Op-Ed: Colleges have a lot to answer for — beyond racists’ names on their buildings

The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. 
Princeton University has decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs because of his racist views.
(Mel Evans / Associated Press)
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Princeton University’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, recently announced that Woodrow Wilson’s name will be removed from the university’s School of Public and International Affairs and from a residential college.

No new facts prompted the decision, which was a reversal from Eisgruber’s refusal just five years ago to remove Wilson’s name from the program and buildings. Wilson’s record as a racist and segregationist has long been widely known. He segregated federal civil services when he was president of the United States from 1913-21, after it had been desegregated for decades.

Even in January 1964, Princeton alumnus Charles Puttkammer argued, “Princeton must overcome a deeply ingrained reputation for discrimination going back to Woodrow Wilson’s presidency and before.” As Eisgruber said in a statement, “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”


American colleges and universities have a long history of reinforcing racist norms and social structures. Historian Craig Steven Wilder made this clear in explaining how many of the most well-endowed universities benefited from the institution of slavery. Yet college presidents have mostly resisted demands to remove racist names and symbols on their campuses. At Yale, for instance, decades passed before the 2017 decision to remove from a residential college the name of John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery as a “positive good.”

But the last month brought broader societal demands for racial justice, and college leaders around the country have had similar revelations over racist names and symbols. Clemson University trustees recently voted to remove Calhoun’s name from its honors college, and there are current demands to rename Iowa State University’s Catt Hall and Indiana University’s Jordan Hall, named after an ISU alumna and a former IU college president who had espoused racist views.

These are long overdue physical changes to campus buildings, but they will mean very little if campus leaders fail to also address racist operational structures, such as policies and practices that guide how institutions function.

In the 1960s, college presidents faced similar social pressures that warranted abrupt action aimed at addressing racism, but some co-opted the original demands for a more equitable higher education system and, instead, deployed them to maintain racist norms.

One example is the relationship between higher education and housing discrimination. For decades, Black people demanded an end to racist restrictive covenants and redlining. Those demands quickly became relevant to white university leaders as overcrowded Black neighborhoods encroached on their campuses. University of Chicago Chancellor Lawrence A. Kimpton coordinated urban university leaders to join the national effort to “save” American cities. They were powerful voices in demanding urban change and in lobbying federal lawmakers to secure millions of dollars in urban renewal funding.

“We simply cannot operate in slums,” Kimpton told Newsweek in January 1960. But slum clearance and university property acquisitions disproportionately displaced Black families and perpetuated racist norms. By 1960, the University of Chicago’s plan involved 900 acres, using nearly $200 million in federal, university and private funds. This plan proceeded despite Black residents comprising two-thirds of the city’s 86,000 residents displaced by urban renewal. Historian Stefan Bradley demonstrated similar Black displacement occurred in Philadelphia and New York because of university acquisitions.


Racialized outcomes are also seen in the history of college access. Black veterans were denied the full benefits of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the G.I. Bill, including limited access to some educational programs during the postwar college enrollment boom. The California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960 further compounded the access problem for Black students, with its stricter admissions standards for the University of California system, for example.

That plan eventually passed despite public concerns over its effects. Scholars like Noliwe Rooks and Martha Biondi have documented how Black enrollment declined between 1960 and 1968 on California’s public four-year campuses, largely limiting them to the state’s two-year colleges. San Francisco State University’s Black enrollment, for example, dropped from 12% to 3% in that short period.

The history of affirmative action shows perhaps most succinctly how some college presidents co-opted demands for equity to maintain racist norms. In July 1963, President John F. Kennedy turned to university leaders for assistance in the fight for civil rights: “The leadership that you and your colleagues show in extending equal educational opportunity today will influence American life for decades to come.”

The presidents of Black and white colleges then outlined ambitious initiatives applicable to all of higher education. Most initiatives focused on Black colleges: summer institutes and advanced graduate-level training for Black college faculty, and exchange programs between Black and white colleges.

However, the momentum behind the idea of broader transformation stalled. Expressing concern about collaborating with Black colleges, in March 1964, University of Wisconsin President Fred Harrington said he assumed desegregation would negate the need for Black colleges. Soon the systemwide changes applicable to all higher education institutions were replaced by the largely symbolic effort to enroll a limited number of Black students at select majority-white campuses.

College presidents today are, once again, making symbolic proclamations, by saying “Black Lives Matter” and removing racist names. But without operational changes, colleges will remain ingrained with racism — whether offensive names on physical structures remain or not.


Eddie R. Cole is an associate professor of higher education and organizational change at UCLA, and the author of the forthcoming book, “The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom.”