In reassessing Wilson, don't forget the good

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Morgan Harvey , a Princeton English major, working on a sign while taking part in a sit-in with students inside Nassau Hall last month. JULIO CORTEZ / Associated Press

Art Carey

Princeton '72, is a former Inquirer staff writer

The demand by some Princeton University students that Woodrow Wilson's name be scrubbed from prominent sites on campus because of his egregious and undeniable racism has sparked controversy and ignited a reexamination of Wilson's legacy.

Much of that reexamination has focused on Wilson's U.S. presidency and the progressive measures he enacted domestically (the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, the graduated income tax, new antitrust and labor laws), and his vain attempt to "make the world safe for democracy" and secure a lasting peace that would prevent another bloody world war.

Not as much attention has been paid to the many contributions Wilson made to Princeton, his alma mater, both as a professor and later its president. In short, he turned a parochial finishing school for aristocratic swells, snobs, and dilettantes (many of whom had Southern roots) into an intellectually stimulating, world-class university.

Today's Princeton students are the direct beneficiaries of his vision and vigorous leadership, and the current trustees would do well to refresh their acquaintance with Wilson's achievements as they reckon with how to acknowledge his positive influence while at the same time repudiating the flaws that have made many justifiably uncomfortable.

After earning his doctorate at Johns Hopkins, Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan before realizing, in 1890, his fondest dream - becoming a Princeton professor. According to an account by the late Wilson scholar Arthur Link in A Princeton Companion, a rich encyclopedia of Old Nassau history and lore compiled by Alexander Leitch, Wilson was a skillful teacher who regularly was voted the most popular professor. "He was a friend and counselor to numberless students," Link writes, "who worshipped him for his warmth and high-mindedness."

In 1902, when he was elected Princeton's 13th president, Wilson wasted no time in presenting a $12.5 million plan to transform Princeton into a major university. Although the money never materialized, Wilson moved ahead anyway. He tightened academic standards, established instructional departments whose heads reported directly to him, named deans of science and the college, and transferred the power to hire faculty from the board to the administration.

In 1904, Wilson led the faculty in instituting "the most significant curricular reform in American higher education in the 20th century," Link writes. He supplanted an aimless, free-election system with a unified curriculum of general studies for freshmen and sophomores, and concentrated study in a single discipline, or major, for juniors and seniors.

The next year, Wilson revolutionized the teaching program, doubling the faculty by appointing nearly 50 assistant professors. Called "preceptors," they were to serve as academic companions and undergraduate guides. "Instead of memorizing lecture notes and textbooks, students would master fields of knowledge through guided reading and small-group discussion," often at professors' homes. "With a remarkable eye for quality, Wilson assembled what was probably the finest young faculty anywhere," Link writes. "Out of this group came many of the professors and administrators who later made Princeton renowned among the universities of the world."

Wilson did more. He strengthened the science program, took biblical instruction out of the hands of a fundamentalist, broke the hold of conservative Presbyterians on the board of trustees, and pushed to have the university declare itself nonsectarian. He appointed the first Roman Catholic and Jew to the faculty, and added three instructional buildings, four dormitories, a gymnasium, and Lake Carnegie.

Wilson's greatest campaign, and challenge, was to reform Princeton's social life by opposing the eating clubs. Wilson believed "they were the sideshows that were swallowing up the main tent," Link writes. "Worse, they encouraged snobbishness and elitism, and the one-third of excluded upperclassmen lived in isolation and, frequently, ostracism and humiliation." Wilson's solution: the creation of colleges, similar to those at Yale, where undergraduates of all four classes would live with their own recreation facilities and resident faculty master. Under Wilson's proposal, members would be assigned or chosen by lot, and the clubs either absorbed or abolished.

Staunch resistance from the trustees and alumni doomed Wilson's plan, but the idea of residential colleges never died completely. Today, Princeton has such a system, in addition to the eating clubs, which are mostly nonselective. What evolved into the first of these residential colleges, which was a haven in the '60s and '70s for nonconformists and counterculture types who were repelled by the eating clubs (including many blacks), is named in Wilson's honor. Ironically, Wilson College is one of the places from which protesters propose his name be stripped.

The motto on Princeton's shield - Dei sub numine viget ("Under the spirit of God it flourishes") - has never had the same secular snap as Harvard's Veritas ("Truth") or Yale's Lux et Veritas ("Light and Truth"). At Princeton's sesquicentennial celebration in 1896, then-professor Wilson delivered an eloquent oration in which he propounded the notion of "Princeton in the nation's service," which the university has since adopted as its practicing motto, adding the phrase "and the service of all nations."

In other words, Wilson and Princeton explicitly expect graduates not only to do well but to do good, to contribute to the commonweal, to enrich their communities, to serve in public life and on the international stage (hence, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs).

"Wilson had a larger hand in the development of Princeton into a great university than any other man in the 20th century," Link concludes. "He left a vision of an institution dedicated both to things of the mind and the nation's service, promoted a spirit of religious tolerance, and held up ideals of integrity and achievement that still inspire the Princeton community."

art.carey@gmail.com