By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Last Saturday, Princeton University announced that it was stripping the name of former President Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs. The school will now be known simply as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
Wilson, a Princeton graduate, former president of the Ivy League university, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was the nation’s 28th president. The Princeton Board of Trustees decided to remove his name from the school because Wilson openly espoused racist ideologies. He took actions in office to promote racial discrimination, including the segregation of civil service workers after decades of racial integration.
“We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe 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,” the board said as reported in The Washington Post.
Princeton’s Decision Highlights a Principle Integral to Leading an Ethical Life
This decision — along with many others around the country in the wake of the protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — highlights a principle that is integral to leading an ethical life: Your legacy should matter to you. If you don’t make adequate efforts to behave with decency and integrity, history has shown that your memory will not age well over time.
Some people insist that past generations should be forgiven for their ignorance and bigotry on the basis that they were simply products of their own time and culture. But this argument holds no water unless we’re looking back to the time before human beings possessed the cognitive reasoning to make intelligent assessments and discern right from wrong.
Take Wilson, for example. Sure, he was President during the early 20th century, when the average American opinion toward racial equality was obviously quite a bit different than it is today. However, Wilson took office a full 50 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, to free the slaves and assert that all people are created equal.
So clearly Wilson had to recognize that he was taking the country several rungs back down the ladder and away from equality and basic human rights recognition. He may not have perceived this to be “wrong” in his own mind.
But as human beings the idea that others are worthy of dignity and respect is not one that should be qualified by cultural or temporal context. And so today Wilson’s legacy faces the music. And unfortunately the bigotry he supported means that — despite all his accomplishments — he will forever be remembered with a shadow of shame.
A Lack of Thoughtful Consideration for One’s Legacy Is Not Just a Problem of Yesteryear
Unfortunately, a lack of thoughtful consideration for one’s legacy is not just a problem of yesteryear. In the fall of 2018, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was receiving a lot of media attention for his dubious activities as the personal lawyer representing President Donald Trump. At the time Trump was involved in several scandals, including his alleged payments to porn stars to keep them from speaking out about his extramarital affairs and the federal investigation into Russian interference in his 2016 election.
In an interview for The New Yorker, journalist Jeffrey Toobin asked Giuliani whether he was concerned that his defense of Trump against these scandals would have a negative impact on his own legacy as a leader and public figure in American history. Giuliani has this to say: “I don’t care about my legacy. I’ll be dead.”
To say that Giuliani has occasionally put his foot in his mouth over the last few years would be a massive understatement. However, he made no attempt to walk this comment back after he spoke. He appears to be fine with it on record as is, so we must assume it was not made in error.
Giuliani’s Indifference to His Own Legacy Was Ignorant, Selfish, and Dangerous
That said, his comment struck me as particularly ignorant, selfish, and dangerous, and I think it deserves far more attention than the 24-hour news cycle could afford to give it when Giuliani uttered these words two years ago.
Take a moment and think about the implications of anyone making a statement like this; it’s a statement that disavows all interest in one’s own legacy, on the basis that the speaker won’t be around to face the societal repercussions associated therewith.
To say that you don’t care about your legacy is essentially to say that you don’t care how you’re remembered. And what this effectively translates to is a position in which you don’t care about any consequences of your actions that might come to pass after your death.
This is a profoundly calloused and self-absorbed perspective because it purports that you are only interested in the effects of your actions on your own life, at the expense of everyone and everything else. To be fair to President Wilson, we don’t know that he in fact harbored the same indifference toward his own legacy.
In fact, he may have cared deeply about how he would be remembered. Perhaps Wilson just made some bad decisions that resulted in that memory being severely and permanently tarnished.
Someone Completely Unconcerned with His Legacy Wouldn’t Hesitate to Do Unethical Things
But someone like Giuliani, who is apparently completely unconcerned with his legacy, presumably wouldn’t hesitate to do unethical things to further his own interests, the fallout on others be damned. And indeed, Giuliani’s often-incoherent and vacuous public activities of late have effectively destroyed his reputation, which is a real shame because he was previously remembered fondly as the mayor who guided New York City through the 9/11 attacks. He has fallen quite far from grace, and it’s unlikely at this point that he’ll recover.
Concern with One’s Legacy Is Actually a Powerful Virtue
Concern with one’s legacy is actually a powerful virtue because it binds us to a contract we make with ourselves to act in ways that ensure we are remembered fondly. It forces us to make decisions that will result in a better world for our children and grandchildren — even if we never live to see it ourselves.
If we want our descendants of a hundred years from now to look back upon us favorably, then we must conduct ourselves in a manner that is worthy of their veneration. This means recognizing and doing the right thing whenever and wherever possible.
Today’s generation should look to examples like Woodrow Wilson and Rudy Giuliani, and recognize that history is not kind to those who embrace ignorance, selfishness and immorality. So we must do all we can to lead good lives and promote legacies of integrity that our grandchildren can be proud of.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.