When a group of Princeton students occupied the university president’s office earlier this month, and demanded, among other things, that the university remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from two campus buildings, they sparked a powerful debate about historical commemoration. As president of the university from 1902–10, Wilson shook up a sleepy conservative college and led it into the modern era. As president of the United States from 1913–21, he advocated for a League of Nations that would promote a new kind of internationalism in the wake of the First World War. When university officials named their school of public and international affairs after Wilson in 1948 and put his name on a residential college in 1966, those were the sorts of achievements they sought to honor.
But Wilson, as so many have pointed out in recent days, was also a Southerner with abhorrent racial ideas shaped by the culture of antebellum Virginia where he was born in 1856. Many Southerners held similar ideas about the inferiority of African-Americans, but Wilson was different because he held positions of power that enabled him to put thought into action. And his actions held very real consequences for African-Americans. As president of Princeton, he deemed it “altogether inadvisable” for black students to enroll (the first black undergraduate did not graduate until 1947). Later, as the nation’s chief executive, Wilson had an even broader arena in which to act, and his commitment to segregating the federal government had real and painful consequences for many African-American employees and their families.
The past surrounds us at every turn: in the laws and cultural practices that have shaped our institutions and personal experiences, in the material culture of our everyday surroundings, in the very names we put on buildings. The protesters at Princeton remind us of that. They remind us, too, that history is dynamic. It is not simply what happened in the past, it’s the stories we tell about it. And those stories get shaped by our present-day concerns. The university officials who put Wilson’s name on buildings cared about one aspect of his life. Some Princeton students, led by the activists of the Black Justice League, care about another, and they have raised important questions about Wilson that did not occur to that earlier generation of Princetonians. We cannot now change what Wilson did in his own lifetime. But we can think about new ways to understand and explain it. That’s the job of a university.
College campuses offer a space for students to express their concerns in many ways: in dining-hall conversations, in late-night dorm gatherings, even in occupations of a university president’s office. But what universities do best is to offer a space for the scholarly investigation of the facts and spirited informed debate within a classroom. At a moment when talk of “safe” spaces on campus centers around places where students can retreat to feel comfortable among a group of peers, we might also think about another kind of safe space: the classroom. At its best, it’s a place for confronting difficult ideas and troubling truths, a place to rethink received wisdom and frame new stories.
For several years now, I’ve taught a small undergraduate seminar to investigate with students whether and how the history of Princeton University might be entangled with the institution of slavery. My students understand that the Wilson dilemma is, in some ways, the dilemma of Princeton—and so many other early American institutions—writ small. Since the inception of this nation, liberty and racism have been intertwined. And that complicated heritage is inscribed upon many of America’s great university campuses, perhaps nowhere more so than Princeton, founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746.