We Should Remember Woodrow Wilson First as a Racist, Second as a Progressive

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.

Woodrow_Wilson-H&EIn 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:

Report of the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton.

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.

Comments (11)

  1. CreedPogue

    He put Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court. He got a lot of progressive legislation passed.

    Sanitizing history serves no one but the ignorant and is simply stupid.

    A lot of this “revisionism” of Wilson started with that well-known intellectual Glenn Beck.

    1. Matthew Brian Hersh (Post author)

      I’m pretty sure this is de-sanitizing history, Creed. It was already sanitized and that’s not to serve the ignorant and stupid — it spawns ignorance.

    2. Rosi Efthim

      Creed, Invoking Glenn Beck’s name in the “sanitizing,” as you call it, of Woodrow Wilson ignores the fact that the Black Justice League student group on the Princeton Campus (which has 1,400 people engaged with it just on Facebook) called for the re-examination of Wilson’s Princeton legacy and future association with the university.

      1. CreedPogue

        How is removing something “de-sanitizing”???

        This is simply political correctness run amok.

        Rosi may not like mentioning Glenn Beck but he has been “anti-Wilson” for a long time. When conservatives cannot appropriate dead Democrats, they seek to tear them down.

        It shouldn’t really matter whether whether 1,400 people (whether they are Princeton students or alumni or not) support a Facebook page, but this page has 2,300 likes: http://www.manhoodraceculture.com/2016/04/05/message-to-black-collegians-please-leave-americas-dirty-laundry-alone/

        1. Matthew Brian Hersh (Post author)

          You’re saying removing his name is sanitizing history. I’m saying history has long been sanitized.

          1. CreedPogue

            The reason I used the word “sanitizing” is that it involves removal which is what you are advocating.

            If you say that many people are unaware that Wilson had the segregationist attitudes of his native Virginia, I would not disagree with you. But, you say there has been some effort to hide it and that simply is untrue. I was aware of it even before Glenn Beck launched his anti-Wilson jeremiad.

            Saying that Wilson’s legacy is simply racism is just wrong and not factual. Saying that Wilson was a flawed person who managed to do some very good things but also did some things we disagree with today (much like the “Founding Fathers”) is obviously defensible because it is true.

            Like I said, this particular battle is political correctness run amok. Eric Blair would completely understand what is happening. “Minitrue” isn’t automatically “conservative.” It is totalitarian.

          2. Matthew Brian Hersh (Post author)

            I think you’re misreading what I wrote. I’m not necessarily calling for a name change. I’m, as a advocacy reporter does, responding to an on-campus movement done in the context of a mainstream awakening to institutional segregation.

            I’m suggesting that Princeton COULD have done more to recognize this and be a leader in this one instance. I’m not saying their reasons for keeping the name aren’t justified, but I am disappointed that this moment didn’t foster a more enlightened institutional response.

          3. CreedPogue

            Respectfully, I understood what you wrote. You expressed no reservations on the merits of changing the name much less any understanding of the reasons that people of goodwill would be opposed.

            It is easy to say that something else ahould be done. The hard part is identifying some specific alternative and then defending THAT on the merits.

          4. Matthew Brian Hersh (Post author)

            I think I gave much credence to the merits and deference to the Trustees for the decision they made. I even listed, point by point, what the University’s plan of action would be. I also discussed the importance of institutional stability.

            Was it the wrong decision? Put it this way, the people who protested and will continue to protest are probably not satisfied.

            I’m not the one who makes suggestions about what should and shouldn’t be done, although I appreciate your idea that I, whose only affiliation with Princeton University was when I covered it as a reporter, should propose my own ideas. Personally, I think that’s ludicrous and weirdly egotistical. .

            Solutions are what these institutions are expected to do. In the absence of satisfactory responses, people will continue to protest.

          5. CreedPogue

            thought you called yourself an “advocacy reporter” whatever that is supposed to mean. That would imply a point of view that you are pushing.

  2. 12mileseastofTrenton

    That Wilson’s name is on the school of international affairs is appropriate given his role in promoting the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN. That he was a segregationist is also a fact. That should be in any discussion of his legacy. But wiping away his name from the university totally is not the way to do it.


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