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Princeton must finish what it started

Princeton University (iStock).

Princeton University recently announced the removal of President Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of international and public affairs and one of its residential colleges. The reason? The former president of both the university, and later, the United States, was a racist. 

Current Princeton head Christopher Eisgruber explained that “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.” As president of the university, Wilson had discouraged Black students from applying, and as president of the United Statues, he had segregated the federal civil service.

Princeton’s action is a welcome, if overdue, turnaround. Only four years ago, after a review process catalyzed by a 33-hour student sit-in of Eisgruber’s office, the Board of Trustees voted against doing what it has now done. Eisgruber agreed with that vote but recently changed his mind. By honoring Wilson even for his worthy accomplishments, Princeton unavoidably presented a racist as a role model. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing  — just the latest episode in a pattern of police brutality against people of color — Princeton could no longer maintain that approach.

Yet what the university board actually decided is more complex and problematic than what the recent media attention suggests. The board also announced that Wilson’s name will continue to grace the university’s “highest honor for an undergraduate alumnus or alumna.” That is the Woodrow Wilson Award, given annually in recognition of extraordinary public service. Likewise, the university has announced no policy change with respect to other honors, such as the Woodrow Wilson Chair in Literature and the graduate school’s Fellowship of Woodrow Wilson Scholars program. Instead, the board emphasized “a continuing responsibility to remember [Wilson’s] achievements even as we honestly and publicly contend with his failures.” In other words, while Wilson’s racism has moved the board to eliminate two prominent uses of the former president’s name, it will continue to brand other honors and programs with that same name.

That is a mistake. 

The board advances two arguments for keeping the award. First, because the award resulted from a gift, the university “took on a legal obligation to name the prize for Wilson and honor his ‘conviction that education is for ‘use’ and … the high aims expressed in his memorable phrase, ‘Princeton in the Nation’s Service.’” But Princeton has ample legal options for renaming the award. It can seek judicial authorization to modify the gift terms, or it can simply return the money. Surely, the board should not settle on a policy of perpetuating the association with Wilson’s racism only so long as that association is well-funded. 

Second, the board emphasizes that the “award explicitly honors specific and positive aspects of Wilson’s career, and it, unlike the School or College, does not require students to identify with the Wilson name in connection with their academic or residential programs.” But this explanation is barely distinguishable — if at all — from the now-abandoned rationale for keeping the name of the policy school and residential college. Like the school and college, the award publicly elevates a racist as a role model. True, the recipient is an alum rather than a current student. Does the traditional commencement walk through FitzRandolph Gate somehow immunize graduating Princeton seniors from racist role modeling?

The problem is all the more acute precisely because of the university’s recent action. When Princeton — one of the world’s most prestigious universities — rightly calls attention to Wilson’s racism, it inevitably makes racism a more central part of his public image, rendering it all the more impossible to separate the “good” Wilson from the “bad.” We recognize that many institutions face similar thorny questions about how to address their past, but Princeton has already “crossed the Rubicon.” Its current path of both repudiating and honoring Wilson is unsustainable. 

Think also of the difficulty that Princeton now gratuitously imposes on the very people whom it chooses to celebrate. What should be a career highlight — Princeton’s highest alumni honor — now comes bundled with a moral dilemma over whether or not to accept an award named after a person the university itself has said is too racist to dignify for other purposes. One can always confront the elephant in the room, as ACLU Director Anthony Romero gamely did last February when he accepted the honor “with glee” while he imagined Wilson “spinning in his grave like an Olympic skater” at the irony of this award being given to the head of an organization founded in opposition to Wilson’s xenophobic detention and deportation policies during the first Red Scare. The far better solution is to remove the elephant, and simply celebrate the public service of the recipient.  

Princeton should continue to observe Wilson’s impact — in all its complexity — on the university and beyond. But the more nuanced discussion of Wilson’s legacy that all agree is necessary is simply ill suited to the binary role modeling inherent in naming honors and programs. If Princeton is at a loss to identify other inspiring names from its roster of faculty and alumni, how about Toni Morrison, Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, to name just a few?

Alexander K.A. Greenawalt is a professor of Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. As a Princeton undergraduate he resided in Wilson College. Follow him on Twitter @sashagreenawalt.

Bridget J. Crawford is professor of law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Follow her on Twitter @profbcrawford. 

Tags anti-discrimination Anti-racism anti-racism protests BLM civil rights Discrimination discriminatory policies George Floyd Michelle Obama Princeton University Racism Sonia Sotomayor universities Woodrow Wilson

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