June 29, 2017
Princeton University Standing Firm After Student Protest To Erase Woodrow Wilson's Campus Presence Due To Racial History

After yet another protest about yet another person in history who wasn't perfect, Princeton University has decided that Woodrow Wilson's name on buildings across the campus will remain, because his contributions merit that recognition.

The Protest

A group of college kids belonging to the Black Justice League at Princeton University staged a 32-hour sit-in inside the university president's office, protesting Woodrow Wilson's segregationist behaviors and beliefs from back in the early 1900s. They demanded that Wilson's name be taken off of buildings, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and campus programs, Yahoo News reported, and they also wanted other changes to be made "to make the university more diverse and inclusive."

Princeton's President, Christopher Eisgruber, acknowledged that the students raised some legitimate questions, but reminded them about real-life situations, as well. "All the people whom we honor in history are going to be people with flaws and deficiencies. If we made that argument for not honoring people, we would honor nobody. The right attitude is to honor people, but be honest about their failings."

The decision was made then, after careful consideration by University leaders and input from scholars knowledgeable about all aspects of Wilson's legacy, in addition to more than 600 submissions from alumni, faculty, and the public, to maintain Woodrow Wilson's name where it currently resides, but to acknowledge other attributes (failings). In the report by the Wilson Legacy Review Committee, they acknowledged Wilson's accomplishments, but clarified that some of his views "clearly contradict with the values we hold today."

The committee determined that both school buildings on campus would retain Wilson's name, but that the University needs to be "honest and forthcoming about its history." The report shows that the committee performed a thorough review of the issue, they addressed the important issues that were raised, and identified that the controversy was part of a larger issue, Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, told NBC News. "The process that the Princeton Trustees undertook to understand Woodrow Wilson and how we name institutions and buildings across campus was fair and robust."

The Bandwagon

Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910. He was the 28th president of our country, from 1913 to 1921. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for drafting the creation of the League of Nations. He accomplished many good things over many years. However, he also believed in and practiced racial segregation, as many in that time period did, but some argue his was a voice loud enough to be used in a less divisive manner -- which brings us to the movement that swept the country this school year.
The protest at Princeton is the most recent reflection of waves of racially-motivated activism that washed across college campuses, protests that address both real and perceived racial inequality and insensitivity across the country. CNN Politics examined this trend in detail in a story last month. While bringing to light legitimate issues, in many cases, "these tensions boil down to uncomfortable clashes between the values of yesterday and those of today." CNN Politics hit the real issue nail on the head.
"Still, the protests have ignited fierce debates about the proper standards by which historical figures should be judged, and whether rescinding honors bestowed upon these figures by earlier generations leads to dangerous distortions and omissions of history or valid repudiations of values long since discarded."
Protests sprung up at colleges nationwide over this topic: Yale, University of Texas, University of Missouri, University of Maryland, and Georgetown University, to name only a few. Disputers want names changed, names erased, statues removed, honorees dishonored -- history erased. But, erasing history does not change it. People did good and bad things in the last century. They do the same in this one, and they will do the same in the next one.

The college kids leading the charge are no more righteous than anybody else in history, but are they really paying attention to the whole picture, or are they taking things out of context to suit an agenda or a perceived slight? Could an important issue be brought to light in a better way? Does the issue of race have to keep coming up in this manner? Are there better ways to go forth and be less divisive instead of more?

If you look for something, you will find it. For those who keep looking for issues of race or inequality or insensitivity, they will always find it. Do these issues exist? Absolutely. But what is the best way to address them besides rewriting history or removing Confederate flags? Is it realistic to judge past behavior through current lenses? Should all the college students be judged now for messing up their diapers twenty years ago? That might be extreme, but you get the point.

"The lens we're using at the moment is that of race to evaluate," says Rutgers University historian David Greenberg. "Race is and was an important issue in American life and shouldn't be neglected. But it's not the only issue. Limiting the discussion of history to one subject stacks the deck."

Kudos to Princeton University leaders in hearing a concern, investigating an issue, and addressing a solution. Would that more entities were able to balance pros and cons as efficiently.

[Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images]