Monmouth University to Remove Woodrow Wilson’s Name From Building

Monmouth University in New Jersey said it would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its marquee building after administrators, professors and students said that the former president held abhorrent views on race and reinstituted segregation in the federal work force.

The decision contrasted with a vote by Princeton University’s trustees in 2016 to keep Wilson’s name on campus buildings and programs, despite student protests that led to a review of his legacy there.

Monmouth’s trustees also voted in 2016 to keep Wilson’s name on an elaborate 1929 mansion that is the campus’s crown jewel. But in the four years since, “the context has changed,” Monmouth’s president, Patrick F. Leahy, said on Saturday.

“Wilson was a controversial politician, and I think it has heightened awareness in 2020 about some of his racist policies,” he said.

The decision was a sign of the many ways that American institutions are being forced to confront their links to racism amid the worldwide protests that followed the killing of George Floyd last month. Across the country, corporations, universities and government buildings have removed or reconsidered names, icons and symbols of racial oppression.

In Camden, N.J., officials announced they planned to rename Woodrow Wilson High School, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Our students will walk into a new building not tied to a building with a racist legacy,” Camden’s superintendent, Katrina McCombs, said.

Wilson served as president of Princeton University and as governor of New Jersey before he was elected president of the United States in 1912. While he is perhaps best known as the architect of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, and is considered by some to be a founder of modern liberalism, his legacy has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years.

Historians, including some at Monmouth, have said that Wilson believed in white supremacy and advanced policies to support his racist worldview. A Democrat, he appointed a cabinet that was heavy on Southern racists, including William McAdoo as treasury secretary and Albert Burleson as postmaster general, both of whom quickly pushed to segregate their departments, demoting and firing many black people.

“He was behind his own times on race and many scholars have concluded that,” said Hettie V. Williams, an assistant professor of African-American history at Monmouth, who was on a panel that recommended changing the building’s name.

Dr. Leahy and Michael Plodwick, Monmouth’s board chair, announced the change in a letter on Friday, which noted that it was Juneteenth, which honors the end of slavery. As such, they said, they were seeking ways to “foster a genuinely fair, inclusive and supportive community for all.”

The formal vote came on Thursday as trustees gave Woodrow Wilson Hall a new name: the Great Hall at Shadow Lawn. The building, Dr. Leahy noted, had only a tenuous connection to Wilson.

It was built in 1929, five years after Wilson’s death and two years after another mansion on the same site burned down. That mansion had been lent to Wilson during his 1916 re-election campaign and had been used as a presidential summer home, according to the university.

Monmouth, a private university with about 6,000 students in West Long Branch, N.J., was founded in 1933. The current mansion was known as Shadow Lawn and the Great Hall before it was named for Wilson in 1966.

“Wilson was a controversial politician, who never actually set foot in the current building,” Dr. Leahy and Mr. Plodwick wrote. “Removing his name, and incorporating these earlier names, connects the centerpiece of our campus more accurately to our historical roots and eliminates a symbolic barrier to the important work of creating a truly welcoming and inclusive space in the Great Hall.”

Dr. Leahy and Mr. Plodwick said the board had also directed the administration to honor Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the lead designer of Great Hall.

Chyna Walker, a Monmouth student, called the renaming “long overdue.”

“It does seem that President Leahy is committing himself to making campus a more inclusive space,” said Ms. Walker, the president of a group called Students Advocating Girls’ Education. “The renaming of Wilson Hall was just the start. We have so much work to do.”

The board’s decision came after it voted in 2016 to keep Wilson’s name on the building.

In 2016, Paul R. Brown, who was Monmouth’s president at the time, said that many alumni had expressed the view that while “Wilson’s racist views are abhorrent, he was a product of his time, and that judging the values of a previous era by our own standards could lead toward the path of erasing unpleasant facts of history, which is never an appropriate action for any academic institution.”

In 2016, Princeton’s board also voted to keep Wilson’s name on its programs and buildings, despite a student sit-in to protest racial injustice.

Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said at the time that the trustees had “rightly reached the conclusion” that the best way to pursue diversity and inclusion “is not by tearing down names from the past but rather being more honest about our history, including the bad parts of our history.”

Professor Williams said she was glad Wilson’s name will be removed from Monmouth’s most prominent building.

“It makes you question whether or not society cares about you or your life to elevate this individual who really had no direct connection to the physical space there,” she said. “It’s a history of racial trauma, and that will be removed just by the simple act of walking in that building.”

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