Princeton president and protesters reach agreement; bomb threat deemed not …

21 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Princeton University eyes removing Woodrow Wilson’s name, portraits over ‘racist legacy’.

Princeton University will look into removing the name of former U.S. Former US President Woodrow Wilson’s name and portraits may be removed from Princeton University facilities and programs, following a deal with student demonstrators who feel that Wilson was racist even for his time.The recent protests by college students across the country are mostly about racial insensitivity and charges of discrimination and mistreatment on campuses today. The deal was signed Thursday after members of the student organization Black Justice League stormed an administrative building on Wednesday and staged a 32-hour sit-in outside office of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber.

The demonstrators demanded the removal of President Wilson’s image and name from the university’s public spaces, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International affairs. Some of these objections are more valid than others, but even the worthy ones raise difficult questions for institutions that revere tradition but also have obligations to the current generation of students.

Activists have also demanded that “cultural competency training” be required of all faculty members, a measure proposed earlier but “voted down on the grounds of trespassing freedom of speech last spring semester.” Another demand by the protesters is that all Princeton students be required to take classes on the history of “marginalized peoples.” Prior to going into politics, Woodrow Wilson studied at Princeton and served as the school’s president from 1902 to 1910. On Wednesday, Princeton University announced it would no longer refer to the heads of its residential colleges as “masters,” a term inspired by the ancient universities in England. Wilson, the 28th U.S. president from 1913 to 1921, was a leader of the Progressive Movement but also supported racial segregation, which was legal and part of public policy at the time in the United States, particularly in southern states.

Dean of the College Jill Dolan said the title “heads of college” better captures “the spirit of their work and their contributions to campus residential life.” Maybe so, but the name change also was a response to a concern, also voiced at Yale, that the term “master” is racially offensive because it could be associated with slavery. It’s pretty different from what happened 20 years ago, when Princeton students also took over the university president’s office with a list of demands. The protesters, both black and white, wanted the school to acknowledge what they say is the racist legacy of Wilson and to rename the buildings and programs named for him. The 1995 protest began in a similar way: A little past 11 a.m. yesterday, 17 Princeton University students strode purposefully into Nassau Hall to the president’s outer office, pushed aside a secretary, plopped down, and started singing and chanting.

Griffith’s horrendous “Lost Cause” classic film, Birth of a Nation, which reduced all black people to fools, openly endorsed the KKK, and even condoned lynching. “It is like writing history with lightning,” he said of the movie, “and my only regret is that it is all terribly true.” Did he misspeak? Not if you examine his 1902 History of the American People, which argued that after the Civil War, radical Republicans in Congress had caused the veritable overthrow of civilization in the South. He also spearheaded the effort to create international institutions that conservatives are skeptical of today, such as the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations.

The recently widowed chief executive courted and wed a much younger woman, whose influence over him became particularly dangerous toward the end of his term, when he fell ill and she literally spoke for him. The calls for the erasure of Wilson’s name come during a surge in student activism nationwide concerning alleged racism on university campuses, but renaming buildings on campuses for sensitivity reasons is not new. More critically, during his presidency suffragists crying out for the actualization of liberty and equality chained themselves to the White House fence, and a number who went to jail went on a hunger strike. It’s certainly understandable that African American students would feel uncomfortable residing in a college named for Calhoun, who is best known for championing the slaveholding Southern states. In 1918, he meekly went along with the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the vote, because of the negative publicity, because he was worried about the public’s reaction to continuing protests––not because he actually supported the initiative.

But we do a great disservice to the discipline of history when we take deeply flawed historical actors and reduce to single-minded caricatures of racism, sexism, or any other –ism. The current commotion at Princeton University, where students are pressuring the administration to remove all references to Wilson, borders on the absurd.

Again, from the Daily Princetonian: Eisgruber explained that he had an hour-long discussion with the student protesters about their demands and the current racial climate at the University. The request for a space specific to black students is reasonable and desirable, Eisgruber said, adding that he and his colleagues will work on creating such a location on campus as quickly as possible. “We have to figure out what’s feasible and we have to recognize if we do that, we can’t do this for black students and not also do it for, for example, students from Latinx, who are also very interested in having a dedicated space,” he explained. On Thursday afternoon, the university administration met again with the protesters (who were still in the president’s office) and negotiated with them for two hours.

Or should we teach critical thinking to undergraduates, so that the rising generation, all too comfortable with the Wikipedia way to knowledge, are obliged to weigh historiography intelligently? The signed agreement includes one of the last important demands of the protesters, that they be given complete amnesty for violating university rules in the course of the protest. History college survey textbooks all emphasize the impact of slavery and race exploitation in the tortured path from the American Revolution to modernity; previous generations uniformly praised the “greatest generation” that founded the American republic, pretending that democracy was in its embryonic phase in 1776, when a parade of giant thinkers introduced the glorious personal freedoms that we always hear our politicians claiming proud citizens have “fought and died for.” We don’t have to embrace bottom-up history as the only valid interpretation when we reject the “great white men” theory of history. One can see quite easily whether or not Princeton professors are sufficiently attuned to students’ demands for closer attention to issues of race and equality. Here are some of the listings: HIS 386 “African-American History to 1863,” HIS 477 “The Civil Rights Movement,” HIS 280 “Approaches to American History,” which focuses on documents relating to three major events: the Salem Witch Trials, Denmark Vesey’s Slave Insurrection Conspiracy, and the Little Rock Integration Crisis.

Also, an undergraduate can take HIS 315 “Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa.” HIS 447 “Ethnicity and History,” which looks at the various elements affecting discrimination and poverty. But the real kicker is HIS 402 “Princeton and Slavery,” taught by a full professor, Martha Sandweiss, who recently published the book, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception across the Color Line (Penguin, 2009). This promise was verbalized by VP Calhoun. *BJL members will be involved in a working group with the staff of the Residential Colleges to begin discussions on the viability of the formation of Affinity Housing for those interested in black culture. Dean Gonzalez will work with the BJL to invite two members to attend the meeting on December 8th to discuss with the General Education Task Force the possibility of a diversity requirement.

On the final demand concerning amnesty from disciplinary action for those who remained in President Eisgruber’s office overnight on November 18th, 2015. *No formal disciplinary action has been nor will be initiated if students peacefully leave President Eisgruber’s office tonight. His legacy is a complicated one—in his day, as a liberal, he promoted international peace and understanding; he worked tirelessly, through diplomacy, to build institutions that he hoped would prevent a second world war. In a statement posted on the university’s Web site, Eisgruber thanked the protesters: “We appreciate the willingness of the students to work with us to find a way forward for them, for us and for our community.” Maybe what happened at Princeton isn’t representative of a shift in student demands and university responses over the past 20 years. Better that Princeton students, with their obvious intellectual prospects, should focus on racism in our legal justice system, the connection of race to class and poverty in America, and the way racism creeps into U.S. foreign policy.

Make a difference like Bryan Stevenson, Harvard Law graduate, who went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative, challenging ingrained bias against poor and minorities.

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