The undeclared Global War on Racism and racist pedigree today moved to the campus of one of the most prestigious universities in the United States which carried out a most paradoxical disrobing in recent history. Princeton University’s Board of Trustees signified that a serious conversation must be taking place on racism in some of the top institutions in the US by it voting to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name by which the university’s School of Public and International Affairs has been known. According to the press release to that effect, the school will now be simply known as Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
The interesting irony here is Woodrow Wilson being a former president of the United States, one of Princeton’s own former professor, the man behind the first chair of International Politics in the world at the University of Aberystwyth in the UK and a leading architect of the League of Nations which transformed into the United Nations subsequently. It is a paradox for a name that symbolised everything in international politics to be found out and punished for actions that are anti-internationalism
Calling the step an extraordinary one, the Board said the decision was based on its belief that “Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its forms”.
Universities such as Oxford, University College London and the University of Glasgow have done one similar symbolic move or another from the UK side, the case of Oxford being the contestation over the imperialist exploits of Cecil Rhodes in Southern Africa. All of that have been on the agenda through protests led by students and sundry activists in these institutions against individuals with the most sordid records in historical crimes that embarrass claims to human rights and democracy promotion.
That is also the background to the decision at Princeton where student protests in November 2015 called attention to Wilson’s racism. According to Board’s release, it responded by forming an ad hoc committee to study Wilson’s legacy at Princeton. The committee recommended certain reforms but did not go as far as pushing for any specific punishment as disrobing for Wilson. The Board’s account, however said the student and alumni interest in those names had persisted, leading to a revisiting of the issue “as the American nation struggled profoundly with the terrible injustice of racism”.
In the end, the verdict came in the following powerful reflexivity: “If the question before us were how to weigh Wilson’s achievements against his failures, members of the Princeton community might reach varying judgments. We believe, however, that these times present the University with a different question. Identifying a political leader as the namesake for a public policy school inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for those who study in the school. We must therefore ask whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades. This question has been made more urgent by the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, which have served as tragic reminders of the ongoing need for all of us to stand against racism and for equality and justice. Our commitment to those values must be clear and unequivocal. We believe that the continued use of Wilson’s name on a school of public affairs does not reflect those values and thereby impedes the School’s and the University’s capacity to pursue their missions”.
Although it did not dismiss especially the April 2016 Report of the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton which it credits with accurately and persuasively summarizing the strengths and deficiencies of Wilson’s record at Princeton University and in the broader world, it still reckoned with the importance of the complexity of historical figures and the entirety of their impact on the world, especially at institutions committed to seeking the truth and as the US wrestles with its history.
What this means is the famous Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as well as the Woodrow Wilson residential College will no longer bear his name. only the university’s highest honour for an undergraduate alumnus/alumna will still bear his name.
Those who schooled in the Western world in the 1970s never got any hints about his racism. Instead, students of International History, International Law and International Security were then and until today were fed with especially his 14 Points offered for post World War 1 peace and similar actions he took. Now, the bubble has burst, hopefully setting the stage for more of such catastrophic disrobing towards a saner and ethical world.
As the Western world purges itself of the past of slavery and racism, it is expected that other key actors and beneficiaries would brace up to accounting for such past, particularly where supremacist ideologies are on rampage.