History of First College

The nucleus of First College is Wilcox Hall, which contains dining, social, and educational facilities, including the JuliJulian Street Library, Wilcox Hall, historical photoan Street Library and the Julian Street Library and Media Center. Around Wilcox are dormitories for members of the College — 1937, 1938, and 1939 Halls; and Dodge-Osborn, Gauss, Walker and 1927/Clapp Halls. The College was initially named in honor of Woodrow Wilson, who had sought unsuccessfully to establish a plan of residential colleges at Princeton during his tenure as president in the early twentieth century; in 2020, the name was changed to First College.

The College evolved from Woodrow Wilson Lodge, which was founded in 1957 by a dozen members of the Class of 1959 “to provide a place where individuals…could be accepted for who they are.” Membership burgeoned several years later when Darwin R. Labarthe '61, a class officer, led a large group of his classmates into its ranks. Madison Hall, one of the University's dining halls, served as the common dining and social facility until 1960, when the organization moved to the newly completed Wilcox Hall. It thereupon changed its name to the Woodrow Wilson Society to reflect the wider objectives and diversity made possible by its new facilities and by the inclusion of sophomores in its membership.
Students playing volleyball in 1971 outside Wilcox Hall
In these early years, social activities -- hayrides in horse-drawn wagons, rock bands, dances, and the like -- were made possible by fees paid voluntarily by members who wished to participate. The University provided money for educational purposes, spent with the advice and consent of the Master-in-Residence. As part of its effort to integrate the social and intellectual sides of undergraduate life, the Society sponsored foreign-language tables, evening lectures, art exhibits, music recitals, film series, and poetry and informal play readings. These activities were strengthened by the faculty fellow program, which brought faculty members into the life of the Society and enhanced informal contacts between faculty and students.

In 1967, Julian Jaynes, then master-in-residence, proposed to the University that the Society become a truly residential entity. Accordingly, Woodrow Wilson College was created the following spring, with membership open to all four classes. Whereas previously members had lived in scattered dormitories, they were now required not only to eat at Wilcox but also to reside in the dormitories in the surrounding quadrangle. In addition to the master, an associate master and two assistant masters-in-residence were named. Apartments in the dormitories were set aside for eight resident faculty fellows; the number of associate fellows swelled to nearly a hundred. Resident advisers were appointed among the junior, senior, and graduate student members to advise incoming freshmen, and a faculty member was named academic adviser. The College itself continued to be directed by student officers and committees chosen by the membersAuto repair class in early Wilson Collegehip.

Wilcox Hall was remodeled to provide study carrels, seminar rooms, an art studio, a coffee shop, a darkroom, and a small theater in the basement. A successful drama program, which produced several plays each year, a weekly film series, and a literary magazine, the Catalyst, were among the tangible results of this reorganization.

From 1966 to 1968, student-initiated seminars were offered in an experimental college, founded under the leadership of Daniel Altman '67. In the early 1970s, the Woodrow Wilson 'Knight' School provided training in such areas as auto mechanics, bartending, drawing, music theory, baking, foreign languages, bicycle repair and maintenance, and bridge.

Masters-in-residence have greatly contributed to the college's success since its inception: James Ward Smith, Professor of Philosophy; Julian Jaynes, Lecturer in Psychology; John V. Fleming, Professor of English; Henry N. Drewry, Lecturer in History; Norman Itzkowitz, Professor of Near Eastern Studies; Miguel Centeno, Professor of Sociology; Marguerite Browning, Associate Professor of Linguistics; Eduardo Cadava, Professor of English, and AnneMarie Luijendijk, Professor of Religion.  The masters of the residential colleges at Princeton University changed the title to ‘head of college’ in October, 2015.  "The former 'masters' of our six residential colleges have long been in conversation with the Office of the Dean of the College about their anachronistic, historically vexed titles," Dean of the College JiStudents outside 1937 Hall, spring 1971ll Dolan said: "We believe that calling them 'head of the college' better captures the spirit of their work and their contributions to campus residential life."

Wilcox Hall was renovated in 2009 by Michael Graves and Associates, creating a new servery and entry on Goheen Walk.  As part of this renovation, a large photographic design element was added in Wilcox Dining Hall, showing Woodrow Wilson throwing out the first pitch at a 1915 Washington Senators baseball game.  In response to student protesters in 2015 who urged the University to rethink Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on race, Professor Cadava convened an ad hoc student committee to advise him on the future of this image.  His letter and that of the student committee are available on this website.

In June 2020, President Christopher Eisgruber announced that Woodrow Wilson’s name would be removed from the college and the school of public policy, concluding that “Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.”  In recognition of our history as the template for the residential college system at Princeton, the Trustees renamed us First College.  We embrace our new name with the recognition that our fundamental tasks have not changed.  As Prof. Cadava wrote, “The College history deserves to be recalled and preserved, not simply in our memory but also in our ongoing efforts to create a sense of community that is inclusive rather than exclusionary, that is respectful of difference rather than neglectful of it.”

Source:  Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978). Search A Princeton Companion