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.