W. Barksdale Maynard: Mr. Wilson's University

Roundup: Talking About History

[W. Barksdale Maynard has served as a lecturer at the Environmental Institute at Princeton University. His fourth book is Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency (Yale University Press, 2008).]

One drizzly weekend last month, a conference convened at Princeton University to consider "The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson." Up front sat the organizers, the historian of higher education James Axtell—an emeritus professor at the College of William and Mary and visiting professor at Princeton—and the Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper Jr., an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Both are distinguished scholars. Cooper's mentor had been the Princeton professor Arthur S. Link, who achieved the heroic accomplishment of editing Wilson's papers in 69 volumes, starting in the 1950s. All the participants at the conference looked back on Wilson and his 20-year academic career at Princeton—first as a faculty member and then as president—through the lens of the modern American university, that perplexing institution. Does he offer lessons for us today, when we struggle to balance mass education with intellectual excellence and liberal-arts broadness with preprofessional specialization?

Wilson steered Princeton from 1902 to 1910, long before coeducation and transglobal diversity became campus norms. What would shock him more, someone wondered aloud—that the university's current president is a woman or a Canadian? In her opening remarks, Shirley Tilghman praised her predecessor: "His influence is profound. Far more than any other Princeton president, it involves what I do each and every day. It is inevitably intimidating to know the extraordinary impact that Woodrow Wilson had on this university. It is humbling to know that I had a predecessor who set the bar so high."

Wilson's legacy is not unalloyed, however. His record concerning black people and women is increasingly condemned, and surprisingly few Princeton faculty members seem interested in him. Almost without exception, those not on the program avoided the conference. Cooper remarked on Princeton's ambivalence toward Wilson, its avoidance of filiopietism, in contrast to "Mr. Jefferson's University." Misty-eyed alumni aside, modern Princeton looks forward, not back, elbowing Harvard and Stanford for top undergraduate and graduate rankings.

As Tilghman attested, it's a tough job being president, a title she's held for eight years, as long as Wilson. As she presides over America's fourth-oldest college in a time of financial crisis, she can relate to his angst: "You are trying to make the university better and do it in a very short period of time," she said. "And universities are very slow to change, like battleships."

Wilson came to Princeton as a freshman with the class of 1879 and was educated under legendary President James McCosh. Perhaps the College of New Jersey (as the university was then known) was not so paltry an institution as Tilghman implied when she called it "a finishing school for Southern gentlemen." Her word choice suggests modern Princeton's crusade to shake off its old reputation for WASP elitism but undervalues the serious reforms that McCosh instituted. Since the Civil War, Princeton had enrolled surprisingly few Southerners, anyway—young Wilson from Wilmington, N.C., was distinctly in the minority.

As Princeton's president, Wilson had a bugbear: the Prospect Avenue "eating clubs" that became wildly popular among the undergraduates starting in the 1890s. He tried to ram through a scheme of residential colleges, the so-called Quad Plan, to replace them. Thanks to alumni opposition, no quadrangles were built, and Wilson would be appalled to discover that eating clubs still line Prospect today, and that some 70 percent of upperclassmen continue to join them. There have been reforms over the years, including open membership in most clubs and the full inclusion of women, but Tilghman has decried the selectivity of Ivy Club, Cap and Gown, and others that continue the old, hard-hearted balloting practice for membership called "bicker." Lamenting the eating clubs is a Tiger tradition: "I would like to kill the clubs," one presenter exclaimed with a Wilsonian ring. "They are a cancer on the educational institution!"...

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