PRINCETON – In the midst of my Practical Ethics class last month, several students stood up and walked out. They were joining hundreds of others in a protest led by the Black Justice League (BJL), one of many student groups that have emerged across the United States in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, and subsequent police killings of unarmed African Americans.
Later that day, members of the BJL occupied the office of Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber, vowing not to leave until their demands were met. These demands included “cultural competency training” for both academic and non-academic staff; a requirement that students take classes on the history of marginalized people; and the provision of a “cultural affinity space” on campus dedicated specifically to African-American culture.
The demand that received national attention was for the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Wilson College, one of its residential colleges, to be renamed. The college dining hall features a large mural of Wilson, which the BJL also wants removed. Honoring Wilson, the League says, is offensive to African American students, because Wilson was a racist.
Wilson was a progressive in domestic affairs and an idealist in foreign policy. His administration passed laws against child labor and granted new rights to workers, as well as reforming banking laws and challenging monopolies. In the aftermath of World War I, he insisted that foreign policy be guided by moral values, and advocated democracy and national self-determination in Europe.
Yet his policies for African Americans were reactionary. In 1913, when he became US President, he inherited a federal government that employed many African Americans, some working alongside whites in mid-level management positions. Under his administration, racially segregated workplaces and washrooms, which had been abolished at the end of the Civil War, were re-introduced. African American managers were demoted to more menial positions. When a delegation of African Americans protested, he told them that they should regard segregation as a benefit.
Wilson’s name features prominently at Princeton not only because he is one of the university’s most famous alumni (and the only one to receive the Nobel Peace Prize). It is also because, before he was US President, he was Princeton’s president, and in the words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, the person who “perhaps did more than anyone else to transform [Princeton] from a preppie gentlemen’s preserve into a great research university.”
Wilson is famous worldwide for the “Fourteen Points” that he proposed as the basis of a peace treaty to end World War I. He called for autonomy for the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, as well as an independent Polish state. No wonder, then, that there is a Wilson Square in Warsaw, that Prague’s main train station is named after him, and that there are Wilson streets in both Prague and Bratislava.
Among the other Fourteen Points are calls for open covenants – no secret treaties plotting the post-war division of another country’s territory – and for a reduction in trade barriers. Perhaps most momentous is the proposal for the formation of “a general association of nations…for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
That call led to the founding of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, which from 1920 until 1936 had its headquarters in the Palais Wilson, in Geneva. The building retains that name, and is today the headquarters of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
History is full of deeply flawed people who did great things. In the US, we have only to look at slave-owning founding fathers and early presidents like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. One might plead on their behalf that, in contrast to Wilson, they were at least no worse than the standards that prevailed in their time. But is that sufficient grounds to continue commemorating them?
A New Orleans school board thought not. After adopting a resolution declaring that no school should be named after a slaveholder, it renamed George Washington Elementary School after an African American surgeon who fought for desegregation of blood transfusions. Should the name of the country’s capital city be reconsidered, too?
In his book Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States, Ajume Wingo describes how “political veils” gloss over a political system’s historical details, creating an idealized visage. The same happens to great – or not-so-great – political leaders, who become symbolic vehicles for inculcating civic virtues.
As our moral standards shift, however, different characteristics of the historical person become more relevant, and the symbol can develop a different meaning. When Wilson’s name was added to Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs in 1948, Rosa Parks’ famous bus ride was still seven years away, and segregation in the American South was not under serious challenge. Now it is unthinkable. Wilson’s racism therefore becomes more salient, and he ceases to embody the values that are important to Princeton University today.
Wilson’s contributions to the university, the US, and the world cannot and should not be erased from history. They should, instead, be recognized in a manner that creates a nuanced conversation about changing values, and includes both his positive achievements and his contributions to America’s racist policies and practices.
At Princeton, one outcome of that conversation should be the education of students and faculty who would otherwise be unaware of the complexity of an important figure in the university’s history. (I certainly have benefited: I have taught at Princeton for 16 years, and I have admired some of Wilson’s foreign-policy positions for much longer; but I owe my knowledge of Wilson’s racism to the BJL.) The end result of the conversation we should be having may well be the recognition that to attach Wilson’s name to a college or school sends a message that misrepresents the values for which the institution stands.