The controversy over Woodrow Wilson at Princeton is considerably more substantial than nearly all of the petty disputes that have roiled other campuses. After all, Wilson achieved fame as President of Princeton; he was not merely some long-forgotten donor like Isaac Royall. Princeton’s prestigious school of international relations is named after Wilson, and he figures prominently in the university’s history.
We have written several times about Wilson’s virulent racism, e.g., here. Wilson was not merely an armchair racist. Rather, he actively and successfully sought to reverse the progress that had been made by African-Americans during the predominantly Republican administrations that preceded his own.
After considerable deliberation, Princeton has decided not to change the name of its school of international relations or otherwise erase Wilson from its memory. It will, of course, make the usual gestures to buy off activists:
Although the board of trustees decided not to remove Wilson’s name from the institutions, it “called for an expanded and more vigorous commitment to diversity and inclusion at Princeton.” That includes introducing a new program aimed to bring more minority students into the university’s doctoral programs and diversifying campus art.
The board also agreed to change Princeton’s informal motto from “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of all nations” to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
Diversifying campus art and changing its “informal motto”? Princeton seems to be getting off cheap.
Princeton’s digital “revisiting” of Wilson is commendable in that it recognizes that he was not just a man of his time, like an 18th century planter. Rather, he was a peculiarly vicious racist whose segregationist views were widely criticized by contemporaries. As far as I have seen, however, the university’s distancing of itself from Wilson lacks any political context. That is, I have seen no acknowledgement that Wilson’s racism, while perhaps extreme, found a comfortable home in the Democratic Party, which for more than a century was the party of slavery and Jim Crow. Nor has the university acknowledged that racism, as we noted here, was common among the Progressives. That, perhaps, is a story that is still too uncomfortable for Princeton to tell.