Princeton Should Now Rename Its School of Public and International Affairs After Tom Kean

Since 1948, the school had been known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  Henceforth, the school will be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. This past Saturday, Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, announced that the university, after years of debate and pursuant to a vote of Its trustees, is removing from its nationally renowned school of public policy the name of former United States President Woodrow Wilson.

I have long believed that a racist record should be a disqualification for a person to have an institution of higher learning named after him or her.  The racist record and views of Woodrow Wilson have been well documented, including his resegregation as United States President of the previously integrated federal civil service, his refusal as governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913 to hire African-Americans, and his opposition as Princeton president to the admission of African- American students.

There is no question that as president of Princeton from 1902 through 1910, Wilson, a Princeton graduate himself, transformed the University into one of America’s leading research universities. And racism at Princeton did not begin with Wilson’s tenure as university president nor end immediately afterwards.

Nevertheless, as Eisgruber cogently stated, “Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school.  When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school.”

So I applaud the action of Princeton in not only removing Wilson’s name from the public policy school but also from one of the university’s six residential colleges as well.  But this is not enough to atone for the university’s role in implicitly condoning Wilson’s racism during the seven decades it honored him with the name of its public policy school.

Princeton University can fully atone for its previous condonation of Wilsonian racism by naming its public policy school for an individual whose career in public service demonstrates an unsurpassed commitment to the repudiation of racism, the guarantee of equality of opportunity, and a politics of inclusion at all levels of government, both in terms of personnel hiring  and policy making.

And Princeton has the ideal person for whom to name its school of public policy in the person of one of its greatest alumni: former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean.  He not only was New Jersey’s greatest governor of the twentieth century; his mantra of The Politics of Inclusion was a national model of administration and not a mere watchword.

There is another significant factor that demonstrates most graphically the urgency of Princeton naming its public policy school after Tom Kean.

During the present period and for months to come, there will be substantial focus on the racist distortion of the history of the Confederacy and the Reconstruction era resulting largely from the efforts of a Plainfield, New Jersey native, William Archibald Dunning (1857-1922), professor of history at Columbia University.

New Jersey’s leading presidential historian-in-residence, Alvin S. Felzenberg, who received his PhD. in politics from Princeton University, writes at length about Dunning and his followers, known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction in his landmark book, The Leaders We Deserved, and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.  Pre-Civil War African-American slavery constitutes nothing less than the shame and disgrace of American history. The Jim Crow era in the South, which began to emerge at the end of Reconstruction in 1877, was characterized by racial segregation and deprivation of civil and human rights of African-Americans.  Jim Crow was a new regimen intended to continue the white supremacist principle that was the rationale for antebellum African-American enslavement.

Dunning painted a distorted portrait of Jim Crow as an attempt to restore Southern white “liberties” from Northern oppression.  He characterized the Southern white ruling class as benevolent individuals who justifiably deprived genetically inferior African-Americans of basic civil and human rights.  President Andrew Johnson, who resisted efforts of Republicans to provide such liberties to Southern blacks, was portrayed by the Dunning School as a hero.

The Dunning School had a profound impact on prevailing trends in American historiography all the way up through the early 1960s.   Indeed, Woodrow Wilson himself was a follower of the Dunning School.  Even John F. Kennedy, although himself not a racist, was influenced by the Dunning School when he glorified as heroes in his book, Profiles in Courage, Kansas Senator Edmund Ross, who voted against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and Lucius Lamar, a racist Mississippi Senator who became a Supreme Court Justice.

In their efforts to legitimize and indeed glorify Jim Crow, the Dunning School received assistance from two sources. The first was the publication of fictionalized portraits of postbellum Southern life which portrayed African-Americans as happy and content with their lot under Jim Crow.  The most prominent was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

The second source was the mass movement, particularly in the early 20th century, to erect throughout the South statues of Confederate soldiers, particularly generals.

Confederate soldiers were not heroes.  They were individuals who committed treason against the United States of America and fought for the survival of the Confederate States of America, a regime founded on white supremacy and the continuation of slavery.  The glorification of these white supremacist rebels is an affront to the very basic American ideals of freedom, equality, and the elimination of racial and ethnic discrimination.

The Dunning School has now been thoroughly discredited.  If a person wants to study the horrific truth about Jim Crow, he or she should begin by reading the landmark book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow by the late Yale Professor C. Vann Woodward.

The life and career of Tom Kean constitute a total repudiation of the Dunning School.  The naming of the public policy school at Princeton as the Thomas H. Kean School of Public and International Affairs will demonstrate conclusively the commitment of New Jersey’s leading university to lead the way to a better world of racial and ethnic tolerance and understanding.

And by honoring Tom Kean, its greatest alumnus, Princeton University will be honoring the State of New Jersey as well.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. 

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