Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy Still to Be Honored at Princeton

When it comes to race and gender, our major colleges and universities can usually be expected to come to the wrong conclusions and make unwise, often outrageous decisions. Just consider the recent past: 

  • The chancellor and president of the University of Missouri were pressured to resign by student demonstrators because they did not prevent unknown persons from uttering and writing racial slurs that unsettled many of the black students on campus.
  • A scheduled talk by policy analyst Charles Murray at Azusa Pacific University was canceled by the president because of a controversial book Murray co-authored many years earlier on group differences in IQ scores.
  • Harvard and Princeton abandoned the name “housemaster”—a term derived from usage at venerable English boarding schools, and like “master carpenter” and “masters degree,” going back to medieval universities and medieval artisan guilds—because certain African-American students say they associate the term with the “master/slave” narrative of the antebellum South.
  • Angry students at Williams College forced the cancellation of a scheduled talk by Suzanne Venker, an outspoken critic of feminism, who was invited as part of a program designed to enhance viewpoint diversity on campus.
  • After criticizing certain Williams students for forcing the cancellation of Venker’s talk, Williams president Adam Falk canceled the scheduled talk of “alternative right” blogger John Derbyshire, saying that Derbyshire’s views on race and immigration “cross a line.”

The news from our campuses, however, is not all bad. Earlier this month Princeton University’s Board of Trustees resolved an issue that in the fall of 2015 provoked angry student protests, including a 32-hour sit-in demonstration in the university president’s office led by a group called the Black Justice League.

The most controversial question dealt with the legacy of Princeton past president Woodrow Wilson, who is honored in many ways, including a public policy institute and one of its residential colleges that are named for him. Students from the Black Justice League demanded several changes be made, the most contentious being the removal of Wilson’s name from all places of honor at the university on the grounds that Wilson was a bigoted racist.

A great debate about Wilson’s past ensued, most of it poorly informed. Princeton’s president, Chris Eisgruber, did what university presidents usually do in such situations—he created a committee to look into the matter. But his appointees were unusually distinguished and contained some people—including the historian A. Scott Berg—who knew something about the complex life of Princeton’s early twentieth century president.

The committee solicited opinions from all segments of the Princeton community, and most importantly, sought extended input from scholars and historians like Berg. The input of these scholars persuaded the committee that Wilson did many valuable and praiseworthy things for both Princeton and the nation, ones that are consistent with the values the university supports today. 

While Wilson’s views on race relations were seen as retrograde by contemporary standards (e.g. like most Southern-born Democrats, he supported racial segregation, wanted Princeton University to remain all-white, and pushed black Republicans aside in the federal civil service in favor of whites), the many positive things he did in his public career as Princeton president, Governor of New Jersey, and President of the United States were believed to outweigh by a considerable margin the many negative things.

“When you look at the pluses and minuses,” said committee chairman Brent Henry, “we didn’t feel that the minuses were enough to eliminate his name.” (Henry, who is black, is a 1969 graduate of Princeton and was a member of Wilson College during his student days). President Eisgruber approved the committee’s findings, saying that achieving a more inclusive community at Princeton is best served “not by tearing down names from the past but rather being more honest about our history, including bad parts of our history.”

Despite his flaws, it was entirely fitting, the committee seemed to believe, that Wilson’s legacy was honored in the past and should continue to be honored in the present—with clear acknowledgment of Wilson’s many shortcomings. The committee opposed changing the name of either the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs or Wilson College. The committee also supported greater efforts towards “diversity and inclusion,” and improving the pipeline for “underrepresented groups” in Princeton’s Ph.D. programs and diversifying the art and iconography displayed on campus to better reflect the more demographically diverse current Princeton community. 

The Black Justice League’s response to the trustees’ endorsement of the committee’s report was predictably negative, though perhaps not as intensely hostile as many anticipated. “Shallow words and hollow promises” was how the group summed up the committee’s recommendations.

I had mixed feelings about the committee’s report. Members got it right on the preservation of Wilson’s name on Princeton buildings, but could have better explained Wilson’s views within the context of the culture and values dominant in his time. It would have been impossible for any Princeton president in 1905 to admit significant numbers of black students to Princeton, which had the largest contingent of Southerners of any Ivy League institution at a time when support for racial segregation among Southern whites was near unanimous and particularly intense.

The Virginia-born Wilson, who invited the black leader Booker T. Washington to his presidential inauguration, and as U.S. president strongly condemned lynching in the South, had views on race that placed him within the more moderate segment of white Southern opinion. Many of the popular and powerful Southern politicians of the early decades of the last century, including U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo and Mississippi governor James Vardaman, were outspoken proponents of white terror to maintain segregation, black subordination, and white supremacy in the South.

Contrary to a widespread claim, Wilson never thought highly of the Ku Klux Klan, which in the 1920s included among its three million members many of the most prominent Southern Democrats, including the Alabama Senator and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

What got lost in the discussion of Wilson’s legacy as president of both Princeton and the U.S. was the fact that in many ways he did more than most leaders of his time to expand beyond white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men to include a broader representation of humanity. Princeton president Wilson appointed the first Jew to the faculty (Horace Kallen) and the first Catholic (William McCabe); and against sizable opposition, when U.S. president, he appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court (Louis Brandeis).

He would later become a hero to many of the suppressed and subordinated ethnic minorities of Europe and the Mideast—Poles, Slavs, Arabs, Kurds—when at the Versailles Peace Conference after WWI he championed the cause of self-determination for all peoples. At the same time he backed the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expanding voting rights to women.

That Wilson did not expand the circle of human empathy to include more people of African and East Asian ethnicity is surely to be regretted. But much of the criticism heard on the Princeton campus last fall was ill-informed and self-righteous. 

The Wilson Legacy Committee deserves praise for recognizing the one-sided inadequacy of those who would simply dismiss Wilson’s long and complex public career with the ugly epithet “racist.” For a variety of reasons—including his vast expansion in the size and scope of a Leviathan government—Wilson has never been one of my favorite presidents. Libertarians and classical liberals have good reason to despise his Big Government legacy. 

But Woodrow Wilson was a decent and humane man who hated no ethnic or religious group, and tried to bring greater justice and peace into a troubled world according to his best lights. He should command our respect on that account, and we should reject those who would vilify his name.