Despite a campaign by students at Princeton, the university’s board of trustees has decided not to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson, President of Princeton from 1902-1910 and President of the United States from 1913-1921, is widely credited with inspiring the League of Nations but has been criticised for his personal racism and for excluding black people from federal jobs during his time in government.
After a group of students called The Black Justice League organised a sit-in at the president’s office in November 2015, Princeton’s administration created a committee to examine Wilson’s legacy which published its final recommendations on April 4.
“Developments at Princeton are the latest in a number of student protests over racism in their universities”
While the committee acknowledges that the continued presence of the name “may be discomforting to many, and offensive to some,” it did not cede to the Black Justice League’s demands, concluding “both the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Woodrow Wilson College should retain their current names.” The report goes on to recommend increased access to doctoral programs for underrepresented groups for doctoral programs and greater historical awareness of the former President’s ‘complex’ legacy.
The Black Justice League issued a statement describing the report as “meaningless platitudes” and which said that “Princeton’s decision today demonstrates unambiguously its commitment to symbols and legacies of anti-Blackness in the name of “history” and “tradition” at the expense of the needs of and in direct contravention with the daily experiences of Black students at Princeton.”
The developments at Princeton are the latest in a number of student protests over racism in their universities. Harvard Law School recently agreed to change its shield following a student movement named Royall Must Fall campaigned against the continued presence of slave-owner Isaac Royall’s crest on the Law School’s shield. And Royall Must Fall itself was named in reference to the Rhodes Must Fall movements in Oxford and Cape Town, which have called for the removal of statues of British business magnate Cecil Rhodes.
Laolu Ayeko, a first year at Pembroke, dismissed comparisons between Rhodes Must Fall and the campaign to remove Wilson’s name from Princeton’s campus, telling Cherwell, “Wilson was born before the Emancipation Proclamation and there’s a big difference in the level of endorsement between naming a school after someone and putting up a statue of someone. The reasoning for naming it after him is pretty valid as well: it is an ode to a positive aspect of him rather than him as whole.”
Ayeko also commented on the statement that Princeton’s decision was a “commitment to symbols and legacies of anti-Blackness,” saying “‘it’s a false conclusion to draw from the situation. It assumes Wilson is a symbol of anti-blackness. He wasn’t; he was a symbol of American politics at that time, in the same way George Washington owning slaves does not make him a symbol of anti-blackness in the eyes of most people. Also his success was not directly at the expense of the black community.”
Xavier Cohen, a third year student at Balliol, disagreed. Cohen told Cherwell, “Naming an institution after someone is to laud them. That’s why we do it in the first place and why people pay a lot of money to get things named after them. It isn’t to do with ‘remembering our history,’ as if we would forget about a US president if an institution was no longer named after him. Instead, what’s happening is that Princeton is ignoring the voices of already-marginalised students of colour who rightly point out that this is not someone we should be lauding in a world in which racism is still deeply ingrained.”