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Should Princeton disown Woodrow Wilson?

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REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

(Read caption) People walk past Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in Princeton, New Jersey, November 20, 2015. Princeton University has pledged to consider renaming buildings dedicated to former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the latest U.S. campus effort to quell student complaints of racism.

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Students at Princeton demanded last week that the university administration rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the dorm Wilson College, in an effort to shed light on the 28th president's legacy as a white supremacist. 

During his time in office, from 1913 to 1921, Dr. Wilson worked to re-segregate the federal civil service, which since reconstruction had created a number of well-paying jobs for educated African-Americans.

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As the New York Times Editorial Board wrote: “[Wilson] was an unapologetic racist whose administration rolled back the gains that African-Americans achieved just after the Civil War, purged black workers from influential jobs and transformed the government into an instrument of white supremacy.”

A former president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson also served as Princeton’s university president and was instrumental for lifting academic standards, which later earned him a building name. But in what is part of a larger movement on college campuses, students are demanding that the university acknowledge Wilson’s legacy as a racist whose political moves only hurt African Americans.

Princeton's Black Justice League circulated a petition, which as of this writing has 1,025 signatures, also demanded "cultural competency training" for all staff and faculty, as well as a "cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to Black students," preferably one not named after a white racist. 

Princeton’s administration has responded more proactively than other campuses, removing a Wilson mural from one of the campus dining halls. They also enacted a campus-wide vote over whether the international affairs school should be renamed. 

Political activism over racial issues has been growing in recent months on US campuses. The issue came to a head after the University of Missouri president was forced to step down after the college football team threatened not to play. Other campuses like Yale, Amherst, and Claremont-McKenna have seen similar measures – with student activists urging administration members who’ve failed to adequately handle race issues to step down. Others, such as Brandies University, have called for more diversity among college faculty.

Renaming the Wilson school is part of a larger shift in a movement to remove offensive historic icons. Following the Charleston church shooting by a white supremacist in June, there has been a significant retreat in symbols of the Confederacy around America. Many state governments have forced the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public grounds and more than 200 schools named after former Confederate generals are being called to be renamed

The movement at Princeton has its opponents. Another petition, this one with 1,568 supporters, calls Wilson's racism "undeniable," but says that scrubbing the US president's name from university institutions "represents an alarming call for historical revisionism and seeks to eliminate vindication of a significant historical figure who, despite his flaws, made great contributions to this University"

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“In some ways, that’s the role that symbols play in American politics and culture,” Princeton's president, Christopher Eisgruber, told the New York Times.

“People become very invested in symbols. And one of the benefits of having a genuine public discussion, informed by scholarly opinion, about some of these questions is that it can help educate people about problems that go beyond the symbol in our society.”


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