Last monday, the University’s Board of Trustees announced its decision not to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs or Wilson Residential College. The Board’s report instead recommended that the school’s unofficial motto be changed from “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of All Nations” to “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” a reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Alumni Day speech from 2014. The irony of an institu- tion officially changing an unofficial mot- to notwithstanding, a brief look of Justice Sotomayor’s comments is important to un- derstand the Board’s decision. While different than the Board’s interpretation of it, the speech itself is poetically relevant now
The speech predicts the protest that ultimately led to the re- port. It can be seen as words of encouragement to protestors and advocates of equality, It is a reminder that, while change is not easy, protest is important.
Invoking Sotomayor’s speech was an odd choice for the committee. The school’s motto was never a focus of this fall’s protests, and the speech itself had largely gone unno- ticed. The video on Princeton’s website had just 161 views a day after it was referenced in the re- port. (A speech given by Al Gore from the same year has over 1,400 views.) The speech does not quite address the themes the way the Trustees interpret- ed it, but Sotomayor does lend some inspiring—and ironic— commentary on how to make change on Princeton’s campus.
While parts of the speech stand out as relevant to the protests, the main parts of the speech emphasize a simple lesson that the Trustees misinterpret. Sotomayor begins the speech by referencing Wilson, the “great orator” who was the inspiration for the mot- to “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” the title of his speech at the University’s sesquicentennial. One hundred years later, University president Harold Shapiro added the second half of the phrase, broadening the University’s focus, but maintaining the concept of service as a grandiose ideal. Sotomayor questions Wilson and Shapiro’s idea of service, saying, “We need to go back to the basics…We need to break down [for students] what service actually means in understandable concrete day-to-day interactions.” The speech then becomes a meditation on the way personal relationships can become service. While service can be professional, we should all focus on individual relationships and on compassion as a form of service. The Board report, though extremely ambiguous, emphasizes a different reason for changing the motto. It emphasizes the fact that service should not be based on nationality or other forms of identity. It reads, “linking it to our embrace of the coeducational, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, diverse and inclusive composition and ideals of our community today.” The report’s interpretation is not at odds with the Sotomayor speech, but doesn’t fully under- stand it, either.
Toward the end of the speech, Sotomayor discusses her experience as an advocate for diversity during her time as a Princeton student. She recalls advocating for the University to hire a Latino administrator and her happiness when the school ultimately did so. She then ad- dresses President Eisgruber specifically, saying “Chris… You will meet and engage with other Sonia Sotomayors during your tenure who will advocate in pursuit of a higher vision for Princeton. Be prepared. They are tenacious.” The speech was given in the spring of 2014, before any inklings of the BJL protest. The words could be a message to the protestors: stay tenacious. What you are doing is important and expected. She calls such work a beneficial “form of service.” Advocacy like hers and like the BJL’s is a pos- itive change for the University.
Ironically, Sotomayor uses Wilson as a paradigm for making positive change at Princeton. As University President, Wilson tried to implement an early version of the Residential College system and to integrate the gradu-ate school into campus. However, he was unsuccessful, “largely due to the influence of alumni and wealthy donors who fought his reforms.” Sotomayor points out that what appeared to be a failure was ultimately a success. Wilson laid the ground- work for the res college system 100 years later. She adds, “I draw inspiration from the hope that even in losing, our opinions may set the course for future change or for congress to respond.” Whether a sub- conscious move or a subtle nod to protestors, in evoking Sotomayor’s speech the Trustees indicate that the changes the protestors demanded, presumably stifled by “alumni and wealthy donors,” could yield larger results in the future.
Ultimately, Sotomayor offers a revision to the Princeton motto. However, it is not the one the Trustees used. Instead, she suggests, “Princeton in the nation’s service, in the service of all nations, in the service of humanity, one person and one act at a time.” It emphasizes small acts of compassion in addition to large and lofty acts of civic service and social justice. In that sense, it serves as a healthy reminder to students. It’s a simple, apolitical message that can resonate with people on both sides of the protests. Probably what the Trustees wanted all along.