Princeton Announces It Won’t Ditch the Woodrow Wilson Name

Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Robertson Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.Photo: Barry Winiker/Getty Images

For a while, the name “Woodrow Wilson” has arched some eyebrows at Princeton University. In addition to being a former U.S. president, Wilson was a Princeton alum and, later on, a faculty member and president of the university; and so his name is affixed to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, the university’s school of public policy, and Woodrow Wilson College, one of the undergraduate colleges into which the larger university is divided.

The problem is that despite being remembered for a number of progressive initiatives, Wilson also happened to be a rather racist guy who, among many other harmful acts on this front, threw a civil rights leader out of the White House. Last fall, amid the broader upsurge in national conversations about diversity and inclusion on campus and demands from Princeton students to strip Wilson’s name from the school and the college, Princeton announced it would put together a committee of trustees to examine Wilson’s legacy and determine what, if any, action to take.

Today, Princeton released that committee’s report (PDF). The short version: No, the members don’t recommend changing the name.

The ten-member committee solicited the opinions of historians, met with various campus groups, and received “more than 635 submissions” from both Princeton-affiliated correspondents and the general public before reaching its decision.

Its document offers up some standard, bureaucrat-ish ideas about how to make Princeton a more welcoming place to members of marginalized groups; among other things, it recommends the founding of a “subcommittee designated as the board’s Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion to monitor progress … on a regular basis and bring issues to the full board for its consideration as needed.”

The committee’s conclusions on the name question are probably best summed up in this paragraph:

This has been a learning experience for the committee and for the University community. We have learned from each other and from the many views that have been presented; and we are especially grateful to the nine expert scholars and biographers who accepted our invitation to inform and shape our conversation. Their comments made it clear that Wilson had a transformative impact on the University, the country, and the world. It is also clear that he held racist views and took or permitted racist actions. In citing and remembering Wilson, Princeton has venerated him in a way that has not been forthcoming or transparent about this harmful aspect of his legacy.

The argument, in other words, is that Wilson did a lot of good stuff, and that that should be acknowledged — but that his racism and its impact needs to be more fully explored and publicized by the university as well.

In trying to figure out how to weigh all this, it looks like the committee members took a somewhat procedural tack on the specific question of name-changing — they write that they “believe there is and should be a presumption that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation, as happened in both these cases … will remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remain valid.”

Obviously, the trustees have to balance a bunch of competing concerns, including input from rich and important alums unsympathetic to these sorts of name changes, and it seems like this reasoning is an attempt to do so. Still, it’s unlikely that the students and activists offended by the Wilson name will be mollified by the idea that because the school’s trustees made a given decision a long time ago — at a time when a very different, less diverse set of players were shaping Princeton as an institution — that decision should be treated from a default stance of respect.

For what it’s worth, not all of the committee’s members agreed with this logic — the report notes that the recommendation to keep the Wilson name wasn’t unanimous.