Mr. Wilson’s University

Thumbing through a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, I came across an article entitled “Mr. Wilson’s University.” It discussed a conference held at Princeton that assessed the educational legacy of Woodrow Wilson, who had spent twenty years at Princeton, the last eight (1902-1910) as its president.  In the article, John Milton Cooper Jr., the author of a recent biography of Woodrow Wilson, describes Princeton’s relationship with Wilson as “ambivalent,” going on to assert that Princeton had managed to avoid “filiopietism, in contrast to ‘Mr. Jefferson’s University,’”  looking forward and not back. As an unreconstructed filiopietist, my curiosity was piqued.

The article contended that Wilson’s educational legacy has been largely discredited, citing one historian after another who castigate Wilson for his shortcomings—his opposition to coeducation (“demoralizing dangers,” he warned), his derision of the suffragettes (despite of his own daughters’ activism), and his policy upholding the exclusion of African-Americans—all in an effort to keep Princeton compact and homogenous, a kind of WASP preserve where diversity, avant la lettre, encompassed the entire spectrum from E (Episcopal) to P (Presbyterian).

I suppose Wilson’s record on race and civil liberties will always remain the battered kettle at his heel, with its clatter amplified by the present-ism of some in the academic profession. To point out that prejudice held sway throughout American society at the time, and that “scientific racism” was promulgated by some scientists at the best universities, does not excuse Wilson from his transgressions. But it would be most unfortunate if all this obscured his legacy as educator and statesman—and not just because Woodrow Wilson’s influence on the modern university was an important one; the democratic principles and progressivism of his later life cannot be understood apart from his experience as an educator.

Wilson was a Virginian, born in nearby Staunton—where he would make his triumphant return after the 1912 election. Although he did not betray much hint of a southern accent, he was at home in the South, the only place he said he understood thoroughly and instinctively. After Princeton he studied law at the University of Virginia, where he said he encountered intellectual rigor (as he wrote in a letter to a friend, “study is made a serious business and the loafer is an exception”). The teaching was better than any he had encountered before, “and the place is cosmopolitan,” he explained, “at least as far as the South is concerned . . . and one feels that the intellectual forces of the South are forming here.”

The University of Virginia had somehow survived without a president since its founding in 1819, when in 1898 it offered Wilson its first presidency. Graciously acknowledging that this may be the highest honor in his life, he nonetheless turned the offer down in favor of higher remuneration at Princeton—and eventually, its presidency. Had he accepted the offer it is possible that Virginia would have been, in addition to being Mr. Jefferson’s University, Mr. Wilson’s as well.  (Instead we have one department in the College that bears his name: the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics.)

Wilson’s influence on the modern research university is woefully underappreciated—perhaps because most major initiatives for which he fought tooth and nail came to naught by the time he threw up his hands and left Princeton. Among them were his attempt to create a law school at Princeton like the one he knew at Virginia; his epic battle to disestablish Princeton’s eating clubs; and his desire to place the Graduate College at the center of the university as testament to Princeton’s commitment to intellectual life.

In reality educational “Wilsonianism” presaged the modern research university, and embodied the characteristics of the modern professoriate. Wilson studied law, true, but he also had a Ph.D. in History and Political Science, and he worked his way up the academic ladder through his publications, climbing from Bryn Mawr, to Wesleyan and then to Princeton, improving his financial standing as well along the way. He was the first president at Princeton to have a Ph.D. (and the last American president to possess one), and one of the few university presidents who was a true academic superstar, presiding at the apex of his disciplinary field—a rarity then as it is now. Even at a university with a preponderance of undergraduates, he understood the critical role that graduate students could play in the intellectual life of the university. There were a number of fledgling “research universities” at the time—Chicago, Stanford, Cornell, and Hopkins—but no one could argue the case for the seamless integration of undergraduates and graduates quite as forcefully and persistently as Woodrow Wilson.

On the role of the university in a democracy, Mr. Wilson was more circumspect than the object of our filial piety, Mr. Jefferson. Our founder believed in a naturally occurring aristocracy of talent and virtue, liberally scattered across all segments of population—including the poor and the uneducated—and that it was the role of the university to “cull from every condition of our people” this natural aristocracy and provide it with opportunity in the form of education.  Wilson’s conception, on the other hand, was more patrician than democratic, emphasizing the cultivation of an elite in service of the nation—“the minority who plan, who conceive, who superintend”—an elitism more European than American. Still: at Princeton Wilson fought to level social differences, made more insurmountable by the exclusive eating clubs. In the end, the eating clubs triumphed, his ignominious defeat driving him from academic life. But this marked the birth of a progressive statesman and one of the greatest legislative presidents in history—one who became even more fervent and eloquent in inveighing against social hierarchy at home, and the hierarchy of nations abroad.

Unlike Jefferson who devoted himself to creating the University after a long and illustrious political career, Wilson was a university educator before he entered national politics. For most of his adult life, Jefferson fought for democracy, and in retirement he sought to create in the University a lasting institution that would excavate and refine talent, the fruit of the nation he had worked so hard to build. By contrast, most of Wilson’s adult life was spent in the university, and it was the experience of being at loggerheads with the Princeton’s rich and powerful trustees and eating-club alumni that made him a crusader against the privileged, informing a view of democracy that he later came to espouse as president.

Woodrow Wilson imagined himself a Hamiltonian, seeing government not as an intrusive entity but an organic embodiment of society, but as he grew older he became increasingly Jeffersonian, sharing with him the same optimism about human nature and the same belief in the university’s role in creating equality and opportunities for all. Had he lived longer and retired to Old Nassau, his views on the role and the uses of the university might not have veered far from the ones he learned in Charlottesville. Since his time there, Princeton overcame the elitism and privilege of that century-old era, to become not just a great university dedicated to scholarly excellence, but one of extraordinary diversity. Mr. Wilson would have been proud.

8 Responses to “Mr. Wilson’s University”

  1. Meg Klosko says:

    Nice essay. I guess the South was too small to contain Wilson’s expansive political interests. Jefferson, on the other hand, with his fascinations ranging over all natural and social spheres was able to settle where he began in order to contend with Virginia’s wild complexity. In a small place he was able to leave a great mark.

  2. Ira Socol says:

    I’m disturbed by the apologist tone which runs through this post, especially since it comes from an author who Wilson probably wouldn’t have allowed to eat in the same room as himself because of his ethnic and racial hatreds. This is not “presentism,” Wilson in the White House reversed the racial equality gains begun under Theodore Roosevelt, and was actually the first American president to formally segregate the Executive Branch. His racism of course bore all the ill-fruits of the 1920s and 1930s – his mistreatment of the Japanese, the Irish, all Catholic Europeans at Versailles having the disastrous consequences which defined the 20th Century.

    None of that is “Jeffersonian.” Jefferson saw beyond the limitations of his age. Wilson carried a post-Civil War Klan perspective from the past into his present. There is no nobility in that.

  3. Meredith Jung-En Woo says:

    Mr. Socol:

    Your points are well taken and I agree with much of what you say.

    Wilson was complicated, in being part of and also abetting the limitations of his time, particularly regarding race, yet he also saw beyond other limitations — like a world under no adequate form of international law. In that complexity he was similar to Jefferson’s own contradictions, not different. I certainly wasn’t apologizing for the racism of the time — in which Theodore Roosevelt was simultaneously implicated (disparaging native Americans) and capable of transcending (regarding discrimination against Japanese-Americans) — but trying to point out that most Americans of the time, including leading “experts” on race difference, divided the world into invidious racial categories.

    Finally, I would say that my ethnicity and gender are not material to what I wrote, in part because discrimination against Asians and against women still continues, if in more subtle ways than in Wilson’s time (whether or not he might have invited me to dine).

  4. Ira Socol says:

    Dr. Woo,

    Thank you for your response. Any examination of historic leadership is, as you say, incredibly complicated. But I want to raise two questions: First, what responsibilities does a leader have when he/she brings new kinds of power to bear? Wilson, like President George W. Bush, had a messianic view of American democracy and chose to break precedents to bring that to the world. I might argue that in both cases this “good intention” came with such little understanding of the world – and such blind spots to human cultural differences – that it seems (almost) intentional. When we see how Wilson behaved toward Asians, toward Africans, toward Catholics – all of whom had access to the “same information” of the time period and had come to expect something near equal treatment (see “Peacemaking 1919″), we have a right to look for motivation. And in looking for motivation we see that not just in national terms, but in personal terms, Wilson was “behind the curve” on race and gender, fitting solidly into the most conservative camp in the nation. Can we celebrate his accomplishments in building “the modern university” if his intention was an exclusive university (at a time when that was a specific social choice)? I am not sure.

    Equally, secondly, I am unsure of our responsibilities to our own personal heritages as academics, as researchers. We all have the right to pursue our own personal agendas and we all have the responsibility to follow what we see as academic truth, and yet, the purpose of diversity in the academy is not just a variety of skin colors sitting in offices, but rather to bring diversity of collective experience into research and teaching.

    So, Woodrow Wilson was considered one of America’s worst Presidents during the 1920s and 1930s for political reasons (a worthless war, a “lost generation,” a missed opportunity for many reforms). He was rehabilitated by FDR influenced academics (and film-makers) in the 1940s and 1950s for very specific political reasons (some quite valuable in my mind), and he is a subject of a grand debate now, again for political reasons. So it was not my intention to demean you about the dinner remark, but more a question of what brings an Asian Woman to his defense. You, of course, have every right to tell me that the question is not material.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful conversation.

  5. Gerald Cooper CLAS 1958 says:

    Dear Meredith,

    You have again lifted my spirits–this time with your knowledge and thoughtfulness about Woodrow Wilson–and the facility with which you convey your thinking. Equally impressive is your ability to relate your own cultural and geographical place of origin with living in Pavilion II and laboring at Jefferson’s unique, sometimes quirky, university. And finally, you continue to notice and remark about John Casteen’s remarkable awareness of Jefferson’s intentions for the University, and his uncanny ability to see a few high-quality Jeffersonian notions installed and operating on the Grounds–such as AccessUVA.

    As I wrote in my remembrance, “On Scholarship: from an Empty Room at Princeton,” the folks around Nassau Hall were ‘way behind the diversity curve when I entered there in 1953; happily people such as Bill Bowen came along to pick up where Wilson left off. Thus, as you write, “Since his time there, Princeton overcame the elitism and privilege of that century-old era, to become not just a great university dedicated to scholarly excellence, but one of extraordinary diversity. Mr. Wilson would have been proud.”

    No question in my mind, both Wilson and Jefferson would be proud of Meredith Jung-En Woo. Me too!

  6. Rick Fleming says:

    As a former English major and French would-be minor, I was grateful if slightly abashed to be introduced to the term “avant la lettre.”

    As an ardent fan of both Parker and Hepburn, I wonder if the reference to the spectrum from E to P gives a nod to Dorothy Parker’s devastating comment on Katharine Hepburn’s performance in 1934′s “The Lake:” “Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

  7. Noel Derecki says:

    I enjoy your posts. You write beautifully. That’s all… :)

  8. I wholeheartedly agree. Such complex thoughts expressed in so few, well-chosen words. Brilliant.