Princeton’s trustees voted Friday to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, removing the name of the alumnus and former U.S. and University president whose racist actions have been the subject of a critical reevaluation in recent years. The University’s top honor for an undergraduate alum will continue to be called the Woodrow Wilson Award.
According to announcements released Saturday afternoon, the school is now called the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. The University also moved up its plan to “retire” the name of Wilson College, the first of its six residential colleges. It is now known as “First College.” The name of the award — conferred each year on Alumni Day — will not be changed because, the trustees wrote, Princeton took on a legal obligation to name the prize for Wilson and to honor his “conviction that education is for ‘use’ and … the high aims expressed in his memorable phrase, ‘Princeton in the Nation’s Service.’”
In a statement, the Board of Trustees said of the Wilson School decision, “We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms.” The trustees cited the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks as “tragic reminders of the ongoing need for all of us to stand against racism and for equality and justice.”
The changes were recommended by President Eisgruber ’83, who noted in a separate statement that “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.” Eisgruber acknowledged that the University’s conclusions “may seem harsh to some. Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today — including its research excellence and its preceptorial system — were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership. … People will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures. Part of our responsibility as a University is to preserve Wilson’s record in all of its considerable complexity.”
Eisgruber said in his statement: “Wilson is a different figure from, say, John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, whose fame derives from their defenses of the Confederacy and slavery (Lee was often honored for the very purpose of expressing sympathy for segregation and opposition to racial equality). Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.
“That, however, is ultimately the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people. When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore, or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.”
Read More: Wilson, Revisited (Feb. 13, 2016)
Wilson’s legacy has been a matter of intense debate at Princeton since at least November 2015, after the Black Justice League, a student group, led a 33-hour sit-in at Eisgruber’s office in Nassau Hall. The group’s demands for racial justice included removing Wilson’s name from University buildings and programs, an issue that drew national attention. (The New York Times weighed in with an editorial endorsing the change.) Eisgruber formed the Wilson Legacy Review Committee, a 10-member trustee committee chaired by Brent Henry ’69, to consider whether the University should change the ways in which it recognizes Wilson’s actions at Princeton and during his time in the White House.
Hundreds of alumni shared their views with the Committee, which released its final report in April 2016. While the Committee said the University must be “honest and forthcoming” about its history and recognize Wilson’s failings, it stopped short of recommending renaming the Wilson School or Wilson College. Princeton’s trustees approved several additional actions recommended by the committee, including creating a “pipeline program” to encourage more students from underrepresented groups to pursue doctoral degrees and careers in academia; adding campus art and iconography that reflects Princeton’s diversity; updating the University’s informal motto; and installing a permanent marker near Robertson Hall that “educates the campus community and others about both the positive and negative dimensions of Wilson’s legacy.” The marker, created by artist Walter Hood, was installed in October 2019 and drew new protests and continued debate over Wilson’s racial views.
The issue resurfaced again this month, as the nation grappled with racial injustice. On June 22, a group of students and alumni of the public-affairs school sent a letter to the University administration requesting “comprehensive transformation” of the school. Alumna and philanthropist Kwanza Jones ’93 also wrote an open letter to Eisgruber and Vice President for Advancement Kevin Heaney, arguing that by not removing Wilson’s name, “Princeton seems content on lauding Wilson and glorifying his actions.”
The student and alumni letter, co-authored by Gaby Pollner ’20, Ananya Malhotra ’20, Andrew Gnazzo ’20, and Janette Lu’ 20, included demands to change the core curriculum; hire people of color for faculty positions; institute a senior-thesis prize similar to the Toni Morrison Prize for work that has “pushed the boundaries and enlarged the scope of our understanding of issues of race”; create a committee to research reparations; and denounce and remove Wilson’s name from the school. They also asked for training for all faculty and staff on anti-racism and transparency in cases of discrimination in the classroom.
“[We] are deeply troubled and angered by the School’s silence regarding the ongoing practices of racial injustice and police brutality, particularly in the context of Princeton’s preservation of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy,” the letter said. “We are compelled to write at this … because of Princeton’s culpability in histories of slavery and oppression.”
In addition to the individual signatories, the letter was endorsed by Princeton student groups, including the Black Student Union, Association of Black Women, Black Men’s Association, African Students Association, Students for Prison Education and Reform, the Latin American Student Association, and Black Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Accountability Task Force.
The Woodrow Wilson School began in 1930 as the School of Public and International Affairs and was renamed in Wilson’s honor in 1948, the same year that the school’s graduate professional program was added.
In a statement to school alumni, Dean Cecilia Rouse wrote that she “unequivocally support[s]” the decision to change the name. “Retiring the name does not take the place of systemic change, but it does signal that we are prepared to do the hard work of confronting racism and other injustices,” she wrote. “We have much more to do, and I know all of you stand ready to contribute your time, thoughtfulness, and passion to that effort.”
Rouse wrote that she is glad the school is no longer named for any individual: “Connecting the School to a certain person signals that the School stands for much of what the honoree believes. I feel that for a policy school to be the best, it has to be a place where a true diversity of backgrounds and beliefs exist,” she said.
Wilson College had its roots in a progressive movement at Princeton. The college grew out of the Woodrow Wilson Lodge, created in 1957 by members of the Class of 1959 as an alternative to bicker and the eating-club system.
As Michael Ellis ’59 wrote in a letter to PAW in 2016, “around half a dozen intrepid sophomores, after a couple of years of especially horrendous bickers, announced to the University that they would refuse to bicker and that they believed the University owed it to them to provide an alternative ‘facility’ for their dining and socializing. In support of this mini-movement, a couple of them did original research in the library of the effort by President Woodrow Wilson  to alter or eliminate the club system. The University, much to our surprise, responded well; and by the fall, the old Madison dining hall of Commons was renovated and made into a comfortable two-room facility with, I recall, excellent meals.” Ellis recalled that Lodge members invited faculty members, including poet and critic R.P. Blackmur and famed physicist John Wheeler, to join students for dinner and informal conversations, “making some memorable evenings.”
In 1961, the Lodge moved to the newly constructed Wilcox Hall and renamed itself the Woodrow Wilson Society, becoming Wilson College in 1968.