Princeton’s removal of Wilson name boosts hopes of racial redress

Renaming policy school and college raises pressure across US higher education

June 29, 2020
Princeton University
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Princeton University has abandoned its long and steadfast commitment to Woodrow Wilson, opening new possibilities for how far US higher education will yet go in admitting and compensating for its slave-profiting past.

The Ivy League institution has decided to take Wilson’s name off its renowned public policy school and one of its residential colleges, just four years after it studied sustained protester demands for the idea and rejected them.

Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, says the death last month of George Floyd during his arrest by Minneapolis police helped to convince him that his predecessor’s demonstrated record of racism could no longer be ignored.

“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,” Professor Eisgruber says in a note to the campus community.

Wilson discouraged black applicants from applying to Princeton a century ago and, while subsequently serving as US president, reversed racial progress by segregating the federal workforce, Professor Eisgruber writes.

Although Wilson transformed Princeton into a world-class research university, he “was also a racist”, Professor Eisgruber says.

The removal of Wilson’s name from Princeton’s public policy school and the residential college, approved by the university’s trustees, is part of a wave of such actions across US society following Mr Floyd’s killing.

For both higher education and the nation more broadly, the actions are expanding hope and concern about how far the US should and will go in toppling monuments, revamping flags and removing names with connections to slavery and its defence.

Such ties involve dozens of US colleges and universities, in the Ivy League and well beyond, that profited directly from slavery or have maintained buildings or entire campuses named after slaveholders.

Examples include the decades of slaves working and being auctioned at Princeton, and the sale by Georgetown University in 1838 of 272 slaves to cover institutional debts. Harvard University, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the University of North Carolina and the University of Mississippi are among the many other places where slaves were used by an institution or its leaders.

As such reviews continue across academia, “the list is going to be long in terms of whose memorialisations are going to have to be brought under consideration”, said William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University who has written about the need for economic reparations for black Americans.

One of the most difficult questions for Americans in that arena may be the nation’s admired founding father, George Washington, a slaveholder whose name adorns institutions from coast to coast, including several universities.

“That’s a complicated one,” Professor Darity said. “There should be some significant conversation about that.”

Other institutions defending their entire public identity include Yale University, whose namesake, Elihu Yale, was a slave trader. Yale in 2017 removed from one of its residential colleges the name of John Calhoun, a white supremacist and ardent defender of slavery. But Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, recently affirmed to his university’s student newspaper that Yale was giving no thought to changing its name.

More important than names, Professor Darity said, was the need for US universities – especially the wealthier ones – to do much more to repair the persistent economic disadvantages facing black Americans stemming from slavery and racial hostility. That includes ending discrimination within academic departments with poor records of hiring minorities, he said.

But the nation’s wealth disparities were too great for the education sector to fix by itself, and universities as institutions must be part of a nationwide demand for meaningful economic reparations, Professor Darity said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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