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Princeton University: Woodrow Wilson report

April 4th, 2016, 10:03am by Sam Wang

Today, Princeton University releases its report on Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. You can read it here. Here’s the news release. One bottom line: the Woodrow Wilson school will retain its name.

My own view is that we as a community can’t run away from his segregationist views – nor would it be the best option to do so. In terms of human equality, Wilson took the nation backwards. But removing his name from all the buildings would make it easier to forget that part of our history.

On the positive side, Wilson was pivotal in making Princeton University a global institution…where now my students and I get to work. This place today is quite diverse. It is not clear that I would have been hired under his views. Wilson also made highly consequential contributions as President of the United States, including the creation of the Federal Reserve and the League of Nations. The naming of the Woodrow Wilson School reflects those contributions.

One major outcome of the controversy is to add programs to improve student life and intellectual engagement with Wilson’s record now. I would have liked to see Wilson College, a residence for undergraduates, renamed. But read over the report, and I think there is still a lot of good that comes from this report. “Princeton in the nation’s service, and in the service of humanity.”

Tags: Princeton

26 Comments so far ↓

  • bks

    The unanticipated consequences of renaming:

  • Amitabh Lath

    I believe Princeton is actually slightly ahead of Rutgers (the State University) in percent African-Americans enrolled. The heavy lift is to attract more to science.

    Also, enrollment of women in science remains patchy. While biology has done a superb job, and some sectors of physics (esp. astronomy) are doing well, my own field (particle physics) remains abysmal.

    • Ed Wittens Cat

      I think the core problem for Q-physics is still mathematics background– need solid maths to do particle physics. So u have the usual “women in mathematics” disadvantages
      Math is just horribly taught in this country– theres beaucoup data on world rankings to support this.
      Its like gambling– u have to have the base abilities and then be lucky enough to get good teachers.
      P(genomic ability) X P(decent teaching) is small.

    • Matt McIrvin

      I think the amount of “genomic ability” you need to be good at mathematics (and certainly to do well at particle physics) is well within the normal range of the mass of humanity, male or female. It’s a question of the will to stick with an abstruse subject for years and years, and the culture in these fields still tends to drive women out.

    • Ed Wittens Cat

      yes, of course, education has nothing to do with it

      US has highest percent of 18-29 yr olds struggling with math innumeracy of all the OECD countries
      we’re number one!

    • Matt McIrvin

      Of course education has everything to do with it. General cultural attitudes will be expressed in the educational system. I’m talking about the things that drive female students out of the pipeline specifically, as opposed to male students. A lot of them seem to abandon science and mathematics in high school, if I recall correctly; it isn’t as leaky after that.

    • Ed Wittens Cat

      So it seems to me that high school education is the attack point.
      we cant exactly change the legacy code yet, inspite of CRISPR.
      what is “normal range” of mass of humanities?
      above 115 IQ is cited in some studies for understanding integral calc.

    • Amitabh Lath

      Other countries like Italy do a much better job attracting women to physics, including particle physics. As did the Soviet Union. I don’t think there is anything genetic about it, we just suck at it.

    • Ed Wittens Cat

      so…if “theres nothing genetic about it” then its dependent only on culture and education.
      bien sûr.

    • Amitabh Lath

      Culture and education, yes. I have lost count of the number of workshops, symposia, conferences etc. I have been to that discussed under-representation in math and science.

      One part of the problem is that the people going to these conferences (and for that matter, reading and commenting here) are living in academic ghettoes full of people with advanced degrees and excellent schools where girls do remarkably well. We have no direct exposure to the problem.

    • SP

      There is some interesting social science research being conducted to determine the basis of such gender bias:

  • Arthur Link

    This was a very fair report. They did the right thing for all parties.

  • Art

    How much info will fit on a “permanent marker”? How about a permanent exhibit instead? Still, I can’t recall even a robber-baron marker at Stanford (unless you count the Hoover Institute).

  • elkern

    Thx for the news, and I heartily agree with your perspective. I grew up in Princeton, watched that building go up, joined protests there, and splashed in the pool a few times. Recently learned that the Princeton school systems were de-segregated barely a decade before I “matriculated” kindergarten at Nassau Street School.

    I grew up admiring Wilson for starting the League of Nations. More recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s big bio of TR & Taft opened my eyes to Wilson’s racism.

    Yale is facing a similar dilemma, over a building named after John C. Calhoun, an even worse “Southern Gentleman”.

    Painting over the evil aspects of our history is not the way to go. Much better to recognize the good & bad in our past leaders, and discuss both. Glad Princeton has chosen to keep the name; hope the University finds good ways to make people look at the dark side of his legacy too.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Some renaming is inevitable as power passes from one group to another.

    In India after independence, all streets with British names got changed. Of course the natives still used the old names for decades.

    It all depends on who runs the place now. In India the power structure changed hands entirely. At Princeton it hasn’t, not much.

    If Princeton was say, 50% African American rather than 8%, the name change would have been automatic and unremarked upon.

    • Josh

      Never thought about it that way but that makes sense.

      Having never visited India, though, can you verify that all signs of the colonial past have been thoroughly expunged?

    • Amit

      Josh, indeed they have. And sometimes, the clash between political jingoism and practicality has produced hilarious results.
      A top university in Bombay (oops, sorry Mumbai) was names Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (VJTI). A 90’s radical govt decided that having a top university named after the Queen was un Indian, so they decided to change it. When they realized the cost of changing, they came up with a new name with the EXACT same initials! Something similar occurred for the local transportation (BEST).
      If Princeton whats to change the name but keep the initials, I vote for Walter White School.

    • Josh


    • Amitabh Lath

      In Kolkatta (ex Calcutta) where my parents are from, there was one street name that went the other way after the British left. Theater Road became Shakespeare Sarani.

      Surprisingly, the British never named a street after the Bard of Avon. The Bengalis did the first chance they got.

      Also, the American consulate in Kolkatta used to be on Harrington St. Here is the current address:

      Consulate General of the United States of America
      5/1, Ho Chi Minh Sarani,
      Kolkata – 700071.

  • Ed Wittens Cat

    other countries are just better at Math.
    as per the OECD report I cited.

  • Matt McIrvin

    Here’s some news about a Wisconsin redistricting lawsuit relying on a gerrymandering metric that sounds similar in spirit to yours (but maybe less sophisticated):

    • Sam Wang

      Yup, the Wisconsin case is a big one.

      I would say that the efficiency gap is in some ways “too sophisticated”: it requires some deriving and assumptions for a judge to accept it conceptually. If the assumptions are rejected, then the measure is too. Also, its statistical properties are not known from first principles – one has to evaluate a bunch of examples. But yes, it is certainly a measure of symmetry. My own measures work on Wisconsin very well – perhaps I should post that sometime.

      Also coming down the pike is the Shapiro v. McManus case, which deals with a Democratic gerrymander. It has also gone to a 3-judge court and may eventually come back before the Supreme Court.

    • Matt McIrvin

      What reminded me of your work was that the measure doesn’t depend on somehow measuring the weirdness of the district geometry (which is the first approach everyone thinks of, but has many difficulties).

    • Sam Wang

      I agree that this is important. To my reading, the Supreme Court has ruled out a compactness standard. More precisely, they have broadened it to include “compactness of community,” which basically vitiates the idea.

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