Princeton University is now taking comments on Woodrow Wilson’s legacy

Less than a month after a group of students staged a 32-hour sit-in at Princeton University, the school has launched a website to gather comments on how Woodrow Wilson’s racist views should be judged more than a century later.

20151221 princeton legacy review all four corners 1200

The controversy began Nov 19, 2015 when members of the Black Justice League (BJL), a student group, entered Nassau Hall and occupied the university president’s office. They said they wanted the university to rename any campus buildings with Woodrow Wilson’s name on it and wanted all portraits of him taken down. The protesters cited Wilson’s racist legacy against blacks and his screening of “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House, a film that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan. The occupation ended a day later after the university agreed to look into the issue

The review

University President Christopher Eisgruber has set up a review committee that will seek public input and make recommendations on how the university should honor Wilson, who served a president of Princeton University and later as the President of the United States. 

“As every Princetonian knows, Wilson left a lasting imprint on this University and this campus, and while much of his record had a very positive impact on the shaping of modern Princeton, his record on race is disturbing,” Eisgruber wrote in an email to the University community. 

The website received 289 comments as of December 17, an encouraging figure given that the website was launched less than a week ago, said Bob Durkee,, the university’s Vice President and Secretary. He anticipates a lot more feedback as the review committee begins posting more information.

All comments submitted go to the Wilson Legacy Review Committee and are not visible on the website. The 10-person committee comprises members of the board of trustees and is chaired by Brent Henry, who graduated from Princeton in 1969.

Student reaction

Princeton Junior Stanley Mathabane said that the plan to review Wilson’s views on race is a positive development. But Mathabane, who is African-American, worries that in the end nothing will change.  “I’m a bit pessimistic about it,” said Mathabane,  “I feel like [Wilson’s race policies] are going to be forgiven by historical context.”Protecting Wilson’s legacy on campus may be financially beneficial to the University given its donor base, Mathabane added. He also said that the survey’s utility will depend on how the trustee committee chooses to disclose the recorded comments. Princeton undergraduate student government President Ella Cheng said the website was a great starting point but it needs to be promoted more effectively, so all students know about it. “This issue is so important to so many students,” she said. A headline linked to the review committee website has been featured on Princeton University’s homepage since it was first announced.

Cheng said the student government has not taken a position on the issue yet and is instead promoting dialogue among students over Wilson’s legacy.

Opposition formingA group of students responded to the Black Justice League by forming the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), which published an open letter to President Eisgruber opposing the BJL’s demands. The POCC wrote that Wilson has a mixed legacy similar to that of other historical figures, and that he is honored not for his racism but for his contributions as president of both Princeton and the United States. The POCC said it opposes any change in how the university honors Wilson, “We oppose efforts to purge (and literally paint over) recognitions of Woodrow Wilson’s achievements, including Wilson College, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and his mural in Wilcox Dining Hall.”

“It’s definitely a great start,” Princeton sophomore and POCC member Joshua Freeman said. Although the survey seems like an effective means of collecting initial community responses to Wilson, Freeman said he thinks face-to-face interactions between the trustees and community members will be more effective. 

Freeman, who is African-American, said that Wilson was a very multifaceted President. “There’s so much more to him besides his race policies. A lot of people on campus don’t seem to fully understand the history surrounding him,” Freeman said, adding that Wilson instituted a number of progressive reforms. He noted that Wilson’s legacy includes establishing the 14-point program for world peace and ratifying the 19th amendment to give women the right to vote.

“I’m of the firm belief that any kind of dialogue is good dialogue,” Princeton senior and POCC member Sebastian Marotta said. While students are generally aware of the website, it is not yet a main part of campus discussions. according to Marotta. “It doesn’t do anything very helpful so far as improving race relations,” he added. Senior POCC member Evan Draim, who helped launch a petition for the POCC, said it’s clear that many students are apprehensive about saying what they really think. “People were really afraid of attaching their name to the (our) petition for fear of being called a racist,” Draim said. The website will continue to be updated with expert opinions on Wilson early next year and a specific timeline for the project, said Bob Durkee, Princeton’s Vice President and Secretary.“We’re very eager to see what ends up on the website,” Durkee said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.