First things first. the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University will still be named after the 28th president of the United States.
In an era of #BlackLivesMatter, in an age of protest where social, environmental and economic justice are at the forefront of the discussion on how we envision this polis during our short, mortal time, the University has weighed in on Woodrow Wilson’s legacy.
Now, wait. Before we get to their specific findings. It’s important to point out that this institution, proudly “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” takes the long view. The VERY long view. To me, that’s often admirable. Institutional long view is essential in creating sustainable establishments that can weather the sands of time.
OK, here it is. Princeton University declined to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as illustrated, somewhere, in this tell-all tome:
Couldn’t it have been something catchier? Did they have to include his name in the report? How about “A Nation’s Troubled Past: Understanding Our Pathology to Move Forward” or something.
Because the issue is so personal on so many levels, and the fact that the feeling of institutional segregation is so palpable for many people when walking into a building named after Woodrow Wilson, couldn’t the University have taken a more intimate approach in delivering its findings? After all, even the New York Times, the model of institutional soundness, called for a name change and said of the time when the school was named after Wilson: “Black Americans were still viewed as nonpersons in the eyes of the state, and even the most strident bigots were held up to public adulation.”
Look, when the New Yorker is talking about rattling cultural and educational institutions, you know there’s movement afoot and thank goodness we’re living in a time when there is an increasingly mainstream examination of not only existing racism in America, but also institutional, systemic racism created out of hundreds of years of policy. It’s exciting, and Princeton University should ride that wave of excitement as a means of fostering ideas, innovations and forward thinking.
The Woodrow Wilson story should show even those wary of challenging social norms that symbols like the Confederate Flag, rhetoric like calling humans “illegal,” the naming of federal buildings and colleges and universities, and who appears on our currency are not superficial, but rather often rooted in our country’s racists and segregationist past – both from a policy and cultural standpoint.
If Princeton University did change the name of its School of Public and International Affairs, doing so would have honored and respected current students and alumni, as well as signaling meaningful action toward egalitarian idealism. A name change is superficial, but sometimes changing things on the surface better reflects the meaningful reforms taking place underneath.
That said, they can and will still honor and respect individuals in keeping the name, but they need to show their work. As the report notes, we will see the following:
The designation of a subcommittee of the board’s Executive Committee as a Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion to ensure regular and active trustee attention to these issues.
- Establishing a high-profile pipeline program to encourage more students from underrepresented groups to pursue doctoral degrees;
- Modifying Princeton’s informal motto;
- Encouraging and supporting a broad range of education and transparency initiatives;
- Diversifying campus art and iconography.
This is great news. If we are to talk about Woodrow Wilson and his significant contributions to society, even if his progressive agenda skewed white, we must now discuss how his policies undid significant progress made in the federal government in the decades following the Civil War.
But this problem remains: we are still discussing our country’s racist history while contained in a racist’s paradigm. Sometimes, we need to change what we call something in order to start wiping the slate clean.
Society should have “places”—built, preserved, commemorated, etc.—that accurately represent our past, ugly and otherwise. But if college campuses are to serve as cornerstones of that infinite plane toward a perfect union then, in light of his policy of re-segregation, Woodrow Wilson’s name on a school of public and international affairs continues to be particularly troubling.