Reading the various responses to the renaming of the Wilson School, it is striking how feeble the excuses are for retaining the name. Some argue out of sheer sentimentality, “that’s the way it’s been so it should stay that way.” Some argue his achievements outweigh his deficits, although as one writer points out even his international achievements have been controversial with problematic consequences. Some rail against “political correctness,” maligning the student body as snowflakes who need to be protected from anything troublesome, as if fighting for a change they believe in deeply against numerous odds is somehow weak. Some speak about reassessing naming rights of donors, but the school was named for him in honor, not financial contribution, holding him up as a role model for students and scholars. Some worry about a slippery slope that might lead to reassessment of other historical figures, as if that is somehow a bad thing. Some defend him and other racists as a product of their “times,” ignoring the fact that there were whites fighting for abolition since before the founding of the USA, and Blacks themselves have never supported their own oppression. Some feel the name gives continuity, even though clearly Wilson himself would be shocked and dismayed to see so many on campus who are not white men. Some complain about giving in to “mob rule,” but don’t explain why important decisions must be made only by a small handful of people in certain positions of power. Some cite the recommendation from five years ago to keep the name as eternal justification, as if a changing world should not affect anything (and in fact the world has not changed at all, we are just getting live video of it that we can’t ignore anymore).
President Eisgruber is in an impossible position. A university president must try to please all constituencies, but eventually a decision must be made. (Surely an enterprising archivist will be able to find alumni complaints about the changes Wilson implemented too.) If there are those who want to honor Wilson’s achievement in turning Princeton into a 20th century research university, perhaps the best tribute of all is to continue evolving the university to meet the moment and lead to a better future.