This year, I was lucky enough to have been hired as an Resident Graduate Student (RGS) in Wilson College, one of Princeton’s six residential colleges. The residential college system is one of the defining characteristics of a Princeton undergraduate education, as nearly all undergraduate students live on campus for the entirety of their four years. Wilson was actually the first of Princeton’s residential colleges. Originally organized by students, it was conceived as an alternative to the Eating Clubs. For the founding members of Wilson College, this new type of residential community was less exclusive and cheaper, for those students who were neither able nor willing to shell out tons of cash in order to belong to a mini country club just off campus.
The reason I mention this is because Princeton’s residential college system has recently been in the news in a negative light, and specifically Wilson College. A group of students known as the Black Justice League has called Wilson’s legacy into question, protesting his ubiquitous nature on this campus in the light of his racist legacy. In line with similar student protests this year at Yale University, the Black Justice League has criticized the Princeton administration for what they see as a lack of commitment to diversity. They singled out Woodrow Wilson in particular, former president of the university and the United States, for whom Wilson College and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs is named, as an example of an alumnus who continues to be honored publicly by the university despite his racist legacy.
Princeton has just announced that, contrary to the wishes of the Black Justice League, Wilson’s name will remain where it is, but that the university will try to be more forthcoming about the former president’s legacy and shortcomings. While this may seem like a disappointment to many who fought for a more inclusive campus, I write this post as a proud member of the Wilson College community.
As a non-historian from a public school background, I knew nothing about Wilson’s legacy beyond his creation of the League of Nations. Thanks to the Black Justice League, I now understand that Wilson’s domestic policy blocked progress towards desegregation in the federal government, setting back social rights a great deal. I have learned that even by the standards of the time, Wilson’s views were reactionary. And through discussions with students, I am better able to perceive how it must feel as a minority student in a university that continues to consider such an individual highly.
As a woman at Princeton, a university that only first began to admit women appallingly late in the 1960s, I am now more aware of similar iconography around campus that also says through omission that the university was not created with students like me in mind. For instance, every Sunday morning I do my laundry in a building that proclaims in big letters is for the use of “Princeton men.” How must it feel to be a minority student in Wilson College and eat every meal under a gigantic mural of this former president who most definitely did not want you to receive an education in this university?
I applaud the Black Justice League for speaking out and continuing to take control of their campus community. Because, as the founders of Wilson College demonstrated, the residential colleges are indeed our community. Designed by students, it is up to the students at this university to create the social and intellectual community in which they live. And while the students and the administration did not see eye to eye in this particular conversation, they debated their conflicting points of view maturely and intelligently, and their actions did result in real change (for instance the removal of the Wilson mural in the dining hall). This is one reason why I am proud to belong to the undergraduate college community even as a graduate student — the civic engagement here demonstrates a fundamental part of a university education. Regardless of this specific outcome, students must see that through research and open debate, they can effect real change in their university communities and beyond.