“As every Princetonian knows, [Woodrow] Wilson left a lasting imprint on [Princeton University], and while much of his record had a very positive impact on the shaping of modern Princeton, his record on race is disturbing,” Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber wrote recently in a letter to campus protestors. In the wake of student protests nationwide over racial disparities and their manifestations on college campuses, the debate had arrived at Princeton in full force. Among the critiques of student protestors were Wilson’s racism, and the students called for the removal of his name from the university.
The President’s letter continued, “I believe it is appropriate to engage our community in a careful exploration of this legacy.” Here, the president captures a larger problem—many don’t know the racist legacy that Wilson leaves. More problematic than continuing to honor Wilson for his contributions to Princeton University is omitting a conversation about his flaws.
Wilson opposed the efforts of civil rights leaders. Wilson advocated for segregation. Following his election, Wilson dismissed 15 of 17 black supervisors previously appointed to federal jobs and reinstated segregation in some federal offices. These realities are certainly a glaring flaw in his largely lauded legacy.
Wilson is not alone in the mixed nature of his legacy. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, committed adultery, a less than admirable trait in one so esteemed in the eye of history. As one columnist for the Washington Post wrote, because King’s adultery did not come to light during his most pivotal years of activism, “[he] was saved from ignominy. He was preserved for greatness.” Should the same argument be made for Wilson?
Likely not, as flaws and racism are as much a part of Wilson’s legacy as his leadership. The Princeton students are right: as Princeton student Wilglory Tanjong wrote in a column for the Daily Princeton, “[Princeton’s] past was white-centered, white-focused and plagued with white supremacist ideology.” While this historical reality cannot be removed, the removal of Wilson’s name would be a potent symbol for those students from minority backgrounds.
But, removing Wilson’s name might not be the most productive option. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs touts its namesake for the educational mission he established and his accomplishments in government; why not also include references to and discussions of the ways in which some of his public policies did a great disservice to one demographic of our nation’s population? Wilson’s legacy could become not only one of greatness but also a reminder to all students in the school to ensure that in their future careers in public and international affairs, they should learn from Wilson’s example—an example of both what to do and what not to do.
More powerful than effacing Wilson’s legacy is bringing his multiple legacies—both the good and the racist—to light. We are better served by challenging ourselves to grapple with the reality of an imperfect figure than of eliminating it.
Remus is a member of the class of 2016.