Princeton University's decision to remove Woodrow Wilson's name from campus could have a domino effect on other institutions bearing the name of the Democratic president.
Princeton's board of trustees voted to change the names of the university's public policy school and one of its residential colleges, both of which bore the name of the professor-turned-president, in light of his "racist thinking and policies." The Ivy League college's decision has driven others to scrutinize Wilson's legacy. A petition created by the D.C. History and Justice Collective asking the city to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School has garnered thousands of signatures since Princeton made its announcement.
"We are urging you to join … Princeton University in taking this white supremacist off the pedestal on which we have left him for far too long," the letter to D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser reads. "Washington may not be the fastest to end the shameful allegiance to a tarnished figurehead, but it can yet be the model for affirming our civic values over the racist history that continues to shape our city's inequities today."
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The D.C. History and Justice Collective, which was created in 2018, did not respond to a request for comment.
The petition has already found allies among elected officials in Washington. Ruth Wattenberg, Ward Three member of the D.C. State Board of Education, told the Washington Free Beacon that Wilson does not deserve the honors that have been bestowed upon him.
"Whatever else may be true of his life's work, here in D.C., he worked aggressively to segregate the federal civil service," Wattenberg said. "Naming a high school in D.C. after Woodrow Wilson is wrong."
Neither D.C. Public Schools chancellor Lewis Ferebee nor Mayor Bowser returned requests for comment.
The petition to rename Wilson High School took off after Princeton's board of trustees announced on June 26 that its public policy school will be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and its residential college, "First College." Some on campus objected to the move. Princeton student Akhil Rajasekar told the Free Beacon that the decision was not only "rushed" and "problematic," but "ultimately [not] about race at all."
"The decision to remove Woodrow Wilson's name from Princeton's campus is unprecedented and deeply problematic. It was rushed, without any input from students, faculty, or alumni," Rajasekar said. "It's going to have exactly zero influence on anybody that a few words were symbolically changed…. This is little more than a power tactic that reveals how strong the pressure to conform and give in to the mob is, with no regard for reasoned approaches or competing viewpoints."
The university justified the decision, saying that such an honor implies an endorsement of the individual as a "role model," rather than a mere reflection of his accomplishments.
"We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson's racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its form," the board said. "Identifying a political leader as the namesake for a public policy school inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model…. We must therefore ask whether it is acceptable for the 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."
The decision has extended beyond high school and college campuses, drawing the attention of President Trump. He defended his Democratic predecessor—as well as Hollywood actor John Wayne—from those seeking to erase his legacy. The movement to tear down monuments or rename institutions reflects "incredible stupidity," according to Trump.
"Can anyone believe that Princeton just dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson from their highly respected policy center. Now the Do Nothing Democrats want to take off the name John Wayne from an airport. Incredible stupidity," he tweeted.
Can anyone believe that Princeton just dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson from their highly respected policy center. Now the Do Nothing Democrats want to take off the name John Wayne from an airport. Incredible stupidity!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2020
The renaming campaign against Wilson is not unprecedented in the Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland area. In 2018, Orr Elementary School in Northeast D.C. changed its name to Lawrence Boone Elementary after the school discovered Benjamin Orr—the fourth mayor of the nation's capitol—owned slaves. In 2017, the Montgomery County Council president asked Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, to rename itself due to Lee's segregationist policies.
The campaign against Wilson dates back years on Princeton's campus, though the board of trustees said as recently as 2015 that it would not remove the Democrat's name from the school, but would do its best to be "honest and forthcoming about [his] history." Activism at Wilson High School began in earnest in 2015, but the renaming effort is enjoying the momentum of Princeton's concession. Activists have found a champion in Wattenberg.
"He was working actively to roll back the degree of desegregation that already existed here in D.C.," Wattenberg said. "That work should not be honored by a D.C. high school with his name."
Rajasekar fears the name changes will set a precedent for others to follow suit. If an elite institution like Princeton is unwilling to defend Wilson, it will only encourage others to throw historic figures under the bus. It is only a matter of time before they shift their attention from individuals to ideals.
"What's deeply worrisome is that academic freedom may be next on the chopping block if the mob gets its way, and I hope the university takes an absolute and uncompromising stand in its defense when the mob comes calling for its destruction," he said.