After years of activist demands and administrative resistance, Princeton University announced on Saturday that its governing board had voted to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public-policy school, now to be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. The decision — which cites Wilson’s racist views and legacy — comes amid national protests over police violence toward Black Americans.
Four years ago, the university made the high-profile decision to leave Wilson’s name on the school. But in his announcement of the name change, Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, noted that times have changed. “When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader,” Eisgruber wrote, “it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school. This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role.”
In removing Wilson’s name from the school, Princeton joins a host of campuses nationwide that are swiftly renaming buildings and removing Confederate statues in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In his message, Eisgruber noted the positive influence of Wilson, Princeton’s 13th president, on the university — and took pains to distinguish him from figures like Robert E. Lee and John C. Calhoun, whose names and likenesses are being rapidly removed from colleges across the country. Wilson, Eisgruber wrote, was not honored by Princeton “not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.”
He continued: “That, however, is ultimately the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people.”
Princeton’s decision is all the more notable for how recently the university had resisted this precise step. In 2016, the university’s board adopted a report that recommended several steps to make the institution more inclusive, while stopping short of renaming the Wilson school. The report stated that there “should be a presumption that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation … will remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remain valid.”
That move came as a disappointment to student activists, who, in the wake of the recent protests, pushed the university to reverse the decision — and enact a host of other demands.
The university also announced Saturday that it will immediately strip Wilson’s name from the residential college that honors him; it was slated to close in two years.
Andy Thomason is a senior editor at The Chronicle. Send him a tip at email@example.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.