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Woodrow Wilson's name removed from facilities and programs at Princeton University

June 29, 2020
Wilson is a former U.S. president and Princeton president, but the university decided that his racism and segregationist beliefs made him an inappropriate figure to honor.

Princeton University is removing the name of Woodrow Wilson, former president of the United States as well as the university, from its School of Public and International Affairs and one of its residential colleges.

Princeton's board of trustees "concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms," University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in a statement.

Wilson was the president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910. He served two terms as U.S. president from 1913 to 1921.

"Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time," Eisgruber says. "He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today."

The public policy school will now be known as “The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.”

Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school," Eisgruber says. "When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school. This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role. In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this University and its school of public and international affairs must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice."

Regarding the residential college, Princeton had already planned to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening two new residential colleges now under construction.

"Rather than ask students in the College to identify with the name of a racist president for the next two years, the University will accelerate retirement of the name." EIsgruber says.

The College will instead be known as “First College” in recognition of its status as the first of the residential colleges that now play an essential role in the residential life of Princeton undergraduates

In announcing the changes at Princeton, Eisgruber acknowledged Wilson's contributions.

"Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university," Eisgruber says. "Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today—including its research excellence and its preceptorial system—were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership."

Unlike historical figures known for their pro-slavery sentiments or connections to the Confederacy, Princeton "honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism," Eisgruber says.

"That, however, is ultimately the problem," Eisgruber continued. "Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people."

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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