PRINCETON, New Jersey -- Princeton University has announced plans to remove the name of former President Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school because of his segregationist views, reversing a decision the Ivy League school made four years ago to retain the name.
University president Christopher Eisgruber said in a letter to the school community Saturday that the board of trustees had concluded that "Wilson's racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake" for Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs and the residential college.
Student protests at Princeton in November 2015 called attention to Wilson's racism, and school officials responded by forming an ad hoc committee to study Wilson's legacy at Princeton.
Eisgruber said the trustees decided in April 2016 on some changes to make the university "more inclusive and more honest about its history" but decided to retain Wilson's name, but revisited the issue in light of the recent killings of George Floyd and others.
Wilson, governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913 and then the 28th U.S. president from 1913 to 1921, supported segregation and imposed it on several federal agencies not racially divided up to that point. He also barred Black students from Princeton while serving as university president and spoke approvingly of the Ku Klux Klan.
"If the question before us were how to weigh Wilson's achievements against his failures, members of the Princeton community might reach varying judgments," the university said. "We believe, however, that these times present the University with a different question. Identifying a political leader as the namesake for a public policy school inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for those who study in the school. We must therefore ask whether it is acceptable for this University's school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation's civil service after it had been integrated for decades. This question has been made more urgent by the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, which have served as tragic reminders of the ongoing need for all of us to stand against racism and for equality and justice. Our commitment to those values must be clear and unequivocal. We believe that the continued use of Wilson's name on a school of public affairs does not reflect those values and thereby impedes the School's and the University's capacity to pursue their missions."
The university says it has taken action, "while continuing to recognize and respect Woodrow Wilson's exceptional achievements."
The board reaffirmed its belief that the April 2016 Report of the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson's Legacy at Princeton accurately and persuasively summarizes the strengths and deficiencies of Wilson's record at Princeton and in the broader world. As that report documents, during his time on the faculty and as a transformative president, Wilson improved Princeton as much as or more than any other individual in the University's long history. Though scholars disagree about how to assess Wilson's tenure as president of the United States, many rank him among the nation's greatest leaders and credit him with visionary ideas that shaped the world for the better.
"As our nation wrestles with its history in this moment, it is important, especially at institutions committed to seeking the truth, that we recognize the complexity of historical figures and that we examine the entirety of their impact on the world," the university said. "Though we conclude today that Wilson's racism makes him an inappropriate namesake for the University's School of Public and International Affairs, we recognize that Princeton has a continuing responsibility to remember his achievements even as we honestly and publicly contend with his failures."
One of Princeton's residential colleges also currently bears Wilson's name. That naming, like the naming of the School of Public and International Affairs, is honorific, not the result of any donor's gift. The university has previously indicated that it plans to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening the two new residential colleges now under construction south of Poe Field.
Princeton's Board of Trustees said rather than ask students in the college to identify with the name of a racist president for the next two years, the University will accelerate retirement of the honorific naming. The college will instead be known as "First College" in recognition of its status as the first of the residential colleges that now play an essential role in the residential life of all Princeton undergraduates.
"The University's highest honor for an undergraduate alumnus or alumna is conferred annually on Alumni Day and also bears Wilson's name," the university said. "The Woodrow Wilson Award, unlike either the College or the School, is the result of a gift. When the University accepted the gift, it took on a legal obligation to name the prize for Wilson and honor his "conviction that education is for 'use' and ... the high aims expressed in his memorable phrase, 'Princeton in the Nation's Service.'" The University will continue to recognize extraordinary public service by conferring the award as currently named. The award explicitly honors specific and positive aspects of Wilson's career, and it, unlike the School or the College, does not require students to identify with the Wilson name in connection with their academic or residential programs."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.