History, Words, Race

Princeton becomes flash point in campus protests as students demand end to links to Woodrow Wilson. The same day, institution ends the use of "master" to describe leaders of residential colleges.

November 19, 2015
Occupied president's office at Princeton

Campus protests over racial issues continue to spread -- and on Wednesday led to a revived debate at Princeton University over the legacy of Woodrow Wilson and the use of the word "master" to describe those who lead residential colleges.

By the end of the day, "master" was retired from use at Princeton (at least in that form of the word). Students took over the president's office to demand that Woodrow Wilson's name be removed from the many places it appears on the Princeton campus, which Wilson led before he became president of the United States.

Both the university's decision to stop using "master" and the debate over Wilson captured widespread attention on social media, with the university and the protest leaders receiving both praise and criticism.

And the events at Princeton come as a protest movement launched at the University of Missouri continued to reverberate through American higher education. Students at many campuses participated in #StudentBlackOut rallies, pushing for more diversity and inclusiveness on campuses. At the University of Cincinnati, students put duct tape over their mouths to symbolize how they feel silenced. At Lewis & Clark College, students protested racial harassment on social media. At the University of Central Florida, students held a sit-in. On other campuses, administrators continue to try to respond to student grievances. The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, for example, on Wednesday announced plans to create a chief diversity officer position.

At Princeton, the debates over Wilson may be difficult for the university. While some campuses have moved to rename single buildings that honor people seen as bigots today, the Wilson name is quite visible on the Princeton campus -- there is the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and there is Wilson College, one of Princeton's residential colleges.

The group Black Justice League occupied the office of President Christopher L. Eisgruber at Princeton and offered a series of demands: that the university "acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture," and that all buildings and programs named for Wilson have their names changed. The students also demanded that a portrait of Wilson come down from a dining hall. Other demands include having "classes on the history of marginalized peoples" be added to distribution requirements, and that a "cultural space on campus" be "dedicated specifically to black students."

A spokesperson for Princeton said Wednesday evening that "at this time there are no plans to make changes, and the conversation is ongoing."

Wilson (at right) is known for many progressive policies and for idealistic views about the spread of democracy around the world. But historians have also noted that he was an unapologetic racist who took many actions as president of the United States that held back even minimal rights for black people. And while many argue against judging people from earlier generations by today's standards, this essay by William Keylor, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, notes that Wilson moved federal policy on racial equality backward. He undid moves toward desegregation by federal agencies, and he defended segregation.

In an essay last month in The Daily Princetonian, the Black Justice League outlined its case for removing honors on campus for Wilson.

"We owe nothing to people who are deeply flawed," the essay says. "There is an impulsive reaction to want to ignore uncomfortable or questionable legacies. However, what does it say about our society if we continue to glorify legacies without acknowledging -- and at the very least caring about -- the continuous promotion of unrectified inequalities and injustices? … By not recognizing the importance of this discourse, the university is telling its marginalized community and the outside world that it values its bleached-clean version of history over the prolonged discomfort and alienation of students of color. This erasure is especially dangerous in the present context of state-sanctioned violence against black people that prolongs this genocide."

Another essay in the student paper, published Wednesday, offered another point of view. "While I agree that Wilson was a racist and a bigot, I think to judge him by today’s standards is ahistorical. We cannot remove people from historical narratives simply because we disagree with their positions," said the essay by Zeena Mubarak, a junior.

"The fact of the matter is that Woodrow Wilson did not live in the 21st century. He was not exposed to the same type of education and society that we have been exposed to. Some people might respond to this by saying that there were other people in his time who did not share his racist beliefs. This is true, but those people were remarkable. In addition, some of those same people might have held other objectionable beliefs. For example, someone in Wilson’s time might have supported racial equality, but still professed homophobic or transphobic beliefs. Would we discount their antiracist work for those reasons?"

If the Wilson name becomes toxic in academe, Princeton would not be the only institution with academic ties with a problem. There is the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which awards fellowship and sponsors scholarly meetings and publications. And there is the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

No More "Masters"

Also on Wednesday, the masters of Princeton's residential colleges decided to stop calling themselves masters and instead to use the term "head of the college."

At protests at Yale University, minority students have said that the word "master" is associated with slavery in ways that make it an inappropriate title for a college official.

Princeton's announcement of the change noted that the use of "master" in the sense of an academic leader predates American slavery and has nothing to do with it.

"Though we are aware that the term 'master' has a long history of use in universities (indeed since medieval times), it seems to me by now to be anachronistic and unfortunate for the positions we hold," said a statement from Sandra Bermann, head of Whitman College, Cotsen Professor of the Humanities and professor of comparative literature. "We are glad to take on the designation as 'head of the college' that describes our role more aptly."

The Oxford English Dictionary backs up the point about the word's long history: "Etymology: classical Latin magistr-, magister (usually taken to be related to magis [adverb] more [the form magester cited by Quintilian as earlier is anomalous]; compare minister n.), reinforced in Middle English by Anglo-Norman maistre, mastre, meistre, mestre, mistre and Old French maistre, mestre (Middle French maistre, French maître: compare maître n.), of the same origin. Compare magister n. Old English forms are of two types: the first (mægister, mægester, mægster) has æ in the first syllable, and is usually regarded as a borrowing subsequent to the period of fronting, with later i-mutation (see A. Campbell Old Eng. Gram. [1959] §496); the second and more common (magister) has a (of uncertain length) in the first syllable. The first type appears to have given rise to early Middle English forms like maister, maistre (corresponding to maȝȝstre in the nonstandard orthography of the Ormulum). Middle English spellings in ei and ey probably arise from forms with e for Old English æ (they are especially common in texts of the west midlands and Kent, where e for Old English æ is common), although reinforced by Anglo-Norman meistre, showing regular ai > ei (sporadic Middle English e spellings reflect Anglo-Norman mestre, showing subsequent ei > e ). Middle English ei forms predominate in the 13th cent.; ei spellings are rare later, after the general change of ei > ai in later Middle English (the ai spelling in this word probably being reinforced also by Anglo-Norman and Middle French maistre)."

On master, Princeton is ahead of others. Yale, where the issue has been discussed, has not abandoned the title, which is also used at such institutions as Harvard University, Northwestern University, Rice University, the University of Chicago and the University of Oklahoma.


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