A hearty thank you is due to PAW, author Deborah Yaffe, and all of the academic contributors to the article “Wilson Revisited” (feature, Feb. 3). The article is long overdue, which is an understatement. But at last, it gives all of us in the Princeton community a more complete understanding of the facts at the heart of the current controversy.
John Aerni ’78
Of course Woodrow Wilson’s name should be removed from the school. I understand this legally takes a couple of days max.
Sure, John F. Kennedy wouldn’t let Sinatra bring Sammy Davis Jr. into the White House because Davis was married to a white woman, May Britt. Against those who would say remove JFK’s name from the airport and from Kennedy Center, some but not all might mitigate that his disgusting and un-presidential bigotry was expressed against an individual, or actually a couple. And Wilson is hardly redeemed by his purportedly letting in a few Jews, again individuals.
But Wilson’s unforgivable crime was enacted against an entire race in a systemic purge that removed and demoted all black civil servants from their established positions. This is not the same, as one female Princetonian argued in PAW, like not letting women in from the start – it would be like kicking them all out now. St. Paul let us in.
As a reality check, if a personal and individual example is what you want, read the recent New York Times op ed piece by a black New York law partner about how Wilson’s purge affected his grandfather.
Wilson’s heinous job-pogrom, which had no justification or precedent, has only just been elucidated by recent scholarship. This answers the question, “Why now?” Could there be any better demonstration of what a university of the liberal arts and sciences stands for than such a revision, based on meticulous, compelling new scholarship?
David V. Forrest ’60
New York, N.Y.
We cannot rewrite history. Wilson did a lot for the University, which A. Scott Berg ’71 described in his biography of the man. Racism is part of the human fabric and constantly needs to be addressed by Princeton and anyone else who encounters it, but Wilson should not be used as a scapegoat. I am reminded of the uproar created by our sophomore class when we petitioned for 100 percent of our members to be given invitations to join an eating club, and if that did not occur, the 600-odd who signed would turn down a bid if they received one.
Stokes Carrigan ’52
Beach Haven, N.J.
So, let’s see. We could rename Washington, D.C., something like Federal City?
Milton L. Iossi *67
The Jan. 13 issue of PAW covers the debate over whether references to Wilson should be expunged from the campus. It also includes a list of the latest winners of Rhodes scholarships. After we have finished excoriating Wilson, we should ask whether it is appropriate to accept scholarships funded by the exploitation of the mineral resources of Africa and the murder and oppression of Africans. Princeton refunded Imee Marcos’ tuition to the Philippines on the grounds that her parents had obtained the money illegally; perhaps the assets that fund the Rhodes scholarship should be returned to the appropriate governments in Africa.
Stanley Kalemaris ’64
We learn nothing today when passing through the doors of the Woodrow Wilson School about its namesake. It is time for the building to speak. Two situations come to mind that can assist the Princeton community in coming to grips with history which we must write and not rewrite. I ask that the lessons learned from these examples, rather than the examples themselves, guide us forward.
After Deng Xiaoping came to power in China, he recognized the need to grapple with the legacy of Mao Tse-tung, who both created him and did him in. Recognizing the peril of denying the past, Deng contrived a formula pulling the rug out from under a demigod, pronouncing him 60 percent good and 40 percent bad. The proportions don’t signify. What matters is that imperfection trumped a charade, thereby liberating Chinese people from the straitjacket of dogma. It is easier to pay lip service to Mao than be forced to worship him.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Reichstag in Berlin. If ever there were a building burdened with history, it is this one. Add to that a stunning renovation that enabled the building’s current role as seat of German government, and we can sense the complexity of the Reichstag’s stature in the present. As I approached the iconic building, best remembered aflame from old black-and-white footage, I grew anxious. But before my thoughts could further deteriorate, I was well inside the building, being greeted by truth; and it was the image of the burning building itself, up front and center, which allowed me to see it beyond a singular moment in time. But the Reichstag is not named for anyone.
I propose that a narrative be prepared on behalf of all of Woodrow Wilson, which is then physically woven into the building and even allowed to spill out onto the plaza. We can all keep learning at Princeton. That’s a walk in the park compared to China and Germany.
Peter Rupert Lighte *81
I was momentarily heartened by President Eisgruber ’83’s first reason for agreeing to re-examine Woodrow Wilson’s Princeton legacy: “As a university we have an obligation to get the history right” (President’s Page, Jan. 13). Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Wilson's politics or his “In the Nation’s Service” slogan. But Princeton did embrace them, and he was Princeton’s president, as well as the nation’s president. So let’s move on.
More worrisome is that Wilson’s true legacy is that we may forever be forced to deal with the already virtually infinite but still expanding evidences of discrimination and bias in our society, as recommended in the Whistling Vivaldi Pre-read. While President Eisgruber characterizes the sit-in as just Princeton’s version of nationwide campus unrest, he should re-examine the potential for ourpolicies to expand and exacerbate such unrest. In the current agitated atmosphere, which we are catering to in a special Princeton way with our aggressive diversity focus in faculty hiring and admissions, as well as the Whistling Vivaldi Pre-read, such policies are incendiary.
I heard with dismay that the Frosh Trip of Outdoor Action is now going to be required of all freshmen, and that the curriculum (there is no other word for it) will heavily emphasize “leadership training” with a focus on how to mitigate “stereotype threat,” as laid out in Whistling Vivaldi. This is indoctrination pure and simple, with the intent and effect of giving credence to such actions as those of the protesters. Although I suspect Woodrow Wilson would approve, I see no reason for Princeton today to adopt such policies unless we truly mean to elevate political indoctrination over education, as we have mandatory discussions of how to create “safe spaces” around the campfire where the talk used to be about what climbs we would try tomorrow.
As to “getting the history right,” I used those very words in a book I wrote last year to describe an end-of-life obsession of a deceased Wall Street historian named Walter Werner, whose works alerted me to a little-known fact of our nation’s history as I was researching the origins of stock exchanges. Certainly during the time of our nation’s founding (and probably of Princeton’s founding almost half a century earlier), and throughout the 19th century, the right to discriminate in our associations on any basis we saw fit was simply assumed. It did not appear to depend on laws or the rights in our Constitution, such as the religious freedom in the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights, or anything else. It’s just the way it was. Although I was primarily interested in how that right made us a rich nation, a corollary is that we were also a much less contentious nation.
Scratch the surface of any of the protesters’ demands and you will find a supposed requirement that our society, and Princeton, advocate and allow the redistribution of wealth or advantage to the protesting groups. Under such a policy, how can we expect anything other than the continuing escalation of those demands presented in ever more violent fashion? Unless we want Princeton itself, and not just Nassau Hall, to be perpetually “occupied,” maybe it’s time to re-examine not history, but our fundamental policies.
Steve Wunsch ’69
New York, N.Y.
I was deeply saddened and concerned by the turmoil and protests that have taken place on campus this fall, and I hoped to share my thoughts regarding the legacy of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.
As most students of Princeton history will attest, Woodrow Wilson was the single most important individual in transforming Princeton into the vibrant university that it is today. His record in shaping the University for the better was unrivaled, both as a professor and as University president. Year in and year out he was voted the most popular member of the faculty, and countless students looked to him as a mentor. His parlor became a gathering place for informal student discussions, which Wilson frequently continued on evening visits to student dormitories. It was in Wilson’s parlor also that the honor code, which put an end to the prevalent culture of cheating by entrusting students to oversee their own examinations, was born – an innovation that remains to this day. His lectures and scholarship, most notably exemplified in his famous “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” speech at the University’s sesquicentennial in 1896, provided Princeton with an inspirational vision for its goals in education and the place to which it should aspire in national life.
Wilson carried this vision with him during his eight-year tenure as Princeton’s president. From the auditorium within Alexander Hall and from the steps of Nassau Hall, he outlined his plans and ideals for his beloved alma mater in his similarly titled inaugural address, “Princeton for the Nation’s Service.” (It should be noted that Wilson caused a good deal of controversy among alumni by inviting Booker T. Washington as an honored guest to his inaugural ceremonies.) Wilson’s energetic and enlightened leadership transformed Princeton and brought about many of the most recognizable and distinctive features of the University today, many of which we now take for granted but which were quite revolutionary at the time. With the ever-present aim of bringing a spirit of intellectual fervor to the center of Princeton life, Wilson tightened academic requirements, instituted administrative and curricular reforms (including academic departments and majors), and oversaw the advent of the preceptorial system (thereby shifting the educational focus from memorizing to learning).
His two famed unsuccessful undertakings – to replace the eating clubs with a system of “quads” or residential colleges and to locate the new graduate college in the heart of campus – were both intended to further this goal of infusing campus life with democratic principles and a spirit of intellectual endeavor. (Our current residential-college system, so central to student life, represents the belated fulfillment of Wilson’s “Quad Plan,” and for this reason the first residential college is aptly named in his honor.)
Wilson’s tumultuous tenure at the helm of Princeton was followed by several decades of sleepy complacency in retaining but not expanding his program of reform; that was left to the second half of the century following World War II. The momentous reforms that have occurred at Princeton since that time – from residential colleges to the admission of women and minority students to further curricular and scholarly innovations – all rested on the principles of democracy and the power of intellect to better the world that Wilson laid out during his presidency. As he admonished his young collegiate listeners, “You are not here merely to prepare to make a living. … You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”
It is for this reason that we must always hold Wilson’s legacy dear at Princeton. Yes, let us be frank about his faults. But in so doing, let us always remember his transformational vision for our University, a vision that is still shaping Princeton to this day. To remove his name from campus institutions, to take down his mural from a public place dedicated to his memory, or to otherwise qualify his legacy in word or deed, would be an enormous disservice to the shared heritage that all Princetonians have the privilege to cherish.
Matthew A. Frakes ’13
I think it’s a good development that the Black Justice League has forced the Princeton community to confront openly the unfortunate legacy of Woodrow Wilson with regard to racial relations. Because Woodrow Wilson permitted U.S. government departments that had been integrated to be segregated, he was complicit in a policy that turned back the clock, reversing progress that had been made after the Civil War. This policy was, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history.
I have given some thought to whether Wilson’s name should be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs and/or the residential college. One possible compromise that might have appeal would be to keep Wilson’s name, but then add another name that would reflect the University’s acknowledgement of Wilson’s failures in the area of racial relations. Suppose the name of the Wilson School were changed to the Wilson-DuBois School of Public and International Affairs. In adding the name of the great civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, who supported Wilson in the 1912 election, but then did not support him four years later because of Wilson's segregation policy, Princeton would be honoring a man who got right what Wilson got wrong. However, Wilson would still be honored for the many other things he did that were worthy of honor and recognition.
Would it matter that Princeton would be putting the name of a non-Princetonian on the School? I don’t think it matters. It would be an implicit acknowledgment that Princeton itself was not integrated in Wilson’s era, and so there could not have been an African American civil-rights leader from that time who was a Princetonian.
James H. Bernstein ’75
New York, N.Y.
Although I applaud the inclusion of alumni into the process concerning recent events on campus, I am still disappointed with the University’s acquiescence to the vocal Black Justice League (BJL). None of these students were concerned enough about the existence of the Woodrow Wilson School to deter them from applying. The demand that Wilson’s name must be removed as it is too offensive to current students – despite having full knowledge of Woodrow Wilson’s role at Princeton prior to applying, then applying to the school, and agreeing to attend our prestigious university – is disingenuous at best. If today’s students are so upset by the legacy of Wilson dating back over a century (or Disney, Ford, Madison, or Jefferson, for that matter) that it is such an emotional issue for them, then Princeton is failing to prepare its students for the real stresses that occur in professional life.
Several alums have been particularly incensed about the comments made in the video from a BJL member during the sit-in that Princeton owes them something. I firmly believe that Princeton doesn’t owe anybody anything. Princeton provides professional opportunities as well as personal and educational experiences that are desired by over 10,000 students every year, of which only a select handful have the opportunity to appreciate. The fact that members of the BJL feel so entitled that Princeton owes them anything at all, without appreciating the opportunity that Princeton students have, is troubling. I understand the importance of these issues and what is happening at universities across this nation. That being said, Princeton is a leader in the nation’s service, and agreeing to any proposed changes from the group that happens to be most vocal, without understanding the ramifications of these actions and its effects on the various other constituencies that make our university so great, would be a mistake.
Richard Mandelbaum ’87
As a proud “bug” (member) of the Class of ’70, I was very interested in the article, “Decades of Activism, A Protest Timeline” (On the Campus, Jan. 13). Bugging the system was an integral part of my experience at Princeton. Though the article seems to confine itself to “generations of students [who] have protested a wide range of issues,” my favorite meaningful memories of protests involved faculty and even the entire University. Protests against the Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA) being on campus were carried out on several occasions and involved some prominent professors putting themselves on the line in the midst of students. It may have been their presence that contributed to a peaceful intervention by the National Guard to break up the protest, unlike the Kent State incident.
Also, my proudest moment at Princeton was when the entire University, in the nation’s service, took a leadership position by being the first to go on strike after the announcement of the secret bombing of Cambodia. Such peaceful protest is a very valuable aspect of a liberal-arts education. Relevant action must be allowed to accompany academic experience to maintain a holistic approach to education of whole people. Then-president Robert Goheen ’40 *48 was masterful in his accommodation of our passion. I carry on my education in peaceful protest, sometimes involving civil disobedience, in the realms of climate change and wilderness preservation.
Larry Campbell ’70
I am writing in response to “Occupying Nassau Hall” (On the Campus, Jan. 13). I could not help but feel very sad for those students. If they feel threatened or scared walking around the campus of Princeton University, they have no idea about the real world awaiting them.
The world is a scary and dangerous place right now, but not in central New Jersey. From 2007 to 2009 I was in Iraq, fighting the anti-IED explosives fight. That was a scary world. Snipers shot at anyone moving down the roads, regardless of race or sex. Every pile of rubble was a possible roadside bomb that was designed to take your legs off, if not kill you. Worse, sectarian assassinations and kidnappings were normal.
I presently live in Germany and work for the U.S. Africa Command. In this idyllic European country, the culture clash of the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees has spilled out of the camps and into the streets. German women are being sexually molested and beaten in the streets as large groups of young men patrol the train stations with nothing to do, no money, no hope, yet surrounded by a materialistic culture they will never really enter. In Africa, the continent is rife with murders, kidnappings, and near-constant war. Children are regularly targeted for capture and women are systematically abused, trafficked, and killed. Those problems are real, not hurt feelings of pampered students.
Yes, the world is a scary place, but not while a student of any color or creed is walking around “Old Nassau.” If those students feel threatened by a mural or the name of a man long dead, they have a lot to learn about the real world. They should spend their energy trying to prepare for the world they are about to enter.
Col. Jameson R. Johnson *03, retired
I sent a letter to the committee and President Eisgruber ’83 (who graciously responded) concerning the problems of President Wilson. During his presidency, in addition to his racism as a Virginian, he was vigorously involved in suppression of women’s suffrage, which is well documented. He ordered women, including a Senator’s wife, sent to prison for demonstrating for suffrage in front of the White House gates. The president was widely lauded and narrowly focused on foreign affairs. He deserves his fame – positive or negative. He also deserves our refusal to accept denial of his active attempts to suppress suffrage. Apparently, women need to parade in front of Nassau Hall to make that point heard. Let’s be honest and still respectful of the times in which he served. At the same time, can we laud a man without notice of the serious national flaws that he denied?
Arvin Anderson ’59
Vero Beach, Fla.
What with multicultural racial division and strife front and center, gender bias highlighted concerns, student diversity in numbers alone but with groups proliferating in their own little boxes, sexual mores, hookups, and sexual-assault headlines featured, alcoholism in full swing at club parties and the infirmary, athlete-students existing in their own tight-knit universe practicing and playing to the exclusion of knowing many others, more credits offered appealing to the narrow focus of social and racial interest groups and the growing embrace of proliferating essentially trade-school courses in finance, entrepreneurship, and ballet and other “key” majors and certificates, where is the time left to engage in rigorous academic studies in the core humanities and sciences that once defined our liberal arts “elite” university the equal of Oxford or Cambridge? That curriculum used to demand time and attention to burn the midnight oil. Or is this what a Princeton education has come to?
Instead of fretting over the name Wilson (but better to have been Harvard’s TR as a national leader to symbolize), whose name proliferates rightly or wrongly on a campus historically replete with naming rights of narrow-minded intolerant evangelical Protestant preachers, just get on with it. Figure out how to cope with a Middle East in chaos, climate change in full swing, consider how Shakespeare castigated and crucified statesmen and would have impaled our politics today, and go land that job in the equality-driven, social-activist intelligentsia of Queens-led Wall Street and Goldman Sachs to repay astronomical tuition and student debt.
For too many it looks like Princeton “in the nation's service and the service of all nations” is more of a way station to list on a résumé, not an end in itself with real academic rigor. But then, the execution of idyllic University policy has only itself to blame.
Laurence C. Day ’55
I was surprised that the main article in the Feb. 3 issue discussing the Woodrow Wilson controversy on campus was written by a paid freelance writer with an uncertain connection to the University. She provided a great deal of space to the arguments of the Black Justice League (BJL)), but barely mentioned the existence of the opposing Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC). It would have been more appropriate and more informative if PAW could have published the opposing viewpoints of the BJL and the POCC, presented by their members.
In fairness, I do note PAW's publication of a number of letters expressing various viewpoints, as well as the nuanced essay of Akil Alleyne ’08 (On the Campus, Feb. 3).
Harvey Rothberg ’49
A news bulletin: WE ARE ALL FLAWED!
I have been following the recent concerns about the character flaws of Woodrow Wilson. I had the good fortune to attend Princeton as a graduate student from 1960 through 1965. During those years I learned much in my own field, but I also learned much about Princeton and her history. Individuals like Madison, and McCosh, and Witherspoon, and Forrestal, as well as Wilson. It did not take long to appreciate their accomplishments, but to also note their flaws. Ten years ago I read the fine book The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present. Its author, James Axtell, chronicled an impressive list of Wilson’s accomplishments, but it was also clear to an objective reader that Wilson was a racist. Then again, he was hardly alone. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison all owned slaves. Brown University, near my home, was founded by a slave trader. As my dear long-departed mother used to say, “The only perfect person walked on the water 2,000 years ago; the rest of us need to swim.” Carl Friedrich Gauss, arguably the greatest mathematician who ever lived, was grumpy, irascible, and irritated many. Ludwig van Beethoven, arguably the greatest composer of all time, was something of a tyrant to the musicians under him. The list could go on and on.
I propose a different metric. In baseball, one measure of offensive performance is a hitter’s batting average. In the 115 seasons of the modern era, the highest batting average for a full season was an astounding .426 by Napoleon Lajoie in 1901 (no, sports fans – it was not Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941). Thus, even for Lajoie, who briefly was the absolute best, the creme de la creme, he failed more often than he succeeded!
In the 50 years since I received my Ph.D. I have managed a few worthwhile contributions, but, like Lajoie, I have failed often. For years I was haunted by an inner voice that kept whispering, “With a Ph.D. from Princeton, you should do more.” I tried, often with every fiber of my being, only to perpetually fall short of “greatness.” Then, one day about 15 years ago, while sailing, a strange peace settled over me, and I realized that what really mattered was that I led a basically good life, and that when the ninth inning finally came around that I could say that perhaps, just perhaps, in spite of all my many failures, that I would leave the world a tiny bit better place than it was when I entered. It says in the Good Book, “Let him who is free from sin, cast the first stone.” Based on that enduring idea, I would like to learn about the perfection of anyone who would ever wield a chisel to remove the name Woodrow Wilson from some of Princeton’s hallowed buildings. All of us fail, and often, but some leave the world a better place. I believe it was so for Woodrow Wilson.
Paul F. Jacobs *66
In response to my classmate Len Milberg’s sensitive and deeply reasoned letter recommending the change of the University’s name back to its original, College of New Jersey (Inbox, Feb. 3), I would suggest that he has overlooked a major emotional hurdle in wide acceptance of the thought. Perhaps because he does not have a letter sweater of his own, he may not have considered what current holders of a letter sweater, such as myself, would have to do about the now confusing P. Might I suggest that the current letter be grandfathered as of the name-change date, at which time newly awarded sweaters could be emblazoned with CNJ.
James L. Neff ’53
New York, N.Y.
I was pleased to read Deborah Yaffe’s mention of William Monroe Trotter’s White House meeting with President Wilson (feature, Feb. 3). Because of his vigorous protests of Wilson’s allowing segregation of several federal offices, Trotter was ejected. WMT has been a hero of mine since he was the subject of my 1958 senior thesis. Critics of Wilson’s racism should appreciate how this African American 1895 Harvard graduate fought a valiant real-time battle with Wilson in 1914.
Charles Puttkammer ’58
Mackinac Island, Mich.
The objections to Woodrow Wilson in the original student protests and some scholarly follow-up seem to borrow from culture theory to create an argument whose full form looks something like this. Wilson’s legacy is part of an oppressive structure whose wealth, power, and privilege derive from the oppression of minorities and which continues to operate in the form of “microaggressions.” Supposing this is true, the only logical response for believers would seem to be leaving the University. They can continue to work for change at Princeton wherever they go, just as protesters have referenced different college campuses. But by remaining, these individuals cannot fail to be complicit in the very injustices that they criticize. They will graduate with a Princeton degree or hold a Princeton professorship with all the benefits of resources and all the prestige and recognition that goes with them. These things are not incidental to Wilson, but the direct result of his academic reforms. To benefit from the power structure while condemning it seems basically incoherent. While this continues, it seems to roll back the more extreme versions of the cultural critique.
Matt Conner ’88
Thank you, PAW, for your article on Wilson and his legacy (feature, Feb. 3). I was struck by the realization that I, though a supremely uninvolved alum, am confident that the Princeton community will make an informed, ethical, and far-sighted choice on the matter of memorializing Wilson. So, the ties run deep.
I wish to relate, also, that I remember a casual discussion during my undergraduate years 1984-9 about the racism of Wilson, and my disappointment in that. At that time, I had no doubt, the ethos of Princeton rejected racism. I also felt that the contradiction in Wilson’s legacy was not talked about enough.
The recent PAW article brings this feeling to the fore. The story of the contradiction between Wilson’s immense achievements and his abhorrent racism is more epic than I had imagined. Examination of this story, in the best traditions of a liberal education, needs to be part of the Princeton undergrad experience.
Keeping the Wilson name on the campus, along with his story, both good and bad, could be part of this experience.
Will Warlick ’89
Salt Lake City, Utah
I was surprised that the main article in the Feb. 3 issue discussing the Woodrow Wilson controversy on campus was written by a freelance writer with an uncertain connection to the University. She provided a great deal of space to the arguments of the Black Justice League (BJL)), but barely mentioned the existence of the opposing Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC). It would have been more appropriate and more informative if PAW could have published the opposing viewpoints of the BJL and the POCC, presented by their members.
In fairness, I do note PAW’s publication of a number of letters expressing various viewpoints, as well as the nuanced essay of Akil Alleyne ’08 in the same issue.
Harvey Rothberg ’49
Would someone please explain to me how removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from a campus building differs from the Soviet practice of airbrushing the May Day parade grandstand photos?
Clinton W. Kemp ’71
I had the privilege to spend my junior year (1959/60) as a Fulbright Scholar in Princeton, attending the Woodrow Wilson School. I am proud of that, and find it hard to understand that persons who without doubt have made unparalleled contributions to the development of a nation, or the world in general, be condemned because parts of their thinking in retrospect appear adversarial to the political standards that dominate in later generations. The contributions of few would survive if we held to this standard all historical figures of substance.
The students who occupied the president’s office quoted Martin Luther King’s heroic fight for equal rights. Were these aware that Martin Luther, the great reformer, the man for which King was named, held harsh prejudices, including anti-Semitic convictions, which were published a number of times? Although today we certainly don’t agree with such sentiments, we can still herald Martin Luther for the courageous acts that he took to instigate reformation. In 2017 the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation will be commemorated, with many festivities all over the world. In the case of Martin Luther, the world has taken a different approach, perhaps one that the students who are critical of Woodrow Wilson may bear in mind. While the failures of this man are easily apparent, especially when viewed from the modern perspective, the greatness of his accomplishments transcend and are recognized well beyond his foibles as an individual.
Christoph von Rohr
I am writing this letter on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who was murdered because he worked tirelessly to break down the barriers of segregation and end the brutalities of racism. Yet today, white police continue to gun down unarmed black men. Republican presidential primary candidates continue to appeal to racial and religious prejudices. President Obama continues to be subjected to bitter, thinly guised racial animus. Racism continues to flourish in this society.
It has recently been revealed that former Princeton and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was not only a racist, but an egregious one. Indeed, President Eisgruber’s statement in the Jan. 13 issue of PAW notes that Wilson was “guilty of great wrongs, including the re-segregation of the federal civil service.” Princeton student protests have called for the removal of Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and the residential college. In this day and age when racism continues to be such a cancer on this society, it is plainly time to remove Wilson’s name from both the school and the college. To do otherwise would violate the most fundamental ideals of this university. Wilson’s racism certainly was not then, and is not now, “in the nation’s service.”
The protesting students, however, were acting in the nation’s service when they sought to have Wilson’s name removed. They should be applauded, not belittled. Unfortunately, some of the letters in the Jan. 13 issue of PAW do just that. One letter stated: “Grow up! The world will present difficulties far greater that the real or imagined slights experienced in campus debates. Princeton is not a nursery school, or is it!” Another letter characterized the protesters’ actions as “temper tantrums.” A third bemoaned the situation of America today where students have no “gratitude” for “great strides made to eliminate [past] unfairness,” and instead raise “increasing demands for ‘rights’: black rights, gay rights, even graduate-student rights!” Princeton is ill-served by such reactions.
At a time when racism is such a major national problem, it is important that educational institutions such as Princeton set a positive example. Removing Wilson’s name would be just such an example. This would not be “capitulation,” but rather, leadership.
Todd M. Smith ’68
Of course I disagree with the postmortem defamation of Woodrow Wilson. To erase his memory would greatly reduce the moral standing of Princeton University. I studied with admiration the work of his life, in particular his vision of a world republic with the rule of law and without wars, the League of Nations. There is no other option to save mankind from disaster, and the following preface to a friend describes my work to accomplish Woodrow Wilson’s goal within the United Nations. That we disapprove of racial discrimination (a view of discrimination propagated by philosophers like Kant and Diderot and widespread in Woodrow Wilson’s time) could not justly be held against him, because it is rare that a contemporary sees the fault of his time clearly. Segregation was still in use when I was in Princeton. A lady asked in company how she would react at a public dinner party where she would be seated next to Ralph Bunche, an Afro American UN deputy general secretary, replied without a moment’s hesitation: “I would get up and leave.” Nobody disagreed. We cannot accuse Woodrow Wilson, who shared his generation’s views, and was not formed by the glorious mission of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” Perhaps in Princeton it is still understood that verdicts on the dead are a sacrilege – fraught with disaster (Sophocles’ Antigone).
Otto L. Ortner ’58
I’m reminded of the Greek masks symbolizing comedy and tragedy when reading the letters to PAW concerning black students concerns and demands about life at Princeton – such a P-rade of grumpy old white guy letters! I feel both like laughing and crying. I’m a grumpy old white guy myself, but you guys are so off base. First, the Wilson School is just a name. It can be changed; this is not the fall of Rome. Major companies do it all the time, to realign a brand. (I think it’s a great idea: I propose the Nelson Mandela School or the Martin Luther King Jr. School. Both greater politicians, leaders, and historical figures than Wilson, like Wilson both imperfect, unlike him both less boring, both a better brand for our modern nation and for a more inclusive future.)
Second, on microaggressions: I believe fervently in the unsurpassed importance of free speech, on a university campus especially. That is why we must defend unceasingly the right of these students to make uncomfortable assertions about our conduct, our school, our system, and our nation – particularly because they are speaking truth to power, which is always more difficult, charged, and dangerous than defending the status quo. I have every confidence that grumpy old white men everywhere will adequately defend their own right to speak; I hope and ask that the greater Princeton community will calm down and hear out its black and other neglected and disrespected voices.
Finally, regarding the calls for black students to “suck it up” and get over the slurs and put-downs and other so-called microaggressions that they face as part of “normal” American and Princetonian life – how stunningly this misses the point. The point is about your conduct, our conduct, not about how black people choose or manage to deal with overt and veiled racism in our society. The point is, just because you and I may have a free-speech right to make slurs or put-downs, or a right to cross the street at night when a black guy is coming at us, Princeton as an institution does not have to condone such conduct and is justified in working to change it within legal means.
David Wright ’78