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Princeton May Drop Woodrow Wilson's Name Because He Was a Racist

The Virginia native and late president of the United States and Princeton University actively discouraged blacks from applying to the school and complimented the Ku Klux Klan as a "veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country."

by Olivia Becker and Simon Ostrovsky
Nov 20 2015, 10:10pm

Students gather inside Nassau Hall at Princeton University during a sit-in on Nov. 19, 2015 (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

When Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University in the beginning of last century, he actively discouraged black students from applying, saying that, "The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form." A century later, the temper of Princeton students may have kicked Wilson off campus for good.

On Thursday evening, Princeton's President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to a list of demands put forth by student activists who took over his office for 32 hours. Chief among their demands was the removal of the former US President's name from campus, including renaming the renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and removing the former president's portrait from public spaces.

Eisgruber had initially refused to get rid of Wilson's name but reversed tack last night and agreed to "initiate the process to consider removal" of Wilson's name. Not exactly a slam dunk for the protestors, but a significant capitulation for an Ivy League international affairs school that is consistently ranked as among the best in the world.

The sit-in at Princeton is part of a broader movement taking place at nearly 50 universities across the country, including three other Ivy League schools, over alleged racism on campuses. Many students point to both overt and institutional racism at college campuses that administrations either ignored or are unwilling to address.

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The 32 hours it took for the protest to be resolved at Princeton is actually brief compared to movements at other campuses. Students at the University of Missouri, for instance, spent months calling on the administration to respond to repeated incidences of racism on campus and it was not until the school's football team refused to play in the next game that the school's president and chancellor stepped down.

Princeton's administration threatened the students with disciplinary action for occupying the president's office but later offered them amnesty if they peacefully vacated the room last night.

"We got the beginnings of what we wanted," Destiny Crockett, a junior at Princeton and a member of Princeton's Black Justice League, who led the protest, said last night outside of President Eisgruber's office. "We're happy but not satisfied."

Students are meeting tomorrow with the board of trustees, who have the final say on removing Wilson's name from campus. Wilglory Tanjong, a sophomore at Princeton who also helped organize the protests, said they plan to be "very adamant" in order to get the signature of the chair of the board.

It's not just Princeton students who have pointed out Wilson's racist past. Historians have noted that the man usually seen as a progressive hero was also an avowed segregationist who re-segregated the federal government. He personally fired 15 of the 17 black supervisors in the federal service when he was in office and was an open fan of eugenics.

He also complimented the Ku Klux Klan as a "veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country."

"No one disagrees that Woodrow Wilson was an absolute racist, bigot, sexist," says Logan Coleman, a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson International Affairs School. Logan supports the removal of the name and would be honored to receive a diploma without his name on it, even though she acknowledges that it might hurt the prestige of the school.

"I see it as representative that I went to an institution that was willing and flexible enough to undergo these transformations, that recognized where these students were coming from," she said. "That will create its own new prestige."

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But not all students at Princeton were on board with scrubbing Wilson from campus.

Dan Taub, a senior at Princeton, thought the demands to remove the former president's name from the international affairs school went too far.

"Wilson may have been a racist, and we should acknowledge that as an institution," he said. But, Taub pointed out, Wilson also laid the groundwork for the creation of the United Nations and contributed significantly to modern diplomacy and the international nation-state structure. "To not acknowledge that in his alma mater and the institution he was president of, I think would be wrong."

The student's other demands, which the president agreed to last night, include the creation of designated housing for cultural groups on campus, implement cultural competency training for staff, and create a diversity requirement in the curriculum.

The demonstration began Wednesday morning after about 200 students walked out of their classes and gathered outside Princeton's Nassau Hall. Shortly after students walked out, the administration agreed to change the titles of the faculty who live in student housing from "master" to "head" of residential colleges.

Similar issues have been raised at Yale, where much of the current activism sweeping college campuses began, after a faculty member sent out an email several weeks ago refusing to explicitly ban Halloween costumes that some students considered racist. On Monday, after weeks of protests and meetings between students and the administration, Yale's president Peter Salovey agreed to most of the students' demands, including the creation of an academic program focused on issues of race and identity, doubling the funding for minority student centers, and implementing diversity training for faculty. Salovey did not, however, fire the faculty member who sent the email, Erika Christakis, or her husband Nicholas, who is also a professor at Yale.

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Tanjong said the issues students hoped to raise at the sit-in was more than just about Wilson's legacy of racism and echoes much of the concerns students at Yale expressed.

"We want to implement on campus this idea that black culture is important," she told VICE News.

Princeton's willingness to address student demands after such short protests could signal the start of a wave of reforms across American university campuses, which had up until now kept minority student movements at arms length.

Additional reporting by Katerina Patin.