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Despite Protests, Princeton To Keep Wilson's Name On School Buildings


Princeton is wrestling with how to commemorate a legacy of racism on its campus, with a focus on a man who was president a hundred years ago. Woodrow Wilson's name is on Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs. And despite Wilson's support for segregation, the university says the name will stay there. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When you hear the name Woodrow Wilson, you probably think president during World War I, got the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to build the League of Nations. Maybe you know he was also president of Princeton. But last fall, student protesters here forced the university to confront another side of Wilson - he was a segregationist who pushed African-Americans out of federal jobs.

CHRISTOPHER EISGRUBER: Woodrow Wilson is a man who combined, in extraordinary measure in both cases, both great achievements and very serious deficiencies in his life.

ROSE: That's Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber. Last fall students occupied his office demanding that Wilson's name be removed from the School of Public Affairs, taking their inspiration from Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Yesterday Princeton's board recommended keeping the name on campus buildings, but changing the way the school talks about Wilson. Brent Henry is the board's vice chairman.

BRENT HENRY: He clearly was a racist, a segregationist. We are certainly not suggesting that he wasn't a flawed person. But on balance we thought that his contributions were significant enough that it didn't warrant eliminating his name. What was more important to us though was that people understand the full story of him as a person.

ROSE: Henry says that's already starting with an exhibition on campus highlighting the positive and negative aspects of Wilson's legacy. But Yaw Owusu-Boahen, a sophomore from northern New Jersey, is not impressed.

YAW OWUSU-BOAHEN: I'm very disappointed in Princeton for yet again letting down the black community. I think that if the name is really this harmful to so many black students, that if we really care about them, we should kind of acknowledge their pain and perhaps change it to something we can all agree with.

ROSE: But other students applauded the university for taking the protesters' concerns seriously.

ALANA REYNOLDS: Seeing the reaction is encouraging.

ROSE: Alana Reynolds is a sophomore from Illinois.

REYNOLDS: I think they are making efforts to acknowledge what students need and demand out of a fair university. And so I think it's better than - better than it could be. I wouldn't say it's perfect.

ROSE: Princeton's president says the protesters have succeeded in changing the way the school and the country remember Woodrow Wilson. Joel Rose, NPR News, Princeton, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.