I can see no reason to doubt that President Eisgruber and his advisers thought long and hard about the decision to disassociate Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton. That Wilson’s blatant racism was unimportant to decision-makers at the University generations ago really should not bind us to their judgment now. Especially now, as we recognize how fragile our democracy has become, we must be vigilant in our care for the rights of all our citizens.
Paying respectful attention to every American translates not to dismissing the aspirations of some as “current fashion” or “social trends” or “some citizens for some reason” but listening to what others have to say, taking them seriously. This was brought home to me forcibly when I was working in an experimental division of my college, a white teacher with Black – and only Black – students. Forced to listen, I learned lessons I had previously denied myself. It was humbling and, I like to think, broadening.
When I arrived at Princeton in 1952, the product of nine years in rural schools and three in an industrial city high school, I found the University’s enchantment with tradition strange and intimidating. Also sometimes short-sighted and inflexible. I went along because I saw no alternative. But in the classroom my ideas, even if immature or poorly stated, got an audience, and that truly mattered.
Princeton has changed in many positive ways since my undergraduate years, as indeed it was altered – by Wilson as much as anyone – in important ways since my grandfather was in the Seminary at the turn of the 20th century. If it is now more responsive to its students (and no doubt many faculty members), that is a sign of its strength as a democratic institution. That ought to be a cause for optimism among its alumni/alumnae.