What We Owe the Students at Princeton

On Wednesday, students at Princeton University occupied the president’s office. They had a list of demands regarding the status of students of color at Princeton. One of them was that Princeton remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from all campus buildings and programs because of Wilson’s enthusiasm, expressed in word and deed, for white supremacy.

Having been an undergraduate at Princeton in the late 1980s, I knew this demand would generate a lot of heat. Unlike John C. Calhoun, whose name adorns one of Yale’s residential colleges, Wilson is Princeton. He was an undergraduate there, a professor there, and the university’s president. It was from Princeton that he launched his national political career, first as governor of New Jersey, then as president of the United States. I thought to myself: no matter what your position is on the politics of naming, campus protests, discussions around race today, this is going to be interesting.

On Thursday, after a 32-hour standoff, the students’ occupation ended with, among other things, Princeton committing to opening a dialogue about possibly removing Wilson’s name from some parts of the campus. While the agreement brought the occupation to an end, I suspect the controversy has only just begun. Yale can easily get rid of Calhoun; his name was only attached to Calhoun College in 1932. Wilson is different: in part because of his national stature, in part because of his embeddedness at Princeton, in part because Princeton is, in some ways, still a Southern university.

Wilson’s past is Princeton’s present. Not just in terms of race—one need only eat at the university’s Prospect House, where many of the servers are black, to get a sense of just how many buttons are now being pushed—but in terms of how Princeton conceives itself politically. Princeton’s motto, “In the Nation’s Service,” originated with Wilson, and is fundamental to Princeton’s sense of itself as a training ground for the country’s ruling class, particularly in government. There’s simply no way Princeton can extricate itself from its entanglements with race without revisiting its entanglement with national power. Not just domestically but also internationally: Wilson did not leave his race politics behind when he headed for Versailles; they went there with him. Likewise American power and its Princeton servants.

How far Princeton is willing to bend on this issue, in other words, will tell us something about the outer boundaries of a leading university’s willingness to confront its racial past.

I dedicated my Salon column to the controversy and its resolution. I focused less on these issues I’ve discussed here, than the politics of free speech and memorialization on campus, and the contributions these students have made to our national consciousness.

And that’s why we owe these students at Princeton a debt. Universities are supposed to be educational institutions: Their first educational constituency is their students, of course, but their second is the nation. Most of us are fairly ignorant about how central race and racism were to Wilson’s politics. By forcing this question, not only on Princeton’s campus but throughout the country, Princeton’s students are actually doing the job that Princeton itself is supposed to be doing: they’re educating all of us.

Too often in our debates about freedom of speech, we assume that it already exists and that it is campus activists, particularly over questions of race, who threaten it. But what Princeton’s students have shown is that, before they came along, there was in fact precious little speech about figures like Wilson, and what speech there was, was mostly bland PR for tourists and prospective students. Even more important, Princeton’s students have shown us that it is precisely the kinds of actions they have taken — which are uncivil, frequently illegal and always unruly — that produce speech. Not just yelling and shouting, but also informed, deliberative, reasoned speech.


Besides, there’s any number of ways to take Wilson’s name off a campus building — without erasing the past. Princeton could put up a plaque that says, “This building was once named after Woodrow Wilson in honor of his achievements as president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey and president of the United States. In 2015, after lengthy campus discussions of Wilson’s racial policies — including his decision to segregate the federal bureaucracy — the university decided to remove his name from this building and to rename it the W.E.B. DuBois School of Public and International Affairs, in honor of Wilson’s most formidable critic on matters of race.”

And then we could have another debate: about how DuBois would have been appalled to see his name adorn a building on a campus where dining hall workers, many of whom are black (it’s telling that the demographic on campus that has the highest percentage of African Americans is “all other staff”), make less than a living wage if they are parents and are often treated as if they were servants.


  1. xenon2 November 21, 2015 at 11:31 am | #

    There were slaves in Princeton, in the 19thc.—it’s a university of the South.Rather than seeing its precious Woodrow Wilson School as a kind of graduate program for international scholars, we should recognize it for what it is—a school for more of the same.

    I read The Daily Princetonian and see comments like ‘you only got in here b/c of Affirmative Action’, etc.There aren’t enough black students to make a difference, just as there aren’t enough pro-Palestinian trustees to achieve Divestment.

    I read ‘Ebony and Ivy’, know that all of our great universities and colleges of North East, depended on money from the slave trade.Individual departments may excel, but the university fails as a university.

  2. J. Otto Pohl November 21, 2015 at 3:40 pm | #

    There is a W.E.B. Dubois street at the university where I work. It doesn’t get much notice. I work in Busia Quadrangle and I hope that some day it becomes Nkrumah Square or even better Sankara Plaza. But, I am pretty sure it won’t happen.

  3. Roqeuntin November 21, 2015 at 3:54 pm | #

    When visiting my parents in Minneapolis this fall, I learned there was a controversy about renaming Lake Calhoun. It was only then that I realized that is was that particular Calhoun. It’s a common name, I’d really hoped it was someone else. I haven’t followed it closely, but the sense I got from them was that it was likely to pass. I googled it while writing this and it looks like the came up with some kind of strange dual-naming solution where the sign says both Lake Calhoun and Mde Maka Ska, which was the original Dakota name. Heh.

    I remember pretty vividly reading about how enthusiastic Wilson was about Birth of Nation as a film. There’s no sidestepping his fervent racism. On a side note, I have a mild obsession with the fact the KKK essentially ran the state of Indiana in the 1920s, partially because I like to disabuse people of the notion the Klan was strictly a Southern problem. Maybe the first wave Klan, but the second wave most certainly was not. Anyhow, the story of the Indiana Klan gets even more twisted because a man by the name of DC Stephenson raped and injured the victim, a schoolteacher of German ancestry, so badly she died as a result. He was powerful enough to think he could get away with such a crime with impunity. When confronted with prosecution he spilled the beans on the roster of all the important members of the Indiana Klan. They pretty much ran the place.

    If I had infinite time and money at my disposal I’d someday like to write a book about it.

    • Benjamin David Steele November 21, 2015 at 4:18 pm | #

      I recently read “Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928”
      by Leonard J. Moore. It’s about Indiana. The author has a different take on the Klan as a civic institution. He does have a point, in that the Second Klan really wasn’t all that different from other ethnocentric organizations such as the German Bund.

      Still, he underestimates how compelling a force is organized prejudice and oppression. He assumes that the Second Klan in Indiana wasn’t primarily about racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. The reason he makes this assumption is because the data shows that where the Second Klan had the most power and membership there were the lowest number of minorities.

      It is understandable that he didn’t grasp the larger picture. His book was written slightly less than a decade before James W. Loewen’s book on sundown towns. Moore, like most people, had no idea how common sundown towns were in the North. Indiana had a ton of them. Those Second Klan strongholds were homogeneous WASP populations for a good reason. The minorities were either never welcome or later on driven out, often violently.

      That said, Moore’s book is still interesting. He includes a lot of data. I looked at it closely because my family comes from Indiana. I discovered my father grew up in a sundown town and he never knew it, as by the time he moved there as a kid most of the blacks had left or been forced out. Most people living in sundown towns don’t know about it and it never occurs to them to think why there are no minorities living there or else very few.

      • Roqeuntin November 21, 2015 at 8:29 pm | #

        Thanks for the recommendation. It’s much appreciated. I spent a lot of my childhood in small towns in the Midwest, one of which had a disgracefully racist history (Pekin, IL). It was common knowledge there that it had been a “Sundown Town” in the past. I wasn’t born there, and it’s not exactly the sort of thing they advertise to perspective families moving in. It’s definitely something they are trying to hush up and move past now. In spite of this, the notorious Matt Hale was born in the general vicinity. He was around when I was a kid in the 90s…… The population is still 97% white. Peoria has changed a little, but that’s because when Chicago decided they’d had enough of Cabrini Green and all the problems associated with public housing, they demolished the projects and many of the people who lived there went into small towns in the surrounding area. I’m sorry to say this hasn’t moved race relations in the vicinity in a positive direction.

        It’d be fair to say the interest in that story is personal, some kind of attempt to atone for my past. Despite my parents doing relatively well economically, I was mainly socialized primarily among lower class white people. I understand their views and problems a little better than I wish I did.

  4. freegirard November 21, 2015 at 4:56 pm | #

    Wilson failed at so much: from the peace accords to the League of Nations, His white supremacist stance is just the maraschino cherry on his sundae of moral failure.

  5. Glenn November 21, 2015 at 5:59 pm | #

    Also, Hoover’s name needs to be removed from the FBI headquarters.

    • xenon2 November 21, 2015 at 7:30 pm | #

      Glenn—you made lol.

  6. Will G-R November 23, 2015 at 3:10 pm | #

    IMO, the reason an honest conversation about Wilson’s racist legacy is so anathema isn’t because the two different defenses of Wilson you outline in your Salon piece are false (that Wilson was a “progressive” despite his racism or that his racism was “merely” in step with the times), but on the contrary, exactly because they’re both simultaneously true. Wilson embodies as well as any figure in American history the fundamental contradiction that made segregationist Southern Democrats the most solid constituency for liberal Keynesian policies like the New Deal, the simultaneous embrace of an inward-facing progressive egalitarianism and an outward-facing jackbooted imperialism, based on a distinction rooted in violently racist nationalism. Of course if you take this recipe, add the urgency of severe economic crisis, and remove access to colonial/postcolonial markets that might otherwise soften the blow of such a crisis, the result is a fairly concise picture of the economic antecedents of fascism — which would come far too close to ideological subversion in blurring the clean categorical distinction between fascism and liberal democracy. So that kind of conversation is out of the question, practically by definition.

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