Read Part 2: Prelude to An Open Love Letter to Princeton
It is 1:38 in the morning. Like most nights, I am awake working. Instead of taking a break to get water, I sent this love letter to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber and Vice President for Advancement, Kevin Heaney…
Chris and Kevin,
For weeks, I have withheld sending this note. Alas, I could wait no more.
Without a doubt, these are extraordinary times. Between the parallel pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, many of us are feeling unmoored.
This, however, is a moment of opportunity.
Former U.S. and Princeton President Woodrow Wilson, the Racist
I remember, a number of years ago, when the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson became more widely known.
I recall reading about the formation of a “Marker Committee” comprised of University administrators, scholars, alumni, and students. Their purpose was to engage in thoughtful debate and to provide recommendations about the Wilson marker.
I recall deep and heartfelt conversations I had with my
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs carrel-mate about the implications of a name removal. Although not African American, my carrel-mate is also a person of color.
I recall asking about the “Woodrow Wilson School naming issue” and outcome in one of the conversations José and I had with you and Kevin. This was during one of the early conversations we had about increasing our philanthropy to Princeton in an even more significant way.
Princeton’s Moment For Action
I remember never feeling satisfied that Princeton was truly doing enough to confront the Wilson legacy. There seemed to be plenty of well-intentioned talk but not enough truly meaningful, leadership level, action.
I remember thinking, this is more of the same… Inspired, supportive talk? Yes. Significant, meaningful action? Meh.
Princeton University’s “Woodrow Wilson issue” was pre-Amy Cooper threatening the life and well-being of an African American man who requested that she leash her dog, in accordance with the rules of Central Park. Her words were lies, weaponized and wielded with the intention of leading to the bodily harm (and, arguably, possible death) of this man.
However, Princeton’s “Woodrow Wilson issue” was not pre-systemic racism. Throughout the centuries, there have been many (not-so) invisible hands that have built this structure and few that have worked to dismantle it. Woodrow Wilson was one of the many.
Princeton’s Opportunity and Promise
Princeton’s handling of the “Woodrow Wilson issue” demonstrates a missed opportunity.
Instead of taking the lead like our neighboring Monmouth University, Princeton has remained silent.
A direct line can be drawn from Woodrow Wilson to numerous racist beliefs, actions, policies, and practices. And, a direct line can be drawn from Woodrow Wilson to Princeton.
By not removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from the Residential College and the School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton seems content on lauding Wilson and glorifying his actions.
Woodrow Wilson was the 13th President of Princeton University and the 28th President of our great, though not always united, United States of America. Nothing can take that away from him.
However, Princeton can take away his name being associated with its physical structures. In so doing, Princeton would be taking a significant step toward dismantling other structures whose time has passed… the structures of racism.
Princeton University is not diminished by removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its buildings. Instead, Princeton is strengthened because of it.
I do not know whether Wilson’s name on the college, buildings, and school is a result of a significant donation given to the University, or if it is solely an honorific bestowed in recognition of his service. Undoubtedly the Office of Advancement, or similar, has the details.
Take Great Care, You Have My Heart
However, the Princeton I know and love…
This Princeton, my Princeton,
Well, this Princeton, is a renowned institution that promotes critical thinking, intellectual rigor, and service.
This Princeton, my Princeton, is unafraid to take the lead in teaching students to be in the nation’s service, and in the service of humanity.
This Princeton, my Princeton, should be willing to take on the hard but necessary work of dismantling structural racism, beginning with removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its buildings.
There was a time when symbolism was enough.
That time has passed.
The monumental Woodrow Wilson marker serves as mere tokenism when the name of the school remains.
20 Million Reasons Why
One of the reasons José and I committed more than $20 million to Princeton was in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We made this gift to acknowledge and highlight the many contributions to Princeton’s legacy from its diverse students and alumni, from those as well-known as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former First Lady Michelle Obama to those who are lesser-known but still making a tremendous impact in our communities, nation, and world.
Another reason we contributed more than $20 million, was to demonstrate that underrepresented people of color, whether Black, Brown, or otherwise, that these people, our people… belong.
Not that we belong solely as beneficiaries of a Princeton education and experience. But, instead, we belong, as patrons and co-creators of Princeton, and places like Princeton. And, that Princeton, our communities, our nation, and the world is made better because of us.
The Color of Commitment
The significance of our more than $20 million gift to Princeton is that it is the largest gift by underrepresented people of color to the University. The buildings being named will be the first buildings named after Black and Brown people in recognition of their extraordinary financial gift to Princeton.
This is both poignant and ironic given, during Woodrow Wilson’s Princeton presidency, in response to an admission inquiry from a black man from South Carolina, he wrote, “it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”
José and I intentionally chose to sign our promise letter during Princeton’s THRIVE conference, the three-day October 2019 event celebrating Princeton’s Black Alumni.
Together We Thrive
On the way to the signing, I remember seeing my good friend, Dean of Admission, Karen Richardson. Her presence reminded me of the best thing about Princeton. The people. She is 1 out of our group of 11, uber-diverse, friends, from my undergraduate days.
José and I signed the letter during the afternoon lunch, where we celebrated with you, along with my sister and fellow alumnus, Dr. Meta DuEwa Jones. During the conference, we did not announce to anyone what we had done, though this historic donation had been in the works for years.
We wanted to keep the focus on the more than 1400 Black Princeton Alumni that had returned. These 1400 participants represented what it meant to individually and collectively thrive.
Being there during that conference, and documenting the donation during that time, was an immense source of pride for me, José, Meta, our families, and the Kwanza Jones & José E. Feliciano Initiative (Jones+Feliciano).
That is the type of pride I hope to continue to have for Princeton. The pride in knowing we have contributed, and hope to continue our contributions, to this great institution.
There’s Work to Be Done
This is a time when many non-black and non-underrepresented people of color are beginning to understand that being “not racist” is not enough. Instead, it is important to do the difficult, continuous, individual and collective work of being “anti-racist.”
Princeton needs to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School, the Residential College, and its buildings. Failing to do so serves as an explicit reminder that Princeton is choosing the side of the oppressor and the racist, instead of being a leader in the nation’s service and in the service of humanity.
On Being and Belonging
I remember a couple years ago when we gave $1 million to Princeton, and immediately upon entering the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall, the place where donors were awaiting their meeting with you, we were turned away by an Advancement Office representative who told us we did not belong.
I also remember, later that same year, my name being misspelled in the “Gifts to Princeton” book, even after someone from the University contacted me prior to publication to ensure it was spelled correctly.
Finally, I remember a conversation we had after both incidents. You said something along the lines of, “it seems like we just can’t get it right.”
That was true. That is how it seemed.
But with the “Woodrow Wilson issue” the University has the opportunity to “get it right.”
A Simple Request
Chris, I respect the burden that is upon you.
I understand that Princeton is steeped in tradition and you must answer to many stakeholders.
I, however, humbly ask that you take action based on the courage of your convictions.
I ask that you steer our beloved Princeton through these rough waters and anchor us in the hope and promise of a better, more equitable and just tomorrow.
With deep concern and much sincerity,
Read Part 2: Prelude to An Open Love Letter to Princeton