PRINCETON, N.J. ― Students staged a protest Wednesday inside the office of Princeton University’s president, demanding the school remove the name of former school president and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from programs and buildings over what they said was his racist legacy.
Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber told the students he agreed with them that Wilson was racist and that the university needs to acknowledge that, according to a video posted to YouTube. But a school spokesman said the president also told students it is important to weigh Wilson’s racism, and how bad it was, with the contributions he made to the nation.
Wilson was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910 and served as New Jersey’s governor from 1911 to 1913, when he entered the White House. The Democrat was a leading progressive but supported segregation, including appointing Cabinet members who segregated federal departments.
About 30 Black and White students, from a group called the Black Justice League, took part in the protest, demanding a range of changes to improve the social and academic experience of Black students. Scores of other students joined in the protest outside the building.
Princeton is home to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, his name is on one of the school’s residential colleges and there is a mural of Wilson in a dining hall that the protesters want removed.
“Having to walk by buildings that (have Wilson’s name), having to walk by his mural, having to live in residential colleges that didn’t want our presence on campus, that’s marginalizing,” said Asanni York, a Black junior who is majoring in public policy. “People are hurt by that. All this matters because, at the end of the day, Black people’s feelings matter just as much as any other people’s feelings matter.”
The protesters also want the Ivy League university to institute cultural competency training for staff and faculty, and add a cultural space on campus dedicated to black students.
Princeton spokesman Martin Mbugua said Eisgruber and Dean of College Jill Dolan spent about an hour talking with the students and “expect the conversation to continue beyond today’s meeting.”
The protest comes as students at colleges across the country rally over race and other social issues and on the same day that Princeton announced it was ending the “master” title for leaders of the six residential colleges where students live on campus. The faculty members will now be known as “head of the college.”
In August, a professor at Yale University cited the racial overtones of the word in asking students to stop calling him “master.”
Dolan said Princeton’s faculty members have been discussing changing the title for years.
“Many of us who would never have been part of the Princeton experience … often feel our own exclusion,” she said. “Faculty and administrators prioritize inclusion and belonging, (from the) iconography of campus, to curriculum … in terms of making sure we represent the diversity of human experience.”
Dolan, who oversees Princeton’s residential colleges, said groups across campus are having discussions about Wilson’s place at the school.
It’s a “conversation people are having all over the campus, in part because it’s part of the national conversation. There are no easy answers here,” she said. “It’s a conversation we all need to have about the implications of history.”
William Keylor, professor of international relations at the Pardee School of Boston University, said Wilson, who was born in Virginia, brought Southern values and opinions to the White House and allowed for the reinstatement of segregation in a city that had been desegregated.
“We should recognize that racial aspect of his behavior, of his administration and certainly not deny it or sweep it under the rug, but at the same time we have to recognize that he was a very effective reformer, domestically … and he was a champion of self-determination abroad,” Keylor said. “We have to treat him as a human being with these flaws, but also recognizing his great contributions to American history.”