Princeton University Archives

In Response to: Occupying Nassau Hall

The demand by student protesters that the University rename the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs and the Wilson residential college prompted many letters, Web comments, and Facebook posts from alumni. Here is a sampling; expanded versions and additional viewpoints can be found at PAW Online.

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.

Michelle M. Buckley ’01

Boston, Mass.

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

Westwood, Mass.

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!

A recommendation: Don’t give in to 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

Riverview, Fla.

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.

Murphy Sewall ’64

Windham, Conn.

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

Venice, Fla.

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 ’22 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 caliber 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.

As an alumna, I appreciate President Eisgruber’s proactive communication with us, and applaud his efforts to defuse a volatile situation. But I must take issue with the scope and tone of the protesters’ “demands,” and respectfully disagree with the University administration’s seeming capitulation to noisy threats and unpleasantries.

Woodrow Wilson, in his day, would not have wanted me to attend Princeton either. But I am proud to be among the first generation of women to have attended Princeton. I am honored to have enjoyed the friendship and intellectual comradeship of my fellow students, brilliant and forthright persons of varied races, ethnicities, beliefs, and nationalities.

The Princeton I attended taught me, first and foremost, that knowledge and understanding are acquired not by surrounding oneself in a cozy echo chamber where one is sheltered from conflicting — and at times uncomfortable — views, but obtained only through exposure to all viewpoints, serious examination thereof, reasoned discourse, and the resulting ability to formulate, test, question, express, and support one’s conclusions. Today’s Princetonians deserve nothing less.

Nan Moncharsh Reiner ’77

Alexandria, Va.

As a WWS MPA graduate, I am closely following the ongoing debate. History shows that Woodrow Wilson was perhaps among our country’s most complex presidents, leaving behind a uniquely contradictory legacy. He was a model progressive on many issues, both international and domestic. It was on the basis of those dimensions of his legacy, together with his contributions to Princeton, that he earned the honor of having his name placed on our beloved school.

At the same time, he was a deeply bigoted individual who turned back the clock on race relations with sweeping decisions that were even then considered to be out of date and much more racist than the dominant racial thinking in most of the U.S. at the time. The legacies of his thought and actions have weighed heavily on our country’s subsequent history. They have caused deep and irreparable harm to countless millions of African Americans while damaging the character and conscience of even larger numbers of complicit white Americans over the past century.

I respect the courage, aims, and timing of the Princeton students, and strongly support them in their demand for an end to the almost saintly reverence given to Wilson on the Princeton campus. To this end I join my voice to their demands for changing the name of our school. I believe it not only correct, but imperative, that we send a clear signal of the values on which our school stands and for which we work.

Peter Matlon *71

Washington, D.C.

I am gratified to see that letters on the Wilson issue reject this attempt at revisionist history, as I emphatically do. To conflate Wilson’s brilliant educational achievements at Princeton and his many other civic contributions with his abysmal racial bias is simply absurd. It is ironic that Wilson was such a controversial figure as University president that it took a generation before his name was finally added to SPIA in 1948, and now we get this misguided attempt to delete him from the record. I am proud to be the sixth Hibben to graduate from this great university, and nothing will ever change that, but if Wilson is expunged from Princeton, he takes me with him.

Stuart Hibben ’48

Swarthmore, Pa.

In discussing the record of Woodrow Wilson and his legacy on our campus (including his views on race), it is very important to realize that this is not the first time that Princeton University has had this discussion. The 2006 Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs, April 28–29, 2006, titled “Woodrow Wilson in the Nation’s Service,” was a University-wide collaboration and was part of the year-long 75th-anniversary celebration of the WWS and coincided with the 150th anniversary of Wilson’s birth. The final report of the colloquium provides important background to the current discussion and can be accessed at:

Charles Plohn Jr. ’66

Princeton, N.J.



Posted Jan. 11, 2016

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 which 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, that 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 that 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

Princeton, N.J.

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 be forever 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 our policies 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 (the name of the Princeton Outing Club I once loved, whose name change apparently is, as I feared it would be, a harbinger of its new purpose) 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.

The Jan. 13 issue of the PAW, focused on the Black Justice League and the sit-in at Nassau Hall, was the most interesting and substantive I’ve read in the 25-plus years since I graduated. My years at Princeton in the early 1990s were marked by near-catatonic political apathy among students; aside from “Take Back the Night” marches and “Gay Jeans Day,” a tepid attempt to support LGBT classmates, I recall few to no signs of widespread political action or protest on campus. Even the Gulf War inspired little more than a few American flags flown from dorm windows. Whether or not one agrees with the current protests over race issues at Princeton, we ought to be heartened that today’s students are again embracing the engaged and rebellious role that has been the traditional purview of students since the days of the Paris barricades.

And as for the outpouring of letters to the PAW from alumni bemoaning this state of affairs, I suppose they, too, are to be congratulated on having embraced their own traditional place as crusty curmudgeons complaining about today’s spoiled and clueless young people. Don’t worry, one day the Class of 2016 will be writing in to complain that the Class of 2066 just doesn’t get it, either.

Zanthe Taylor ’93

Brooklyn, N.Y.

As a serendipitous survivor of the Holocaust and a grateful Princeton Graduate School alumnus, I read with concern about the revisionism proposed by those who would expunge the name of Woodrow Wilson from the hallowed halls of the University. Racial prejudice toward my people has existed for millennia, and yet no one in the Jewish community has ever suggested the erasure of great contributors to society, even those who may have harbored unjust and unjustifiable notions. Surely Wilson was a very major figure in the history of Princeton, of the nation, and even of the entire world. His unfortunate prejudices, alas, were part and parcel of the time, and if we have come a long way in the interim, his work in developing a climate of the universality of mankind is partly responsible and deserves reverence, despite his flaws.

George Sturm *55

Englewood, N.J.

I am a lover of and enthusiastic supporter of Irish Letters – embracing poetry, history, theater, and prose – at the University. I have been responsible for bringing important Irish Catholic literary figures such as Clair Wills, Fintan O’Toole, and Colm Tóibín to teach at Princeton, as well as continuing to support the work of my friends the poet Paul Muldoon and the Lewis Center head Michael Cadden.

Most Princetonians are unaware that both the town and University were named for the English Protestant king, William III of the House of Orange-Nassau, who defeated the former English Catholic king, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne. William thereby displaced Oliver Cromwell as the most hated man in Ireland but was fondly called “King Billy” by supporters, including a few bearing the surname Wilson. Professors Cadden, Wills, and O’Toole, I know, are aware of King Billy’s background. One can almost feel the pain they endure daily to hear and read the name Princeton. Undoubtedly, some students of Irish Catholic descent are inflicted with a similar hurt.

I believe that Scott Fitzgerald ’17 never completed his degree because he was so embarrassed singing “Old Nassau,” and Eugene O’Neill 1910’s actor father, James, is known to have detested the color and fruit orange. I respectfully request that President Eisgruber ask Kathryn Hall ’80, chair of the Board of Trustees, to appoint a committee to examine the possibility of renaming Princeton the College of New Jersey, as it was known between 1746 and 1896. President Eisgruber might also approach the town council about restoring the 18th-century name Stony Brook to the municipality. Nassau Street would become Route Two.

Leonard L. Milberg ’53

Rye, N.Y.

My commitment to racial justice developed in part due to my experiences majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School and participating in Sustained Dialogue on campus. I’m concerned about the tone of reactions from many alumni about the request of student advocates to rename places on campus. 

I encourage people who care about the future of Princeton, our nation, and the world to read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and learn about the renaming of places in other countries. To understand the context of the discussions occurring, we must consider both the dominant narrative in America and the history of healing elsewhere after segregation, genocide, and colonization. For example, South Africans renamed places after apartheid.  

As an educator, I hope the alumni community will interact respectfully with students who act as engaged citizens, regardless of whether we agree with their opinions. Let’s listen with an open mind, model civil discourse, and always consider how we can support bending the arc of the universe toward justice.

Cindy Assini ’04

Hillsborough, N.J.

I join the vast ranks of Princeton alumni who will boycott Alumni Day festivities in protest to its Woodrow Wilson Award, specifically in protest to the University for having taken no action of any sort with regard to Woodrow Wilson’s blatant printed racist comments.

The fact that he was growing up in the Confederacy (Stanton, Va.) during the Civil War accounts for, but does not condone, his extreme views recounted a century and a half later. Yes, he was an outstanding president. But no, we cannot continue to have him glorified in the same measure as in the past, nor should we need to have these quotes thrown back at us again and again because the University prefers to sweep the issue under the carpetbag.

Even though I belong to no minority group, I am shocked and embarrassed by the University’s inaction, and some explanation or apology is certainly due to the greater University community.

Paul Hertelendy ’53

Berkeley, Calif.

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

Kensington, Md.

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.