Read alumni letters about the Nassau Hall sit-in and student demands related to racial justice – including the renaming of the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College – and share your views.
The incipient movement to banish the name Woodrow Wilson from the Princeton campus is misguided and should be confronted. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a host of others whose names we revere had slaves. Instead, Princeton should look seriously at the policy of racism and anti-Semitism that prevailed at the time and caused the University trustees to overlook this very evident characteristic of its president. The shame falls on the University, not just Wilson.
And while the University re-examines its history of granting naming rights, it might take a hard look at whether it has standards for donors, and what they are. Is money the predominant requirement, á la Lincoln Center in New York? Or does the name represent something to be proud of as a building or facility on the campus of one of the world’s great universities?
Keep the name, if for no other reason than as a reminder that bigotry and hate infect even the most highly educated and dedicated.
John H. Steel ’56
President Eisgruber sent an email out to all alumni Nov. 23 regarding his thoughtful approach in trying to grapple with the most recent problems facing Princeton. By nature and avocation, I am an historian and a trial lawyer. One way or another, historical events shape us. We can certainly re-examine history and Woodrow Wilson’s legacy, but no one can or should try to rewrite history. That job can best be done by science-fiction writers, but not by honest historians or by Princeton. Wilson was a man of his time and the events surrounding him. His legacy must be examined within the true historical framework as it unfolded during the early 20th century.
Robert G. André ’69
Woodrow Wilson’s name should be expunged at once. Please re-name everything after Michelle Obama ’85. Let’s move!
Jordan Katz ’81
Los Angeles, Calif.
On Nov. 14, I attended the Princeton-Yale football game with several guests, two of whom were Yale supporters. This rivalry has produced many exciting games over the 60-plus years that I have been privileged to be associated with Princeton. This year was no exception.
I took my guests on a tour of the campus, starting at Cannon Club (I am an ex-Elm Club member and very pleased to finally, after many frustrating years, have a club at which to host guests). I first pointed out the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
As we crossed Washington Road I pointed out 1879 Hall, given to the University by Wilson’s class. We stepped into the Chapel, a magnificent structure, to me more a symbol of faith than any one religion. We passed by Nassau Hall, the original College building, which is pictured on the 1977 U.S. postage stamp featuring George Washington at the battle of Princeton.
The rest of the tour took us by the dormitories in which I spent four years: Joline Henry, and Cuyler all looked remarkably unchanged. The rest of the campus is nearly unrecognizable for all of the new “colleges,” social and instructional buildings erected on what was once green, open space. But that is the progress that tens of millions of alumni contributions have bought.
That Princeton is “considering” removing Wilson’s name from the campus to accommodate the demands of those students who may have legitimate gripes about lack of respect lack of inclusion and other racial issues is shocking. Wilson’s name is not the Confederate flag. His “racism” did not prevent them from being admitted to Princeton. It should not be removed. Other remedies exist to meet their demands. History cannot be changed, and today’s youth had better realize it. Today’s issues must be dealt with today’s remedies. If President Eisgruber accedes to their blackmail, he should resign.
I have supported Princeton continuously since graduation. I am very proud of the accomplishments of many of my classmates, including three who were in my high school. Class. In our day Princeton was “all white and all male,” but has changed dramatically to keep up with the times. Let it not slip into the backward-looking revisionism that characterizes most of today’s presidential candidates.
Robert Givey ’58
When I attended Princeton, I already knew Wilson was a terrible Southern racist. I also understood that many Princeton presidents before him would never have admitted Jews to Old Nassau. There is some delicious irony in attending a school where various barriers and prejudices existed in the past – barriers that would have kept many of us from attending Princeton in past decades.
Perhaps we should step back and ask just how much can we (or should we) erase? Even the Constitution refers to 3/5 of all persons – i.e. slaves. And even justly beloved Lincoln trimmed his sails on racial equality. The story of this country is evolution.
As for President Eisgruber, he has my sympathy. In his place, I might have thrown the occupiers out of my office with (a) a snarl, (b) handcuffs, or (c) a tolerant smile (depending on my mood that day), but I think we have to remember that every day, his job entails dealing with outraged members of three disparate groups – alumni, faculty, and students. I am grateful not to have his job.
Lee L. Kaplan ’73
Student Guide to the Politically Incorrect Princeton University Campus
Woodrow Wilson School: Named for alumnus (Class of 1879), Princeton’s 13th president, and U.S. president whose racist policies disadvantaged countless African-Americans.
Edwards Hall : Named for University president and eminent theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who once owned a slave and later objected to young members of his Northampton church reading improper books.
Madison Hall : Named for alumnus (Class of 1771), and fourth U.S. president James Madison, who owned 100 slaves at the time of his death in 1836.
Aaron Burr Hall : Named for alumnus (Class of 1772) and third vice president of the U.S., who was indicted for murder (of Alexander Hamilton) and later for treason, although he was not convicted of either charge.
Green Hall : Named for Ashbel Green, eighth president of Princeton, who believed that education could be dangerous if not rooted in Christian piety.
Patton Hall : Named for Francis Landey Patton, religiously conservative 12th president of the University, who tried to fire a theology professor because of his liberal interpretation of Scripture.
Dodge Hall : Named for Cleveland Dodge, alumnus (Class of 1879) and contributor most responsible for the election of Woodrow Wilson (see above) as U.S. president in 1912.
Icahn Hall : Named for alumnus (Class of 1957) and controversial investor/corporate “raider” Carl Icahn, accused of bankrupting TWA.
Wu Hall : Named for alumnus (Class of 1958) and prominent Hong Kong businessman Gordon Wu, who initially opposed expanding democracy in the territory.
Whitman College : Named for alumna (Class of 1977), corporate executive, and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who, during her 2010 campaign, opposed gay marriage and climate-control legislation (which she called a “job killer”).
John V.H. Dippel ’68
I am distressed by the Woodrow Wilson uproar, only snippets of which have reached me in still-bloodied Paris. Our history was fashioned by men and women who were flawed in as many ways as we are today. Each of us assesses the acts and actors of the past according to principles we hold dear, and perhaps in reference to historical circumstances, if we are interested in agonizing human process as well as reassuring moral outcome. We forge a view by taking stock of all factors at play, negative and positive, and venture to arrive at an appreciation that is judicious – discriminating in the lofty sense of that word.
We do not, however, enjoy the prerogative of purging from our collective memory persons or actions or even words that repel us today. History is cumulative, not commemorative; comprehensive, not therapeutic. Princeton owes it to its ancestors and its descendants to preserve the worst and the best, the dubious and the certain, the divisive and the consensual in its past. For we are the fragile, motley, and yet ever-evolving products of that past, the whole of it.
Steven Laurence Kaplan ’63
As a 55-year-old white male with respect for tradition, I was alarmed to see college protests spread to Princeton with the demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name and likeness be scrubbed from the campus. Are we really going to have to rename everything? But the more I read about President Wilson’s racist history, the more I was impressed – shocked, really – by the strength of the case for removal. He used his position as leader of the country to aggressively promote and implement racist policies throughout the federal government. How can we possibly excuse or stomach this behavior? It seems utterly beside the point to discuss what good deeds he may have done as well. In aggregate, his legacy is an ugly stain on our nation and our university.
Princeton has a great tradition of educational excellence. But what good is tradition that serves to fossilize such behavior? I feel much gratitude to the student protesters who brought this issue to prominence, and I hope the administration will ultimately resolve the matter by removing the offense as requested.
Stephen Lucas ’82
Have we all lost our minds? I am generally horrified that the University is contemplating removing Woodrow Wilson from the institution’s history, renaming both the School of Public and International Affairs and a residential college and erasing a mural in the Wilson dining hall because of an on-campus movement that claims his legacy makes certain students feel unsafe. To quote one student from a recent New York Times article, “For black students, having to identify with someone who did not build this place for you is unfair.”
I am an alumna. Princeton didn’t build this place for me, either. Should we now remove all paintings and building names of men associated with the University prior to 1969, the first year the University admitted women? Following similar logic, should we nullify all degrees conferred prior to 1972, since women were not eligible? Should we erase all legacies that began with families whose Protestant great-grandfathers attended the school? Let’s be honest, Princeton was not built for anyone non-white, non-male, and non-Protestant, yet among his racist convictions, Wilson was the first University president to admit Catholics and Jews. If not for that step, perhaps none of the diversity represented on campus today would have come to pass.
My parents taught me nothing comes of throwing temper tantrums, yet would-be tantrums are sweeping the nation’s campuses. Where is the American ethos of bucking up, holding your head high, and getting your job done? I work in an industry that is 83 percent male worldwide – 83 percent. I am degraded, belittled, and offended almost daily. Big deal. Should I cry to my bosses (who are also all male) that isn’t fair? No. I go to work every day, do the best job I can, earn respect, and change the industry from within. I am proud this country evolved to offer me a seat at an all-male table, even though the table wasn’t originally built for me. We need to embrace our history and how far we have come, not erase it.
Crying that a mural of a man who died in 1924 makes you feel “unsafe” is asinine at best and regressive at worst. Princeton’s Black Justice League has demanded “the creation of dedicated housing and meeting space for those interested in black culture.” Will these new areas include dedicated bathrooms and water bubblers as well? Before you cry “micro-aggression,” I am purposefully highlighting the pre-civil rights U.S. to argue that the logical outcome of such a demand is segregation.
It’s time to toughen up, Princeton; in fact, it is time to toughen up, young America. The world isn’t nice and doesn’t include safe havens, participation trophies, and guarantees that everything will be OK. If your greatest worry is “offensive” undergraduate Halloween costumes, as it recently was at Yale, then the extent of your privileged life has really taken hold, because evil is real and indiscriminate of gender, race, religion, or nationality. Evil wants to abolish your ability to learn, congregate, and debate. But I am sure when you are out at a bar, restaurant, concert hall, or sporting venue one Friday evening, jihadists hell-bent on destroying anything that represents the West and its ideals – democracy (including dissent), freedom (including speech), and liberty (including civil rights) – will spare you because you can so eloquently argue how a painting of Woodrow Wilson makes you feel unsafe.
Michelle M. Buckley ’01
Following events as well as I could from the West Coast, I thought the University administration handled well the sit-in having to do with Woodrow Wilson. As someone whose undergraduate major was the Woodrow Wilson School, I would like to propose that, if the school’s name were to be changed, we consider renaming it the Dulles-Stevenson School (or the Stevenson-Dulles School).
John Foster Dulles 1908 was Secretary of State in 1953-59 and ran America’s foreign policy for six critical years during the Cold War. He was also briefly a U.S. senator from New York. Adlai E. Stevenson II 1922 was governor of Illinois in 1949-53 and the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party in 1952 and 1956. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1961-65 (he died in office).
This combination has the advantage of including a prominent Republican and a prominent Democrat, and therefore doesn’t appear partisan. It also may be a good idea to establish a precedent that the School of Public and International Affairs (which is now 85 years old) changes its name every two or three generations. Given the calibre of the people who attend Princeton, there are bound to be alumni who achieve distinction in public service every 50 to 75 years and deserve to be honored.
Bing Shen ’71
San Francisco, Calif.
With gratitude for President Eisgruber’s thoughtful Nov. 22 letter to alumni regarding the legacy of former President Wilson and with disdain for the latter’s racist acts and their destructive consequences and with continuing respect for the latter’s great contributions to our University and to our nation in other respects, I prefer that we retain all public references to Wilson on our campus. He left an indelible mark in many domains and merits our respect for his contributions.
We have had few perfect national leaders. In an academic environment, we must consider the entire record, great deeds along with wretched failings, all in historical context. Most of our icons have clay feet. Hannah Arendt might view it as the glorious and woeful human condition. Wilson studied at Princeton and brought his knowledge and culture to high office. Unlike the current purer climate at Princeton, some of us are aware of previous instances of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, and their ilk. Let’s continue to learn from our entire record, not erase selected elements.
Among national racists, Wilson was a minor player. For those seeking purity, aim higher! Strip slaveholder Washington’s name from our capital and continue the purge. In the sterile style of Orwell’s dystopian 1984, we could change Washington to DC, Yale’s Calhoun College to YCC, and reduce Princeton to PU. We’d be purer but culturally impoverished.
We are the better for the passing of slavery and of most of Jim Crow (its traces remain in the “school-to-prison pipeline” for too many of our black youth, and in too many other domains); their vestiges remain in some of our minds, hearts, and practices. That’s where our work must continue!
Barry Nann ’57
To change a name is awkward; the unfortunate issue is Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs was named for Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
Better to admit a mistake than to live with it forever ... “Dare to be true.”
Bayard Henry ’53
What is happening to Princeton? Better: What is happening to all our colleges and universities? I graduated with a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1966. I have been teaching ever since. In the 50 years since I first entered the classroom, I have seen a steady decline (increasing in rapidity of late) in student performance and commitment ... and it has nothing to do with diversity or prejudice.
It has to do with entitlement and litigation: the crossroads of what is wrong in America today. As a society we have made great strides to eliminate the unfairness and preferential treatment that prevailed in the “Golden Years” of our country (the ’50s); yet, in the face of this progress, we see not gratitude but increasing demands for “rights”: black rights, gay rights, even graduate-student rights! (Remember the good old days when, as graduate students, we realized we were indentured servants and considered it a right of passage.)
A recommendation: Don’t give into the pressure of a few activists who would besmirch the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. Should we disenfranchise Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves? And one other suggestion: Get back to the business of education, rather than social activism. Princeton is an institution of higher learning, not a lackey for any group with an agenda and a few activists who take over campus buildings and play CEO for a day or a week.
Marvin Karlins *66
I was 30 years an alumnus before I learned the racist component of Wilson’s administration at Princeton and in Washington as president. I do think that Princeton’s veneration should be downsized considerably. For example, there’s very little reason why Wilson College should be named after him. However, I do not believe expunging his name entirely makes sense, because the likely result would be that most future undergraduates would be oblivious to what can be learned from contemplating both the laudable and reprehensible history of this influential man.
I recommend leaving Wilson's name on the School of Public and International Affairs because he did exert some positive influence in that sphere. The school also could offer a useful source and focus on his entire history, the ugly as well as the good. There is value in recognizing that the celebrated among us nevertheless are humans who hardly ever merit being idolized. It would make sense to rename Wilson College and otherwise diminish his name and likeness on campus to an ordinary status for someone who was president of the college and governor of New Jersey as well as one of the nation’s presidents.
Murphy Sewall ’64
A few weeks ago, when PAW noted that black students at Princeton were the target of racial slurs, I thought to myself that the culture at Princeton was getting badly out of focus. To me, the opportunity to attend Princeton was not a right but a privileged opportunity. Princeton offered an experiment in living, driven by the free and unbiased exchange of ideas. Yes, we each had our biases, but one would have to accept that these biases could be challenged by others and could not be used to poison an atmosphere where one’s pursuit of truth defined one’s integrity and qualified one as a member of the Princeton community. I would have expected to be asked to leave Princeton had I insulted or denigrated the few black students, the many Jewish friends I found at Princeton, or a classmate who was both gay and possessed by delusions he too freely shared.
I would expect the same responses today: an absolute intolerance for racial slurs that would lead to the expulsion of any student using them and not fully apologizing for having done so. No student at Princeton should suffer bias or degrading behaviors from others in the community. The remedy to this sense of entitlement, to be able to join those affiliated with Princeton and insult those one views as second-class citizens, is a reassessment of personal values on the part of the offender or the offender losing his or her privileged opportunity to remain part of the community.
Matters are on the verge of getting further obfuscated by displacing the current issues needing correction onto attempting to erase a reminder that we each, as great as we may in some ways be, have feet of clay. A child idolizes his or her parents, and then must separate from parental values by differentiating what is to be emulated and what is to be rejected. As adults, we each must be similarly selective in judging ourselves and others. Woodrow Wilson, like every human being, can be admired for his best qualities and be an inspiration for being different when it comes to his worst qualities. Perhaps there should be the fullest disclosure for why we honor him and why we simultaneously abhor many of his actions and values. We would be reminded that this task of thoughtful responses to the values we hear from others is an ongoing process in our lives.
We living Princetonians can remember how Wilson disgraced himself and hurt others, detracting from the respect he earned for what good he did. We should note that he could get away with his racism because it was tolerated in his society. We Princetonians can work to erase racism from American society, but it is not within our abilities to eradicate it by fiat. It is in our abilities to become completely intolerant of racism practiced anywhere in the Princeton community. In my view, the starting point for the students is to see that those who use racial slurs do not remain members of the Princeton community. I think the alumni have no other choice but to fully support the integrity of Princeton in this way.
Bob Becker ’55
Park City, Utah
I am no admirer of Woodrow Wilson, but among the sentiments President Eisgruber should review, as he contemplates whitewashing Princeton’s Wilsonian legacy, is the following 1905 observation: “Generally young men are regarded as radicals. This is a popular misconception. The most conservative persons I ever met are college undergraduates. The radicals are the men past middle life.”
Old Nassau is now met by demands for ideological conformity, group solidarity, and the precedence of feeling and attitude over reason and argument. Princeton’s leadership should decide whether a forward-looking institution of global importance will follow the lead of its undergraduate activists, or its “radicals … past middle life” – iconoclastic thinkers like Peter Singer, Cornel West *80, and Robert George – all exemplars of intellectual bravery and diversity, as identified by the students of the Open Campus Coalition in their admirable letter to the president.
The historical irony is that Wilson would have stood with the activists: In this same 1905 speech, to a youth church conference, he precisely advocates an emotive, counter-rational mass movement on the part of young people to “Christianize the world,” i.e. push the politically progressive ideals he championed. While Wilson’s main point is to argue, with his usual priggish, exclusionary zeal, for the shutting out of Unitarians from such gatherings (add them to the list), the speech’s peroration could well serve as motto for today’s campus social-justice crusade: “We live by poetry, not by prose, and we live only as we see visions, and not as we have discriminating minds.”
Robert Hill ’00
My grandfather, Robert McCarter 1879, was a classmate and boyhood friend of Woodrow Wilson – so I am, of course, prejudiced and discouraged by the recent sit-in at Princeton. There are so many problems in this chaotic world crying out for solutions that I would hope America’s youth spend its time, energy, and intellect trying to solve at least a small portion of them. Would the activists have us tear down or rename the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial?
A main thrust of Wilson’s life was working toward world peace. Not many of us become president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey, and then president of the United States. The activists undoubtedly have strong, deep feelings about Wilson, but let’s hope a majority of them will come to see the stabilizing force of tradition and to redirect their efforts toward social and economic change in the future, rather than sandblasting that which is carved in stone.
Kent Young ’50
If Princeton students cannot solve problems working together as undergraduates, how will they be able to work together as our nation’s future leaders in many fields? Come on, don’t expect the administration to solve your challenges, work them out yourselves. It will benefit both the University and your own development.
Clifton White ’62
I hope that President Eisgruber continues his tough stance on rejecting the “demands” of the “Black Justice League” calling for erasure of Woodrow Wilson from Princeton history. While Princeton has a long tradition of encouraging the advancement of social justice, a cause Woodrow Wilson led, the University is not known for bending to pressure through illegal means, such as trespass. There are many forums and locations throughout the campus for proper exercise of free speech and public debate.
I find the urge to jump on the recent bandwagon of revisionist history interesting, especially when it comes to Wilson, who was at the forefront of many civil-rights initiatives, not the least of which was the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote – not just white women, all women. This was done in the face of strong Southern opposition. He also championed legislation that recognized all Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens under the Jones Act, and advanced the eight-hour workday for all Americans under the Adamson Act.
Segregation under a policy approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson continued under Woodrow Wilson and many U.S. presidents until the seminal decision by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Judging historical figures by modern standards is a dangerous path. By that approach, we could go down the line of great presidents starting with George Washington, a slave owner, and find much fault. What matters most is the present and how to try to better ourselves and the lives of all going forward.
Brian W. McAlindin ’80
Point Pleasant, N.J.
Wilson may have been a racist, but was viewed by many as a real progressive. Seems that if there truly is logic, the minority protesters’ first target should be our slaveholder Founding Fathers.
Brad Bradford ’44
Highland Park, Ill.
I am not a high-powered alumnus, don’t give prolifically to the University, and rarely state my opinions to PAW, so I suspect no one in the University community cares much about what I think.
However, someday I, or others like me, might be more active. So who knows what my opinions will be worth? And even in my disengaged state, I remember my magical time there almost like it was yesterday, and care for the University deeply and cannot believe that hypersensitive politically correct whiners now threaten Woodrow Wilson and his legacy at the University. Such threats would be laughable (as they would have been even 10 or 20 years ago) if in fact they were not being seriously made and entertained today.
Is there no one left to stand up for Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? If indeed Princeton gives in to left-wing demands and removes its portraits and renames its buildings, this school is but a pitiful shadow of the institution of higher learning that I remember from my college days.
It will be a sad day indeed for the University, for history, and for common sense.
If the University caves and diminishes the legacy of a former U.S. president and key Princeton figure, all because of fabricated “micro-aggressions” and “oppressions” perceived by oversensitive fools and troublemakers, I certainly hope that all Princeton alumni who still have the capacity to think clearly – whose capacities the University did so much to advance and sharpen over all these years – think carefully before providing any funding to an institution that is so utterly lost in shameful, revisionist oblivion.
Christopher M. Hinsley ’92
If the worst thing for the Black Justice League at Princeton to protest over is Woodrow Wilson’s legacy, then the University truly represents a community we all can be proud to be a part of. Multiracial, multicultural, multinational, multilingual, and male/female. A very different place than 100 years ago, 200 years ago, or even 60 years ago, when I completed my undergraduate degree. I’m not only satisfied with the progress that Princeton has made, I applaud it.
Are there areas where additional improvements can be made? Of course, and I’m confident they will be. But, for me they’re frosting on the cake. I send my heartfelt thanks to the administrators, faculty, and student leaders who together have led the evolution of this great university to be even greater. No small task, but well worth the effort. And the ultimate benefits extend not only to the on-campus community but to the alumni and the broader community beyond.
Douglas M. Yeager ’55
Estes Park, Colo.
Posted April 22, 2016
My Princeton class was the first one assigned to residential colleges, an innovation Wilson hoped would foster a “spirit” of “learning.” On a campus dotted with landmarks that bore the names of industrial titans – Firestone Library, Rockefeller College, Lake Carnegie – he was the counterpoint, the scholar-politician whose example ennobled us all.
Or so I thought. A few years ago, I read that federal agencies had segregated employees during President Wilson’s administration. Wilson’s record on Jim Crow – and my belated discovery of it – hit home. My husband is an attorney for the federal government in Washington. From 1996 to 2001, so was I. At my agency, race defined the ranks, with whites comprising most of the professionals and African Americans dominating the support staff.
There is a sizable disconnect between Wilson’s enshrinement at Princeton and his record on race. Princeton is way behind where it should be in confronting Wilson’s complexities, including his role in keeping the university all white. Perhaps it is time to look to other alumni and alumnae to represent and reflect its values.
Among current alums, Princeton would not have to look far. Two public servants come to mind: Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ‘81. Renaming the Wilson School and Wilson College would not substitute for acknowledging Wilson’s history on race. But symbolism matters. As President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 said in his Nov. 22 email to the University community: “Our students deserve better, and Princeton must do better.”
Joan Quigley ’86
Joan Quigley is the author of the forthcoming book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital.