On Woodrow Wilson: Princeton Students Hold Civil Debate

Russell K. Nieli

I have long been telling parents, prospective college students, and others that Princeton is in some ways the least hostile Ivy League campus for students with socially conservative values, traditional religious orientations, or right-of-center political views.  I choose my words carefully. While all but a small fraction of the faculty and high level administrators hold left-of-center views on the most controversial social and political issues of the day, there is a core culture of civility that has worked to the advantage of those students whose views lie outside the political and cultural mainstream. There is also one high profile senior faculty member, Robert P. George, who is an unabashed and unapologetic conservative, and whose James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions regularly invites to campus speakers with socially, politically, and religiously conservative viewpoints.   Though the campus atmosphere is clearly to the left, in comparison with most other Ivy League institutions Princeton is a place where conservative students do not feel constantly beleaguered. Compared to places such as Brown and Yale, where the left completely saturates and overwhelms the campus environment with little countervailing pushback, Princeton is a place where conservative students can survive and even flourish.

This culture of civility and respect for dissenting views was seriously challenged, however, when a group of black students in late November of this year, under the direction of an organization calling itself the Black Justice League, forcibly occupied the office of Princeton President Chris Eisgruber, refusing to leave until Eisgruber committed himself to meeting a number of the students' demands.  These demands included acknowledgment that Princeton's past president Woodrow Wilson was a racist and that his name should be stricken from the public policy school and the residential living quarter named after him.  The students also demanded imposition of a requirement that all faculty and staff take a mandatory "cultural competency" course, that an additional required course be added to the university curriculum on the history of "marginalized people," and that a "safe cultural space" be set aside for blacks on campus.

Displaying the weakness of will and general cravenness typical of college presidents in such situations, Eisgruber bowed to the threatened disruptions, agreeing to negotiate with the students rather than having them evicted from his office for illegal trespass and subjected to university disciplinary procedures.  As a condition for getting the students to leave his office, Eisgruber agreed 1) to have the Board of Trustees solicit opinions about the legacy of  Woodrow Wilson from the university community and make a final decision whether his name should continue to appear on university buildings; 2) to have a mural of Wilson taken down from one of the undergraduate eating facilities; 3) to set aside four rooms in the Carl Fields Center (a large university building on Prospect Street) for black and other "Cultural Affinity Groups" to have a safe space to congregate; 4) to discuss ways to develop better cultural competency training among university staff ; and 5) to consider the possibility of a diversity enhancement requirement to be added to the university' core curriculum.

While Eisgruber's cowardly capitulation was in sync with that of university leaders at other institutions—including the University of Missouri, Occidental College, and Claremont McKenna—it can be said that compared to some others he wasn't quite as accommodating to the dictates of campus bullies.  Eisgruber refused, for instance, to endorse the demand for cultural competency training for Princeton's faculty, and refused to endorse the demand for a required course on marginalized people.  What was most distinct about Princeton's black protest, however, was not the weak-but-not-completely-capitulatory response of its president, but the very mixed, and often quite hostile response by substantial numbers of Princeton students and alumni. 

Soon after the Nassau Hall sit-in, other Princeton students and alumni circulated internet petitions objecting to the bullying and intimidation tactics of the BJL and its supporters, as well as to many of the BJL demands. While campus opinion was divided, an internet poll of Princeton students suggested substantially more negative assessments of the protesting students' actions than positive ones.  An ad hoc student group calling itself the Princeton Open Campus Coalition came into existence in opposition to the BJL sit-in that in a carefully worded statement called for "increased dialogue and the creation of a process that properly considers the input of all students and faculty, not merely those who are the loudest." In its robust response to the bullying and intimidation tactics of the black demonstrators, the POCC clearly distinguished itself from the tepid acquiescence and silence that many college students on other campuses displayed in response to similar demonstrations. There was a culture of civility and mutual respect at Princeton that needed to be preserved, the POCC members believed, and the disrespect shown to the university president and his office by protesting students was not to go unchallenged.

"We are concerned mainly with the importance of preserving an intellectual culture in which all members of the Princeton community feel free to engage in civil discussion and to express their convictions without fear of being subjected to intimidation or abuse," the POCC group declared in an open letter to Princeton's president. "Thanks to recent polls, surveys, and petitions," they continued, "we have reason to believe that our concerns are shared by a majority of our fellow Princeton undergraduates."

What was most heartening to those of us who prize civilized discourse and open debate was the panel discussion among Princeton's undergraduates that Professor Peter Singer held earlier in December in his very popular course on Practical Ethics.  Singer invited two members of the BJL and two members of the POCC to address the recent sit-in demonstration with special reference to the issues of civil disobedience and the memorializing of historical figures.  Singer himself was the neutral moderator, though he did make two comments that, while not intended to be partisan, probably did favor one side in the debate over the other.  He told the audience that until the recent protests he had never known anything about Wilson's racial views or pro-segregationist past, and gave credit to the BJL group for bringing that fact to public attention.  (Singer, an Australian national, may be forgiven for his lack of knowledge about America's past presidents).  He also raised a question about the desirability of removing Washington's name from our national capital since Washington was a slaveholder -- a question those calling for removal of Wilson's name from Princeton's buildings do not like to hear.

The panel discussion and the subsequent questions from the audience proceeded in a civil manner as befits the best of Princeton's traditions.  Perhaps the most interesting of the four student panelists was the POCC member Allie Burton, a junior, who as a black women explained that there were many blacks on campus like herself who disagreed with the BJL in terms of both its tactics and the substance of its demands.  Even if Woodrow Wilson held racist views, she inquired, who should determine whether this is a serious enough flaw to warrant removal of his name from university buildings?  Her unstated answer was, "Surely not the BJL or those who resort to bullying and intimidation tactics."

Having attended the panel discussion and talked with many students after the event, I can say that my faith in Princeton's capacity to maintain a culture of civility was at least partially restored.  Despite its serious flaws and weak leadership at the top, Princeton is still probably the best of the Ivies for students who stand outside of the leftist hegemony that reigns on the majority of American college campuses. 

Russell K. Nieli is a lecturer in Princeton University’s politics department and is author of Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide (Encounter, 2012). 

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