TRENTON, N.J. – How do you apply 21st-century sensibilities to the legacy of a man raised in the 19th-century South who achieved greatness in the early 20th century at an institution that didn't begin admitting blacks until the late 1940s and women until 1969?
That is the question faced by a Princeton University committee that has started examining the legacy of alumnus and former President Woodrow Wilson as part of an agreement with students who staged a sit-in to protest his views on race and segregation and urge the Ivy League institution to rename buildings and programs carrying his name.
Wilson was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910 and served as New Jersey's governor from 1911 to 1913, when he entered the White House. The Democrat was a leading progressive, credited with creating the Federal Reserve system, guiding the U.S. into World War I and trying to preserve a lasting peace with his "Fourteen Points" and the League of Nations, which won him the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. But Wilson also supported segregation and appointed Cabinet members who segregated federal departments.
The protesters, both black and white, wanted the school to acknowledge what they said is Wilson's racist legacy and to rename buildings and programs named for him.
Scholars see some room for interpretation in what critics cite as instances of Wilson's bias. For example, was he being racist when he denied a black student admission or was he shielding the student from an environment where he would be ignored by classmates?
The Wilson Legacy Review Committee has established a website where the public can comment and read essays about Wilson by nine scholars. It also is holding small group discussions with students, alumni and the public. The next session will take place Feb. 18-20 when the school marks Alumni Day.
"The goal is not how many people attend," said Bob Durkee, Princeton's vice president and secretary. "They want to try to get as many perspectives on the table as possible about Wilson and what should be done."
In one of the essays, Paula Giddings, a professor of Afro-American studies at Smith College, wrote, "In my opinion, his segregationist and racially exclusive policies as president of Princeton University and as the 28th President of the United States are sufficient grounds for the refusal to honor his name in an institution that values diversity and the standards of a liberal arts education."
Kendrick Clements of the University of South Carolina wrote, "Woodrow Wilson exemplified aspects of the racism that has permeated American history, but he also proposed that students and faculty confront all of the nation's problems in their classrooms and seek solutions for them."
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Virginia, where Wilson was born, has been following the review. Chief executive officer Robin von Seldeneck thought the essays were written by a well-rounded group of scholars who appreciate the different aspects of Wilson's life.
The museum, she said, doesn't excuse Wilson's racism but tries to understand why it was there.
"We have to consider the entirety," von Seldeneck said. "I cringe how I'd be judged 100 years from now."
About 30 black and white Princeton students, from a group called the Black Justice League, in November demanded changes to improve the social and academic experience of black students.
They want Wilson's name removed from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs and one of the school's residential colleges. They also want a large photo of him in a dining hall taken down.
Princeton's protest followed demonstrations on the University of Missouri's flagship campus over what some saw as the university leadership's indifference to racial issues. The university system's president and the Columbia campus' chancellor resigned.
"Most of the content in the letters was compelling," said junior Asanni York of Black Justice League of the essays. "But some downplayed Wilson's prejudice."
York predicted the school will not move quickly, and there is no firm deadline for when the Princeton committee will finish its examination. Change in institutions like Princeton, which students and alumni refer to as "the bubble," can seem glacial. But committee members believe dialogue is important.
"They are listening, hearing and becoming more informed," Durkee said. "They'll deliberate, make recommendations and then issue a report to the Board of Trustees."
Princeton's Wilson Legacy Review Committee: http://wilsonlegacy.princeton.edu