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Dollars and Sense at Princeton University

Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International & Public Affairs

This past Saturday, the Washington Post, owned by Princeton alumnus Jeff Bezos, afforded a prominent guest column to the university’s President Christopher L. Eisgruber. In the column, Eisgruber sought to explain his sudden change of heart over the removal of the name of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the U.S. and an avowed racist, from the university’s School of Public & International Affairs, known colloquially to many as the “Woodrow Wilson School.” Mr. Eisgruber’s essay was virtually synchronized with the Post’s news story on Princeton’s decision to rename the school, a happenstance so unusual that it brings to mind a phrase we frequently used back in the day in another context – that of horse racing. “The fix is in.”

Some background. Back in 2015, 17 black student activists had occupied Mr. Eisgruber’s office for almost three days, demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from the public policy school, in addition to other related reforms. In response, the Princeton Board approved several of the requested changes but instead of renaming the school, or even a residence hall that also bears his name, decided to recount Wilson’s flaws more “candidly.” Mr. Eisgruber enthusiastically supported the decision at the time.

But last Friday, the university bowed to renewed student pressure in the wake of the nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more accurately, the foot of – a Minneapolis police officer. It said it would drop Wilson’s name from the public policy school, as well as the residence hall, effective immediately.

In his Washington Post column, Mr. Eisgruber wrote:

“Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored and turned a blind eye to racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people. This searing moment in our national history should make clear to all of us our urgent responsibility to stand firmly against racism and for the integrity and value of black lives. When a university names its public policy school for a political leader, it inevitably offers the honoree as a role model for its students. However grand some of Wilson’s achievements may have been, his racism disqualifies him from that role.”

If Mr. Eisgruber really believes those words, where was he three months ago before Mr. Floyd was killed and the wave of protests began? And where was he in 2015 when the Princeton Board voted, with his support, to keep Wilson’s name on the school? Suddenly Mr. Eisgruber now asserts that Wilson’s many notable achievements on the world stage and at Princeton itself were not sufficient to be honored as the namesake for the public policy school in light of his racist views.

How convenient that Mr. Eisgruber managed to find enlightenment at the very moment when holding on to what are no doubt his true beliefs would have damaged Princeton from both a reputational and financial standpoint. Is he suggesting that he was not aware until now that many, if not most, black Americans need to navigate embedded racism every day of their lives? Or that attending a school or living in a residence hall named after Wilson might make many black students uncomfortable to put it mildly?

If that is indeed the case, then Mr. Eisgruber truly has been living in the kind of Ivory Tower that by repute many academics still occupy, despite the incursions of the Information Age. Much more likely is that his sudden change of heart is less about what makes sense to him today and more about what will make or preserve dollars for the university.

Either way, today’s essay is an embarrassment to Mr. Eisgruber and to Princeton, which prides itself on developing critical thinkers who do not simply let the prevailing winds formulate their views. Given his longstanding position on the issue, Mr. Eisgruber should have kept his mouth shut. If he was wrong to oppose the removal of Wilson’s name in the past, he was also wrong to switch his position this week in response to public opinion.

There should be no place for this kind of kowtowing to outside pressure at a school of Princeton’s caliber. Mr. Eisgruber should resign from his position as president of the university.

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