You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Princeton students are calling out Woodrow Wilson's racism. Good.

Tony Essex/Hulton Archive

While protesters at Mizzou may have taken down a university system president, some students at Princeton are going after an even more imposing foe: our 28th president.

Student activists held a sit-in last week demanding that Princeton remove the name of the alumnus and former professor and university president from all campus buildings, including the prestigious School for Public and International Affairs. That’s a huge ask, as political scientist (and Princeton alum) Corey Robin noted on his site last weekend. “Wilson is Princeton,” he wrote.

Why are the students doing this? Wilson was a big, ol’ racist, that’s why.

It doesn’t look like they’ll win, but Robin, in his Salon column, argued correctly that we owe these students a debt. By forcing the debate about Wilson’s advocacy of white supremacy and segregation, Robin argued that “Princeton’s students are actually doing the job that Princeton itself is supposed to be doing: They’re educating all of us.”

From Mizzou to Yale, we’ve found the civil rights champions we’ve been looking for on America’s campuses. But having attended a university littered with Ben Franklin statues, what grabs me about the Princeton moment is its target. Like activists at Georgetown, these students are attacking the silent bigotry that exists in the monuments and murals of racists long dead, worshiped by the institution that purports to have the students’ backs. It can sting as much as a racial slur uttered by a classmate. Even if Princeton keeps Wilson around, these students are forcing a reckoning that would not have otherwise happened.

Listen to my thoughts on collegiate activism and my own experiences with campus racism on Reply All.