This morning, the Princeton University Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton released a report announcing its decision to keep Woodrow Wilson’s name on campus buildings and programs. The report goes on to make various, largely meaningless platitudes, promising the initiation of yet another committee, a Special Trustee Committee on Diversity & Inclusion — a favored placating tactic on the part of the institution — despite the fact that the CPUC (Council of the Princeton University Community) Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion, created under similar auspices, has yet to produce any substantive changes.
We are not surprised by this decision; after all, Princeton, as an institution, has scarcely been ahead of its time or on the right side of history. One has merely to look to its peer institutions to observe how much Princeton continues to lag behind. Harvard’s highest governing body, The Harvard Corporation, approved the changing of the Harvard Law School shield less than a week after a Harvard law committee released a report recommending its removal. What’s more, Harvard President Drew Faust has gone further as to initiate steps directed at formal recognition of Harvard’s ties to slavery and the slave trade. While Harvard remains far from perfect, in stark contrast, Princeton remains unable to even reckon and wrestle with its white supremacist foundations and its ongoing role in perpetuating racism, instead delivering shallow words and hollow promises.
In any case, while we are not surprised, we are, disappointed nevertheless. With these actions and others — such as its recent display of hypocrisy and inconsistency in its response to violent anti-Semitic attacks on campus — Princeton continues to demonstrate its seemingly intractable investment in white supremacy and its vestiges. Princeton’s decision today demonstrates unambiguously its commitment to symbols and legacies of anti-Blackness in the name of “history” and “tradition” at the expense of the needs of and in direct contravention with the daily experiences of Black students at Princeton.
Moreover, while our demands regarding Woodrow Wilson have remained at the forefront of conversations and have garnered overwhelming media attention, it was neither our primary nor our only demand. We have also demanded the removal of the Woodrow Wilson mural (which the report does not directly address), the establishment of cultural competency training for staff and faculty, amendments to the general education requirements that would incorporate issues around diversity and marginalization, and the creation of a Black cultural space — demands that have yet to be fully met.
Today’s decision, coupled with Princeton’s inaction or feeble attempts on these various other fronts, illuminates what Robin D.G. Kelley articulates in Black Study, Black Struggle when he writes, “the fully racialized social and epistemological architecture upon which the modern university is built cannot be radically transformed by “simply” adding darker faces, safer spaces, better training, and a curriculum that acknowledges historical and contemporary oppressions.” Over the past roughly two years, our repeated attempts at operating within the institution, motivated by what we were led to believe would be the most fruitful and really only path to progress, “[university] politics — to lobby for access to, or control over, such institutions — [as] our only salvation,” have proven largely futile.
Rather, we join a growing contingent of Black students who recognize the limits of academic institutions as pioneers of transformative social justice. With this understanding — that we are not beholden to working within the political frameworks dictated by the institution — while we will continue to hold the institution accountable and push for changes that result in harm reduction for Black students now and in the future, we are committed to a renewed vision of social justice aimed not just at creating less hostile spaces but at broadly dismantling structural racism and other forms of institutionalized oppression in the service of Black liberation and on our own terms.
In closing, we remember the great Martin Luther King Jr. who was shot and killed on this day, April 4th in 1968, and meditate on his very poignant and ever apt words: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”