I opposed taking Woodrow Wilson’s name off our school. Here’s why I changed my mind.

June 27, 2020

Originally published in the Washington Post on June 27, 2020.

A 2015 photo of the then-Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. (Mel Evans/AP)

The Princeton University Board of Trustees voted on Friday to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s School of Public and International Affairs. It acted because Wilson’s racist opinions and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students and alumni must stand firmly against racism and for equality and justice.

For my university, the decision was momentous. Wilson was an undergraduate alumnus of Princeton, a distinguished professor on its faculty and eventually its 13th president. He transformed the place from a sleepy college to a world-class research university.

During his eight-year term, he increased the size of the faculty by half and introduced curricular reforms that persist to this day. When Wilson tried to reform the university’s social clubs, the trustees fired him because his ideas were too progressive.

Wilson went on to become governor of New Jersey, president of the United States and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. For decades, the university has celebrated Wilson’s record of public service and his achievements.

Wilson was also a racist. He discouraged black applicants from applying to Princeton. While president of the United States, Wilson segregated the previously integrated federal civil service, thereby moving the United States backward in its quest for racial justice and contributing to the systemic racism that continues to damage black lives and our country today.

On the Princeton campus, Wilson’s name was everywhere: on the prestigious School of Public and International Affairs, a residential college and the university’s highest award for undergraduate alumni. The first part of the university’s informal motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service,” was drawn from a Wilson speech.

In November 2015, student activists occupied my office, demanding, among other things, that Wilson’s name be removed from the school. At my request, the Board of Trustees formed a committee to consider the issue. After careful deliberation, consultation with leading scholars and engagement with the broad university community, the committee eventually recommended reforms to make Princeton more inclusive and to recount its history, including Wilson’s racism, more honestly.

The committee and the board, however, left Wilson’s name on the public policy school and the residential college. Until this month, I strongly agreed with that decision.

Wilson’s genuine achievements, I thought, gave Princeton sound reasons to honor him. He is a far different figure than John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, people whose pro-slavery commitments defined their careers and who were sometimes honored for the purpose of supporting segregation or racism. Princeton honored Wilson without regard to, and perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.

And that, I now believe, is precisely the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored and turned a blind eye to racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people. When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.

This searing moment in our national history should make clear to all of us our urgent responsibility to stand firmly against racism and for the integrity and value of black lives. That is why the Board of Trustees, on my recommendation, removed Wilson’s name from what will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

When a university names its public policy school for a political leader, it inevitably offers the honoree as a role model for its students. However grand some of Wilson’s achievements may have been, his racism disqualifies him from that role.

To some, this decision will seem obvious and overdue. To others, it will seem an excess of political correctness, an unjust judgment upon a man from another era.

For me, the decision was wrenching but right. Wilson helped to create the university that I love. I do not pretend to know how to evaluate his life or his staggering combination of achievement and failure. I do know, however, that we cannot disregard or ignore racism when deciding whom we hold up to our students as heroes or role models. This is not the only step our university will be taking to confront the realities and legacies of racism, but it is an important one. Our commitment to eliminate racism must be unequivocal, and that is why we removed the name of Princeton’s modern-day founder from its School of Public and International Affairs.