On June 22, four recent Princeton graduates made the unequivocal call for big, structural change within the University’s School of Public and International Affairs. In an open letter to the university, the writers condemned the School’s silence amidst ongoing nationwide protests and demonstrations against the killing of numerous unarmed Black individuals like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, widespread police brutality, and systemic racial injustice in the United States. On the same day, the organizers launched social media platforms, a website, and a petition that had garnered more than 1000 signatures within a twenty four hour period. The emerging movement has branded themselves as Change WWS Now and has garnered support of more than ⅔ of the School’s majors from the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 in their demands for everything from scholarly recognition of antiracist work to complete divestment from the American prison industrial complex.
The movement is spearheaded by four recent graduates from the School: Ananya Agustin Malhotra ‘20, Andrew Gnazzo ‘20, Gaby Pollner ‘20, and Janette Lu ‘20. They’re also collaborating with current concentrator, Ally McGowen ‘21. In an open letter addressed to multiple leaders within the Princeton community including University President Chris Eisgruber and Dean Cecilia Rouse of the School of Public and International Affairs, these students assert that “this call to action has developed from experiences, conversations, and encounters with departments and courses outside of this School” and thereby call for “a comprehensive transformation of the School of Public and International Affairs.” The letter further contends that “Anything short of this reinforces existing fractures in policy frameworks which uphold institutional oppression and systemic violence.”
The letter came on the heels of an email Eisgruber sent to the Princeton community earlier that day. In his address, the President indicated that “our University…has been engaged in a conversation about racial injustice in America,” citing the need to “examine all aspects of this institution—from our scholarly work to our daily operations—with a critical eye and a bias toward action.” Eisgruber seemed to invite a movement with demands like those of Change WWS Now.
The movement’s demands are clear but by no means simple, containing a broad slew of policy prescriptions across its six pages, ranging from a modification of the school’s core curriculum, better anti-discrimination and hiring procedures within the department, a university-wide divestment from America’s private prison complex, and a reckoning with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson 1879 himself, an avowed champion of segregation.
Though the Change WWS Now movement is new, its activist agenda is not. Instead, it is a renewal of previous and ongoing movements that have forced Princeton to grapple with its racist legacy. The most notable of these in recent memory took place in 2015, when students from the Black Justice League sat inside President Eisgrubrer’s office for more than thirty hours. Their demands were remarkably similar to those of Change WWS Now, namely the removal of Wilson’s name from campus entirely and cultural competency training for faculty and staff. At the time, however, the University elected to keep the name.
One key difference, however, is the Change WWS Now movement’s focus specifically on Princeton’s school of Public and International Affairs. Though they would support any movement to change the name of Wilson College as a residential area within the Princeton community, their primary intentions lie within the academic department, where they hope to further a broader curriculum inclusive of wide ranges of thought and a commitment to antiracism. But Janette Lu ‘20 contends that “the groundwork has been laid out for us,” saying that they see themselves as building on work that has been done before.
Ananya Agustin Malhotra ‘20, one of the letter’s four initial co-signers, posits that this moment is different. “If it’s going to happen at any time, it’s going to happen now,” she said. “We’re not going to let this go anymore.”
Ally McGowen ‘21 notes that another strength in this moment lies in the broader makeup of the coalition, in that “having a letter that’s started by non-black allies…is powerful.” She added that, “as a black person, that’s very refreshing to not have to be the one to make a movement, and I think it speaks a lot to what the students want in the Woodrow Wilson School.”
Though Change WWS Now’s broader targets may not be unique, its organizational tactics certainly are. Because of both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and summer break, the movements’ leaders have been forced to seek out other avenues of protest, primarily online. They reached out to Bhavani Srinivas ’21 and Ece Yetim GS’ 19, who have created a website that is both starkly confrontational and abundantly colorful. Such a combination marks a balance between a movement whose gravity is undeniable but whose vision for a different future for Princeton easily invites enthusiastic support.
Despite being almost purely virtual, the movement has already generated a large degree of participation. Numerous people have signed on to the Change.org petition, and several Instagram users have attempted to draw attention to the movement by commenting its @changewwsnow handle on the University’s Instagram. Pollner expressed optimism that the excitement generated so far by the movement could serve as a template for other student organizers at the University.
Princeton has not been silent in the past about concerns raised by student activists regarding Woodrow Wilson’s fraught legacy. In the fall 2019, the University unveiled an art installation next to the Woodrow Wilson School entitled “Double Sights.” The piece is “intended to contribute to an ongoing conversation, not only about Wilson, but also about how we as a community grapple with history and how we move forward on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” according to the installation’s page on the University’s website. Kiki Gilbert ‘21 and Nathan Poland ‘20 offered a challenge in The Daily Princetonian, writing:
“No matter what progressive strides Wilson may be said to have made, racism colored his worldview, and we cannot separate the “positive” actions he undertook on behalf of pro-white institutions from his staunch personal belief that ‘a Negro’s place [is] in the corn field.’ Even if the University simply wanted to assert that Wilson was a complex, misunderstood, and avowed white supremacist, cementing this opinion in the form of a monument does not add to the conversation, but instead dominates it, officiating Princeton’s stance on Wilson’s legacy and stamping out student dissent.”
The letter’s co-signers have further challenged the University’s dominant narrative of the “complexity” of Wilson’s historical legacy, with Malhotra citing historical analysis of how Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the League of Nations were actually still tools of global white supremacy. “It’s a fiction that he was anything but that [a white supremacist],” she added. McGowen goes further, challenging the common defense that Wilson was merely a man with the morals of his moment, citing his support for the KKK and his re-segregation of the federal government.
The Princeton of five years ago and the Princeton of today seem to differ from one another in their estimation of Wilson’s racist legacy: on Saturday June 27, the University announced the Board of Trustees’ decision to remove Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and the residential college. Neither the letter from President Eisgruber nor the statement put out by the Board of Trustees mentions any of the structural demands made by the Change WWS Now movement. Instead, they focus primarily on Wilson’s name and legacy, continuing to acknowledge both his complexity as a historical figure and the pressure of the present national moment to reckon with the University’s racist legacy.
The organizers have made it clear, however, that “renaming the School is single drop in the bucket,” as they said on their Instagram page, echoing the sentiments expressed in an open letter by the Black Justice League.
Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs itself has historically been held in great esteem: in 2018, Foreign Policy ranked its undergraduate and doctoral programs at number two in the nation, behind Harvard’s Kennedy School. Many of the letters co-signers, however, were less than satisfied with their education within the department. Malhotra in particular expressed disappointment with the kind of education the School provided, particularly in comparison to other departments in which she took classes.
“We were not encouraged to imagine a world that might look different,” Malhotra said. “I was taught in my African American Studies and History classes that the way the world is not inevitable, but highly contingent. In the Woodrow Wilson School, you just learn bits and pieces of what the world is, at the highest institutional level.” She went on to call it a “very self-congratulatory” institution in respect to its approach to education and inculcation of certain values with its students. She cited a particularly frustrating example of this attitude from a Class Day ceremony during which administrators of the School claimed that, thanks to their policy curriculum, WWS majors could understand the COVID-19 pandemic “better than anyone else on campus.” This claim rang hollow and deeply insensitive to Malhotra, given the lack of structural analysis of race and its related inequalities within the school’s curriculum.
Janette Lu ‘20 took her analysis of the School’s inadequacy even further, noting that “the spaces for deliberation and questioning are pretty rigid” as she wonders what that implies about “the lack of deliberation in the classroom setting” and what she calls “a reductive feedback loop regarding public discourse.”
Andrew Gnazzo ‘20 posits that the School’s core curriculum, either actively or passively, points its students away from action in transformative policymaking and more towards careers in finance or consulting, despite its name and apparent focus. Though the organizers have made clear that they do not have any particular qualms with pursuing careers in such fields, they envision an ideal school of Public and International Affairs as one that is more inclusive of postcolonial, non-market based, and generally more imaginative thought.
Gnazzo ‘20 contends that the biggest obstacle he sees going forward is the precedent Princeton has set for dealing with issues of Wilson’s legacy, in the way they have just continued “kicking it down the line and not enacting tangible change” by instead “saying ‘let’s have a conversation’ and treating it as just an academic exercise.” In lieu of what has largely been perceived as minor acknowledgements of student activist demands firmly on the University’s terms, the Change WWS Now movement instead asks for big structural changes within, and quickly. The letter has compelled the university to address their extensive demands entirely by July 6, 2020 and to begin implementing them by August 30, 2020.
Malhotra ‘20 asserts that this substantial change will not be easy by any means. In particular she cites the interdisciplinary nature of the school and its close ties with Princeton’s Politics and Economics departments. She, too, however, remains optimistic, citing alongside her companions an excitement regarding the enthusiastic support and solidarity from other student groups. As of this moment, the letter has been co-signed and supported by numerous student organizations.
Gina Kim, co-president of the Asian-American Students Association (AASA) said about the movement, “AASA stands with the Change the WWS [sic] movement to stand in solidarity with the Princeton community and acknowledge that Princeton, while vibrant in its strength and diversity of its community, cannot be genuine in ‘service of humanity’ while continuing to celebrate overt racist legacies of Princeton’s foundation and contributors. We demand open acknowledgement of the University’s history and tangible, visible change.”
At the heart of the movement’s demands is what McGowen calls “an intentional effort to be completely antiracist,” saying that anything less would be poorly educat[ing] the next generation of policy makers.” McGowen adds that she does not believe that the University has historically done enough to recognize its own role in creating and sustaining systemic racism in the United States and across the world.
“We have made these calls from our position as students with a profound desire to learn and be taught more, to think and write more deeply and critically, and to leverage the privilege of our education to understand and change the world around us for the better,” the letter states. “We urge that future students of the School of Public and International Affairs are taught to critically approach global policy challenges and the structures which underpin them to meet a world sorely in need of remaking and reimagining.”
On November 28, 2018, when asked a question about institutional accountability, renowned writer Ta-Nehisi Coates condemned Princeton’s continued association with the name of Woodrow Wilson, going so far as to say that it was tantamount to claiming an association with Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Two years later, a group of intrepid student-organizers has taken the sentiments of a thinker and writer like Coates to heart. After the removal of Wilson’s name, all eyes are still on Princeton and its School of Public and International Affairs to see if they will rise to the analyses and demands of organizers like those of the Change WWS Now movement, who agitate for curricular and structural modifications commensurate to or even further than that of a mere rebranding. With all the other changes sweeping the nation and the world at this moment, perhaps this moment will be different for Princeton, too.