By Aisha Tahir
Last year, on the morning of November 18, nearly 200 students gathered outside Princeton University’s Nassau Hall. They came together from many diverse backgrounds to advocate for one cause: demanding that the school remove the name of Woodrow Wilson—the 28th president of the United States and a former president of the University—from its buildings.
The news immediately went viral around the world, with headlines like “The Case Against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton” in The New York Times, “Erasing Woodrow Wilson’s name is not that easy” on CNN, and “Expunging Woodrow Wilson from Official Places of Honor” in The Washington Post.
The group of activists who staged the protest, the Black Justice League, had a point: Wilson was a “deeply flawed” racist to whom they “owe nothing”; he believed segregation benefited black people and vocally defended slavery. The group had three demands: removing Wilson’s name, instituting cultural competency training for staff and faculty and creating a space on campus dedicated specifically to black students. Although all these demands pointed to a larger problem—students didn’t feel welcomed and accepted on campus—changing the name became the highlight.
Indeed, everything became about Wilson’s name and legacy. But while that was a major concern that needed to be addressed, the ensuing media firestorm overlooked the activists’ other points.
Jim Floyd, a Princeton alum, said Wilson’s legacy became a symbol for larger frustrations. “From what I understood after talking to many students and knowing their purpose, it wasn’t about Wilson,” he said. “At least for that group of students, [the atmosphere] wasn’t welcoming and was full of hostility from other students and faculty. It was all about ‘Princeton doesn’t want me here.’”
The name issue became a distraction and caused the rest of the arguments to be forgotten, including the broader purpose of the protest. Esther Maddox, a member of the Black Justice League, wrote in The Daily Princetonian that “we, as an institution of higher learning, must think critically about our role in history and how it has shaped the present.” That role is clearly much bigger than Wilson’s name.
But even the other demands of the Black Justice League aren’t really enough to address the bigger underlying problems involving higher education, minorities, and low-income students. Making the argument about such specific demands — removing Wilson’s name, cultural competency training, a dedicated space for Black students — does a disservice to the greater problems college campuses face.
Wilson’s name in particular was a mere symbol of the problems at hand. It was essential to the point students were trying to make, but it was not the point itself.