no country chooses its history. They should have told the young students whose education is their responsibility that the world is full of unpleasantness, conflict and complexity and that the University does not owe them a place where they can always feel “safe”; rather the University owes them an opportunity to exchange ideas, gain perspective and stand fearless in their conviction that they can help make the world a better place.
Professor Woodrow Wilson was elected president of Princeton University in 1902 by the contemporary Board of Trustees and instituted for the first time a system of core academic requirements. He created the preceptorial system, appointed the first Jew and the first Roman Catholic to the faculty, and laid the foundation for both the college system and the Graduate School at Princeton. His fundraising skills secured the financial stability of the University for generations. A progressive Democrat, Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey by his contemporary fellow New Jerseyans in 1910. As governor, he passed laws that restricted child labor and improved factory working conditions and signed a series of famous antitrust bills.
In 1912, his contemporary fellow American citizens elected him in a landslide victory to the presidency of the United States, the first Southerner to win a presidential election since the Civil War. As U.S. President, he fought to prohibit child labor, introduced safeguards for female workers, and advocated for a minimum wage for all work performed by or for the federal government. Initially reluctant to enter the war, Wilson led the United States to decisive victory in World War I, at the conclusion of which he called for the creation of the League of Nations — the precursor to the United Nations.
Prior to and during Woodrow Wilson’s time at Princeton, Black Americans were not admitted as students; this was presumably consistent with the wishes of the contemporary Boards of Trustees of Princeton University. Woodrow Wilson fought and won the first World War with a racially segregated U.S. military; the same is true of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, another great Democratic president, in his victory over Nazi tyranny in WWII a generation later. The road outside the Princeton University School of Public Policy is called Washington Road. General George Washington encamped the Continental Army on Cannon Green during the Revolutionary War. His army was racially segregated and he personally owned slaves, as did several other Founding Fathers. Shall we now remove the name of George Washington from that road, from our beloved campus, from our national currency and our national monuments in a frenzied, unhinged orgy of self-excoriation?
Race relations in America have been tortured since the birth of our nation and progress towards true equality has been agonizingly slow. However, attempting to obliterate our own history will not improve that progress.
No nation chooses its history. We, the living, are responsible for the present and for building a better future.