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Princeton Students: Woodrow Wilson’s Racism Doesn’t Erase His Contributions

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The Black Justice League’s sit-in in the office of University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has reignited an important discussion on race and inclusion at the University. The BJL made three principal demands during the sit-in, most notably that the Wilson School and Wilson College be renamed. The Board believes that the University should not rename the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College. Additionally, we oppose mandatory cultural competency training for faculty and staff and cultural affinity housing. In place of the BJL’s proposal for a distribution requirement on the history and culture of marginalized groups, we propose a more general “global thought” distribution requirement.

The Board acknowledges that Woodrow Wilson was a racist who espoused hateful views and rolled back the tides of racial equality. However, we do not believe that the University should remove Wilson’s name from campus buildings. His abhorrent views and acts do not erase his significant contributions, which include restoring Princeton’s status as an elite academic institution and leading the United States as President. We do, however, believe that the BJL is correct to point out that the University currently lionizes Wilson and does not present a holistic view of his legacy. Universally praising Wilson in non-academic contexts only serves to misinform the Princeton community. In community spaces like Wilson College where his personal accomplishments are celebrated, his many shortcomings should also be presented.

This Board also disagrees with the BJL’s call for mandatory cultural competency training. While there are some things that are clearly inappropriate for a faculty member to say to students, the University neither can nor should guarantee that no student is ever offended by a professor. A mandatory training course for faculty raises many issues, such as who should design the curriculum and how to avoid the censorship of controversial but important viewpoints. Moreover, there already exists a reporting mechanism for offensive remarks through EthicsPoint. For those professors who wish to avail themselves of cultural competency courses, however, the Board believe these courses should be offered by the University on a voluntary basis.

Similarly, this Board makes a distinction between cultural spaces on campus and affinity housing. We wholeheartedly endorse the idea of a center for black students that can provide resources, programming and a comfortable environment outside of class and the dorms. However, we believe that affinity housing would detract from the important experience of living side-by-side with a broad cross-section of the Princeton student body. Students already have a large amount of choice in their social groups through room draw, eating clubs and extracurriculars; being able to choose to live in a building with only those who are culturally similar would limit one of the key means of bringing students together across racial, political, religious and cultural lines.

Lastly, we recognize the good intentions behind the BJL’s idea of a diversity distribution requirement. We propose a one-course Global Thought distribution requirement. Global Thought courses would concern topics outside of the traditional material offered to American students in grade school, which focuses primarily on modern American and European literature and history. Courses in departments ranging from Gender and Sexuality Studies to East Asian Studies would be included as part of this requirement. Courses would not be limited to the history of people who are marginalized in American society; we do not believe that University administrators should be in the business of determining which groups of people are or have been marginalized. We recommend that a course taken to satisfy the Global Thought requirement be allowed to simultaneously satisfy another distribution or major requirement and recognize that many students already take courses that would fall under a GT designation. We believe that a requirement is appropriate given that GT courses would provide students with valuable perspectives that they are unlikely to encounter in everyday life in the United States.

As a Board, we believe that work remains to be done to make Princeton more inclusive for all students. To that end, we ask the University administration to implement our recommended changes and we encourage students to continue to discuss and make progress on these important issues.

Aditya Trivedi ’16, Paul Draper ’18 and Theodore Furchgott ’18 recused themselves from the writing of this editorial.

Daniel Elkind ’17, Allison Berger ’18 and Elly Brown ’18 abstained from the writing of this editorial.

We disagree on only one point: the proposed Global Thought requirement. We fail to see how such would differ in any valuable way from the current Historical Analysis distribution requirement. If the proposed Global Thought requirement is nothing more than a cover for mandating courses in the hyper-politically-correct “studies” departments, it is not merely vacuous but would also harmfully prevent students who hope to study the Western tradition from taking worthwhile courses. In accord with the Board’s previous declaration that “no liberal arts education is complete without a solid grounding in the Western intellectual tradition,” we believe that a western civilization-specific requirement should take priority over a Global Thought requirement, if the latter is even considered. For this singular reason, we respectfully dissent.

Signed by Elly Brown ’18 and James Haynes ’18

A “Global Thought” requirement does not go far enough in addressing the lack of cultural awareness in our student body and the nation at large. Our education system allows for Ivy League graduates to rise in the presidential polls after making disparaging statements about disabled Americans, American women, Hispanic Americans and other marginalized groups. In addition to a required “global thought” course (as it can be rightfully defined), the University should require students to take a course on the history of marginalized groups (historical minorities due to race, religion, culture or sexual orientation) in American history. This falls more in line with the motto of our University to create leaders not only in the service of all nations, but in the service of our own nation as well. For these reasons, we respectfully dissent.

Signed by Cydney Kim ’17 and Ashley Reed ’18

The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor and the Editor-in-Chief.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect Allison Berger and Elly Brown’s stances on the issue. They abstained from the writing of this editorial.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Princetonian

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