Erasing Woodrow Wilson's name is not that easy

Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States after he was Princeton's president.

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Student protesters raise a good question but a lot more thought needs to go into how to resolve it
  • Questions could be raised about honoring many other political leaders, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, a New America fellow and author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The debate at Princeton University over the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where I am a professor, has become a subject of national discussion.

A group of student protesters has argued that the university should rename the Woodrow Wilson School because of the poor historical record on race relations of the nation's former president. The school was named after Wilson who, as president of Princeton, played a huge role in transforming the educational experience and modernizing the university.
It isn't simply that Wilson wasn't progressive enough on the issue of racial justice, but rather that he was strongly racist in his beliefs and appointed officials who worked to remove African-Americans from key government jobs.
    In an editorial headlined "The Case Against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton," the editorial board of The New York Times weighed in on the side of the students: "The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist."
    The demands have stimulated an equally determined group of opponents. Many alumni have urged the administration to reject the student demands. Some students have circulated a counterpetition branding this as a "dangerous precedent." Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," dismissed the idea of renaming the school as "insanity."
    The very clear-cut debate which is at the center of the controversy -- Should this institution continue to be named after Woodrow Wilson? -- should only be the opening round of the discussion.
    If we are to avoid allowing this to disintegrate into the kind of debates we see in Washington, then administrators, faculty and students should use this opportunity to collectively and constructively debate some of the bigger questions that will have to be addressed at Princeton and other universities as they tackle the concerns that have been raised.
    At a time that many faculty members lament a lack of engagement on campuses, these students have started an important debate. As they respond, universities need to develop some kind of road map for moving the dialogue forward in a constructive direction.
    A few questions that would be useful for discussion:

    How should we evaluate the legacy of political leaders?

    The truth is that the record of most political leaders is complicated. Most presidents and legislators have complex and often contradictory records that are difficult to judge. With Wilson, the question that has emerged for many observers is how to weigh his record of racism against the fact that he was one of the most progressive presidents at that point in history.
    Born in Virginia, Wilson was a Southerner who held on to the racial views of his region. He held on to positive memories of the Old South. But there was another, progressive, side to him that emerged by the time he was president.
    This aspect of Wilson includes his support for policies such as the creation of the progressive federal income tax, the Federal Trade Commission,and the anti-trust laws that established the foundation for modern liberalism.
    On foreign policy he promoted an ambitious program of liberal internationalism that relied on international alliances and diplomacy to avoid further war after World War I.
    He was also a supporter of the rights of workers seeking protections from their employers and was instrumental in the creation of the Federal Reserve. As the NYU historian Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in Politico, "federal protections and benefits have served as important bulwarks of human dignity and decency in the United States, for all of us. And Wilson deserves a good deal of the credit for that."
    Other presidents who have been considered very liberal on social policy could easily face the same kind of scrutiny. Franklin Roosevelt, who most agree did more than almost any other president to advance the notion that the government should be a force in helping marginalized groups, constantly made deals with the Southern Democrats who dominated Congress.
    Even while expanding government, he avoided programs that directly threatened segregation and the low-wage economy for African-Americans living in the South. Key programs like Social Security initially excluded large portions of the work force, such as those doing domestic work, where African-Americans were found in large numbers.
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    Lyndon Johnson, the president who was crucial to the passage of the two most important civil rights bills in American history -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- also had a long record of making racist statements and, before becoming president, had opposed numerous proposals for robust civil rights legislation. And this is to say nothing about the disastrous decisions Johnson made on the war in Vietnam.
    If campuses are to make these kinds of decisions, they will need clear criteria about how to make such a determination.

    What are the issues that matter?

    One of the questions that would arise from renaming the Woodrow Wilson School is how far universities should go in scrutinizing the records of people who are honored, both politicians and private citizens.
    Besides race, there are many other issues which should legitimately cause concern. How were honorees' records on questions such as sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, nativism, and much more? Just dealing with the issue of race while leaving others untouched would inevitably raise the question of why they don't matter as much. Taking steps to heal tensions could end up unintentionally creating other areas of frustration.
    Opening the door to taking the record of honorees seriously on all these issues would cause a huge and extensive re-examination of university decisions. If universities are going to make these sorts of judgments, administration officials will have to use a much broader canvas of evaluation and develop a holistic approach as future demands emerge.

    Symbols versus structure?

    The students at Princeton and other universities (such as Yale and the University of Mississippi) have raised a number of very important and relevant social issues at our educational institutions. At the heart of the student walkout was the goal of doing everything possible to make sure that the educational offerings are diverse and to ensure that that the university is broadening and diversifying the student and faculty body.
    The debate over the naming of the school is limited in terms of dealing with these issues, as the students themselves recognize. As student protesters undertake the process of prioritizing where to focus their attention, and university administrators decide how to best address some of the very legitimate concerns that have been raised, they will have to make decisions about what kinds of steps would be most effective in improving conditions.
    Renaming a school is one among many issues, with other structural changes revolving around the provision of effective scholarships, aggressive recruiting, robust and innovative course offerings, and effective campus policies. Students and the administration want to avoid the mistake of focusing so much energy on symbolic areas that there is not enough political space left to deal with the policies that will probably have the biggest impact on the campus.
    It is unclear how the debate over the Woodrow Wilson School will be resolved. It will continue to elicit passionate responses from both sides. But equally important will be the need for all participants to think through some of the bigger issues that come out of this debate in order to best and most reasonably deal with the long-term problems concerning colleges and universities.