Campuses erupt as students pursue racial grievances
By Evan Lips | November 24, 2015, 5:00 EDT
PRINCETON, New Jersey – A student activist group at Princeton University calling itself “The Black Justice League” may have just dealt a fatal roundhouse blow to the school’s longtime connection to Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the U.S. and the prestigious university’s 13th president.
The group’s 32-hour sit-in – Princeton’s first in decades – outside current President Christopher Eisgruber’s office led Eisgruber to offer a concession to their demands. He announced that he has “asked the Board of Trustees to develop a process to consider” how the school recognizes Wilson.
“After assessing the information it has gathered and hearing the views of all parts of the Princeton community, the board will decide whether there are any changes that should be made in how the university recognizes Wilson’s legacy,” Eisgruber said in an email to faculty and students and posted on the school’s website.
Eisgruber had originally balked at the Black Justice League’s demands, which the group posted on the change.org website. The group wants the school to strip the name of Wilson, the man credited with transforming the college into a full-scale university, from all buildings and from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Studies. The activists are also seeking mandatory “cultural competency training” for all staff and faculty and “a cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to black students.” That space would be given a designation “at the student’s discretion in order to avoid naming it after a white benefactor or person with bigoted beliefs.”
— Univ Press Club (@UnivPressClub) November 21, 2015
The Princeton group, one of several student activist groups to sprout up at U.S. colleges over the past year, began its latest action Wednesday morning, when it led a walkout directing students to abruptly leave classes and meet in front of Nassau Hall, where Eisgruber’s office is located. The sit-in ensued there. A Twitter hashtag, #OccupyNassau, quickly emerged as student activists on Wednesday night descended on the building. An unidentified student posted a video on Facebook showing Kathleen Deignan, dean of undergraduate students, telling protesters that Nassau would be closing and advising students to leave or else “be in violation of university regulations according to rights, rules and responsibilities” and advising them that by remaining, they “may be subject to disciplinary action.” At that time Eisgruber said he would not sign on to the group’s demands “because I don’t agree with everything that’s said,” according to TheTab.com, a student-run news network that focuses “on campus life rather than its institutions,” according to its website. “I agree with you that Woodrow Wilson was a racist,” Eisgruber told the students. “I think we need to acknowledge that as a community and be honest about that.” Eisgruber empathized with the students but also said he’d defend the right of free speech for campus conservatives as well. But Eisgruber’s remark prompted one student to respond, “I don’t understand how hate speech is intellectual thought – it’s only intellectual thought when you’re white and you have white privilege,” according to TheTab.
According to the Tab, some students attending a nearby campus vigil honoring victims of the Paris terrorist attacks were upset with the Black Justice League’s shouting and interruptions.
One student, Destiny Crockett, wrote in a Facebook post that she was among about 20 who camped out inside Nassau Hall on Wednesday night. Crockett wrote in a Wednesday afternoon update that Eisgruber “explicitly said he does not plan on signing” on to the Black Justice League’s demands.
“I’ll update ya’ll on the conversation we had with him in which he basically said there’s no need for cultural competency training for professors, and that despite Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy, we ‘owe’ him,” Crockett wrote.
Eisgruber reached an agreement with the student activists on Thursday night. Videos documenting his meeting with the activists later surfaced on YouTube.com.
One student pointed out that Wilson, a Democrat, “actively” did not want blacks and other students of color to enroll at Princeton.
Another student said Eisgruber “as a white person understands what it’s like to walk past a building or study at a school” honoring Wilson.
“Woodrow Wilson perpetuated an ideology that has led to the continuous genocide of black people in this country,” another student told Eisgruber, as other students snapped their fingers in support. “He is a murderer and we owe him nothing, this university owes us everything. I walk around this campus understanding this was built on the backs of my people. I owe none of you guys anything. We owe white people nothing.”
Students also complained to Eisgruber about “being behind,” or not acting as swiftly to change the names of buildings compared to institutions to like Georgetown University in Washington, which announced Nov. 15 it would rename two buildings honoring school presidents who brokered the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves in the 1830s in order to pay off campus debt.
On Friday, scores of faculty members signed a letter supporting the students who occupied Nassau.
“They do not feel a sense of possession of ‘Old Nassau,’” the letter says. “So, they are voicing their frustration and have presented demands to the leadership of our community.
“They have done so with passion and intelligence and we support them.”
Wilson is credited in his eight years as its president with raising Princeton’s status as an academic institution. In 1948, the university renamed its public and international affairs school after him. The school founded in 1930 also features a mural of Wilson in one of its dining halls.
In New England, student activists are making similar demands in some of the region’s most prestigious institutions.
At Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, some at the law school are pressing administrators to remove images modeled on Isaac Royall Jr.’s family crest from the school’s logo. Royall, whose estate helped to endow the nascent school, was the son of a rum and slave trader and owned slaves himself.
At Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, students supporting the black lives matter movement stormed the school’s library last week, disrupting others who were trying to study, according to reports in the campus newspaper. Inge-Lise Ameer, vice provost for student affairs, later apologized to student activists for the negative overtones in some media accounts of the disturbance.
“There’s a whole conservative world out there that’s not being very nice,” Ameer said, according to the campus paper. Student activists are also working to convince administrators to change the theme of this year’s winter carnival from “The Cat in the Hat Comes to Winter Carnival” to “Snow Justice – Snow Peace,” “to exemplify and reflect the current sentiments occurring on campuses nationwide.”
At Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, President Christina H. Paxson announced Friday that the school would spend $100 million during the next 10 years to promote diversity and eliminate racism from campus. Earlier this month Paxson sent a “letter of apology” to other Ivy League college presidents after an Hispanic Dartmouth student said he was assaulted by a public-safety officer during a visit for a Latino conference.
At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, protests erupted after a school official challenged a reminder issued by the Intercultural Affairs Council urging students to think twice before donning a Halloween costume that might offend others. Erika Christakis, the official who had cited Americans’ free speech rights, was berated by students, who demanded her firing. Earlier this year, Yale activists petitioned administrators to rename Calhoun College, citing John C. Calhoun’s support for slavery during the early 1800s, according to USA Today.