April 14, 2016 (Updated April 29)
Wilson College, Princeton University
Dear Head Cadava:
We, the ad hoc student committee formed to discuss the future of the mural in Wilson College, have reached a decision and are ready to make a recommendation.
A large part of our discussion centered on both the history of Wilson College and the history of the mural specifically, and we will cover both of these briefly before making our final recommendation.
We are grateful that you chose to solicit our input and actively involved us in the decisionmaking process. While we realize that since the decision lies ultimately in your hands our recommendations are obviously not binding, we hope that our proposal will factor prominently into your choices.
Background on Wilson College and Its Relationship with the Wilson Name
During Woodrow Wilson’s tenure as president of the university, he advocated for a residential college-like system as an alternative to the perceived exclusivity and elitism of the eating clubs at the time. Although his vision was not realized during his time at Princeton, the model that he put forward was revived by students who, after the “dirty bicker” of 1958, formed a new community on campus. The group adopted the name “The Wilson Lodge” as an acknowledgement of Wilson’s original plan. Because the College was founded in a spirit of inclusivity and equality for all, we believe that it is important to emphasize this history in any
decision about the mural and Wilson’s relationship to the College.
We recognize, as many have pointed out, that Wilson’s name is now associated with considerable harm along with his positive contributions to the university and the nation. In his roles as both President of the University and as President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson remained an inveterate racist, promoting and permitting policies that actively harmed the lives of numerous African-Americans and set back the cause of social progress. This historical fact, along with the resultant discomfort and offense, lies at the root of contemporary questions about Woodrow Wilson’s place in the College.
Background and Discussion of the Mural
The “Wilson Mural” shows a picture of Woodrow Wilson in 1915 throwing the ceremonial first pitch of a baseball game. The first thing to note about the mural is that it is neither a mural, nor was it an original, integral part of the appearance of Wilcox Dining Hall. As we have discussed, the image of Woodrow Wilson on the wall was added in 2009 when the Dining Hall was renovated by architect Michael Graves. As best as anybody associated with the College currently is aware, it was not a major intentional feature of Wilcox’s new look--it appears to have been a choice made simply to fill otherwiseblank wall-space.
We concur with President Eisgruber’s statement that the mural is “unduly celebratory” of Wilson. As several students pointed out in the comments that were solicited for our committee, no other residential college has a similar depiction of its namesake; indeed, there is no similar depiction of any other individual on Princeton’s campus. While several other colleges andbuildings have portraits or similar representations of their namesakes, none have something so prominent.
It is important to remember that the name of the college was chosen in honor, not of Wilson, but of his vision for the residential college system. We confirmed this fact in conversation with Darwin, one of the College’s founders. Their decision to choose the name Wilson was a significant part of our conversation. Darwin informed us that in view of Wilson’s vision for the residential college system, the name “just made sense.” Interestingly, this means that the college was named not so much for a man as for his ideas, which creates a degree of separation between the two. However, the mural – which so clearly celebrates the man – begins
to chip away at this degree of separation. The giant picture in the dining hall unavoidably brings the man Wilson into the college Wilson.
In light of these observations, The Wilson Mural Ad Hoc Committee recommends the following:
1. That the image of Wilson on the wall of Wilcox Dining Hall be removed.
2. That in its place, there ought to be installed a piece of artwork or other visual representation of the College’s unique history in respect to inclusion and diversity: something that represents the Wilson community past, present and future. We want to stress that Wilson College was founded in a wave of student activism against other institutions of elitism on campus; therefore, whatever is put in the place of the mural
should be reflective of this sentiment.
3. That information explaining what happened to the mural and the circumstances instigating such change to be included to give the new artwork proper, educational context. Additionally, the Committee feels that putting up a new portrait of Wilson elsewhere in the College, with a note about which of his ideals the name celebrates--and those, such as his racism, that it decidedly does not--might be appropriate, and in line
with other iconography on campus.