Campus Politics: A Cheat Sheet

Princeton’s board of trustees votes to retain Woodrow Wilson’s name on buildings and programs.

Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (Mel Evans / AP)

Princeton University announced on Monday that its board of trustees has voted to retain Woodrow Wilson’s name on its public-policy school and a residential college, despite high-profile efforts to scrap it. Last November, student activists led by the Black Justice League staged a 32-hour protest and sit-in at Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber’s office urging him to do away with Wilson’s name because of his racist legacy; the former U.S. president, who also served as a Princeton faculty member and then president in 1902, was a segregationist who opposed the idea of admitting black students and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

In a report, the 10-member special committee appointed to consider Wilson’s legacy on campus concludes that while the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Woodrow Wilson College—one of the university’s six dorm clusters—should retain their current names, “the University needs to be honest and forthcoming about its history.” “This requires transparency in recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings as well as his visions and achievements that led to the naming of the school and the college in the first place,” the report continues. (Half of the members on the special committee are people of color.)

The special committee’s recommendation was based on extensive feedback from the Princeton community and general public, including hundreds of opinions submitted online (a minority of which advocated for the renaming of the school and/or college) and input from scholars and biographers. It notes how Wilson reshaped academics at Princeton, introducing its famed preceptorial system and hiring the first Jewish and first Catholic faculty members. But it also laments his positions as a U.S. president on segregation and suggests that he brought “his racial views to issues of foreign policy.”

Ultimately, the report acknowledges that Princeton has a lot of work to do on making its campus more diverse and inclusive and outlines a number of suggestions in how it can achieve that goal. Most of them seem more symbolic than substantive: proposals to establish a subcommittee designated as the trustee board’s Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion; modifying Princeton’s informal motto 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”; and creating education-and-transparency initiatives.

But other suggestions could see tangible results. For one, the report details strategies to encourage more students from underrepresented groups to pursue doctoral degrees through a series of programs that would identify and recruit highly qualified undergraduates from a broad range of colleges and universities. It also recommends that the university commission more artwork that features people who’ve contributed to diversity and inclusion at the school, and rename buildings or spaces not already named after historical figures in recognition of diversity, such as the atrium entryway into the Woodrow Wilson public-policy school.

Princeton is among the many colleges and universities that have considered abandoning symbols and traditions under attack for their connection to slavery and racism. The country’s college campuses have seen a surge in student activism amid escalating tensions over their hostile racial climates. Student groups nationwide—many of them in conjunction with national initiatives such as the Black Liberation Collective and Black Lives Matter movement—have issued sets of demands aimed at improving the campus climate, enhancing student and faculty diversity, and ensuring better support for people of color in higher education. Common demands include the development of curricula focused on teaching cultural competency, the creation of cultural centers, and leadership changes.

The protests have been met with widespread support, though they’ve also triggered debates about free-speech rights and backlash including threats of violence against the protesters. Meanwhile, some students question whether college administrators will respond with constructive plans for change or merely band-aid approaches to allaying the turmoil.

This cheat sheet and timeline provide a working overview of how things look right now and include highlights from some of the most high-profile campus protests. We will be periodically updating it throughout the year. (The protests’ exact dates are often hard to nail down, so unless otherwise noted, the ones summarized below are organized in reverse chronological order by the day on which protesters published their demands; doing so helps ensure a consistent national comparison.) While the schools mentioned below have gotten national media attention, students at about 60 schools nationwide—from Occidental College in California, to the University of Alabama—have submitted lists of demands to their respective universities. A running list of those schools can be found here.

Harvard University

What: A group of students initially issued a list of demands back in December 2014, but the school’s racial tensions reemerged on the public radar in November 2015 after portraits of Harvard Law Schools’ black professors were each covered with a piece of black tape. Hundreds of law-school students, faculty, staff, and administrators subsequently gathered to condemn the law school’s “racist and unwelcoming environment.” The same tape had previously been used by activists from the group Royall Must Fall to cover the law school’s seal in several locations on campus. The seal included the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., “wealthy and ruthless slaveholder.” By December, Law School Dean Martha Minow had formed a special committee to deliberate over whether the school should abandon the seal, and in March, that committee recommended that the school scrap the seal. The shield had become “a source of division rather than commonality in our community,” Minow was quoted as saying. “We believe that if the law school is to have an official symbol, it must more closely represent the values of the law school, which the current shield does not.” Meanwhile, Harvard College in February decided to replace the title “house master”—criticized by some for being antiquated and associated with slavery—with “faculty dean.”

Who: Royall Must Fall, Harvard Black Law Student Association, Chan School Justice

Aftermath: Campus police are still investigating the vandalism. Administrators, including Minow and Harvard President Drew Faust, said they’re committed to making the Ivy League college a more inclusive place. Last year, the school created a working group on diversity and inclusion, and on November 20th, a day after the vandalism was discovered, officials released the group’s report. It recommended more diversity at the college and better support for affinity-based students groups on campus and in multicultural centers, among other proposals.

Princeton University

What: Students staged a 32-hour protest and sit-in, taking over President Christopher Eisgruber’s office. They issued a set of demands, including calls for the university to revisit how it treats Woodrow Wilson’s “racist legacy,” but in April the university’s Board of Trustees voted to retain his name on the public-policy school and a residential college. (The 28th president supported racial segregation and opposed efforts during the civil-rights era to combat discrimination.)  Some of the students’ efforts focused on raising cultural awareness through required courses and supporting students of color by creating a space on campus tailored to their needs. The protest ended when Eisgruber signed a document conceding to some of their requests. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who:  The Black Justice League

Aftermath: Eisgruber has agreed to consider—and in some cases execute—the students’ demands; he issued a letter on November 22nd explaining that changes were already underway. Eisgruber agreed to the possibility of renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public affairs and removing a mural of him. He also agreed to creating a cultural space and indicated that campus leaders were contemplating the creation of a course on diversity issues that would be required of all students. Soon after the protest, the university issued alerts that there had been anonymous threats of violence involving bombs and firearms. On November 29th, the editorial board of The Daily Princetonian opposed the Black Justice League’s call to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings as well as the push for mandatory cultural competency training (three members of the board recused themselves, and two abstained from the writing of the editorial).

Brown University

What: After a Dartmouth student was handcuffed and thrown to the ground in a “heated and physical” incident with Brown campus police while attending a conference on race, gender, and socioeconomic issues, Brown President Christina Paxon promised a full investigation. Hundreds of students at Brown, a campus known for being progressive, teamed up with peers from Providence College to protest in solidarity with the students at the University of Missouri. Students organized a “blackout,” wearing black in honor of those who’ve faced racial discrimination on campus and elsewhere. Students gathered on the green and took turns speaking into a megaphone and telling their experiences of being victimized by racist remarks. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Black Student Union, other groups

Aftermath: Brown plans to invest $100 million achieving the goals set out in a new 19-page outline called “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University.” Paxon has asked students and faculty to complete an online feedback form to comment on what they think of the new diversity initiative. It includes: adding staff to the Brown Center for Students of Color, the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Center, offering sensitivity and social justice training, compiling statistics on bias and inclusion, and doubling the number of faculty from diverse backgrounds by 2024-25.

Yale University

What: After a string of racially charged events on campus—including a fraternity allegedly barring black women from their party, swastikas drawn across campus, and a letter from an administrator implying that students offended by culturally insensitive Halloween costumes should just “look away”—students held a “March of Resilience” that garnered more than 1,000 supporters. Students gathered in the Afro-American cultural center for hours discussing how they felt left out of Yale’s culture, and President Peter Salovey admitted in a closed-doors meeting that the university had “failed” its minority students. Students demanded that the university increase support for cultural centers, address mental health issues for minority students, and remove the lecturer who had written the letter, Erika Christakis, and her husband Nicholas from their respective positions as the associate master and master of Silliman College. Forty-nine Yale faculty members—including two residential masters and several department heads—have signed an open letter defending the Christakis and the controversial email. On December 7, the university announced that Erika Christakis had made a “voluntary decision not to teach in the future,” and that Nicholas Christakis, would be taking a one-year sabbatical. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Black Student Alliance, Yale Next

Aftermath: The controversy at Yale has inspired debates around free speech and initiatives by administrators nationwide to acknowledge and address systematic racism. Salovey met many of students’ demands by their November 18 deadline, notably omitting the one calling for the removal of Christakis and her husband Nicholas, whose emails largely sparked the debate in the first place. Salovey did, however, announce that the school will increase funding for cultural centers, hire four diverse faculty members, and launch a series of conferences on diversity and inclusion.

Amherst College

What: An initial sit-in was organized by three students at the small, elite liberal-arts college in solidarity with their peers at Mizzou and other institutions around the world “where black people are marginalized and threatened.” Students gathered to speak about their experiences with racism at the college and elsewhere and called for the university to abandon an unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, commemorating the college’s namesake, who allegedly engaged in germ warfare against Native Americans by giving them smallpox-infected blankets. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Amherst Uprising

Aftermath: Most of the Amherst students’ 11 demands were ultimately rejected. A majority of faculty did, however, vote to change the mascot; the vote is nonbinding and will be presented to the board of trustees in January. Several of the Uprising’s demands have garnered a good deal of criticism over free-speech concerns. They include a request that the college to discipline the students who posted “All Lives Matter” signs and other posters criticizing the Mizzou protesters. The college’s president, Biddy Martin, expressed her support for the protesters and seemed to side with them in response to accusations that they were seeking to stifle free speech on campus.

Claremont McKenna College

What: Although the events at Mizzou and Yale seem to have sparked the current spike in unrest at the Claremont McKenna, the uprising at private liberal-arts college in Southern California actually traces back to April, when a group of 30 minority students originally wrote to the university president with their own list of demands. Greater faculty diversity and funding for multicultural services were among the original requests—most of which hadn’t been met as of the recent wave of protests, according to The Student Life. The national movement, combined with a controversy at Claremont McKenna involving former Dean of Students Mary Spellman, prompted new attention on the racial tensions at the California school, with protesters issuing an open letter outlining the same demands and fervidly pushing for new leadership. Spellman reportedly precipitated the campus-wide protest and hunger strikes by two students after sending an email to a Hispanic student (who’d written an op-ed in the campus newspaper criticizing the college for failing to support marginalized students) pledging to better support students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

Who: CMCers of Color, Brothers and Sisters Alliance, Sexuality and Gender Alliance, Asian Pacific American Mentors, GenU

Aftermath: Spellman resigned on November 12. A day earlier, when the demonstrations took place, President Hiram Chodosh sent out a letter announcing the creation of new leadership positions on diversity and inclusion; a greater emphasis on recruiting and hiring people of color and teaching about diversity issues; and the establishment of a center dedicated to diversity, identity, and free speech. Protest organizers continue to push for their involvement in decision-making around resources and hiring, stressing that their efforts are just beginning. “This is not the be-all and end-all,” Jincy Varughese, a senior environment, economics and politics major, told the Times. “The fact that it took eight months of protest and two students saying that they wanted to go on a hunger fast to create all of this to happen is very telling.”

Ithaca College

What: A “solidarity walkout” organized during the college’s family weekend whose main demand was that its president, Tom Rochon, step down. Protesters distributed a document, “The Case Against Tom Rochon,” a scathing censure that accuses the president of “incompetence,” “disregard for minority community members,” and “disconnection from what is actually happening at [Ithaca College] and what needs to happen.” (The source of the document is unclear.) The Ithaca College protest has been closely compared to that at Mizzou and was, according to the Ithaca Journal and student newspaper The Ithacan, prompted by “ongoing concerns of racial injustice” on campus, including “a string of … race-related incidents” in the weeks leading up to the demonstration.

Who: People of Color at Ithaca College

Aftermath: The chair of the school’s board of trustees, Tom Grape, issued a statement on the same day of the walkout assuring students that administrators would do their best to heed their concerns. Grape noted that the board is “actively partnering” with the president and other campus leaders to ensure “that Ithaca College will emerge from this chapter stronger and more resolute in its direction forward.” (The day prior to the protest, college leaders announced the creation of a new chief diversity officer position; the college's current associate provost for diversity, inclusion, and engagement is taking up the role in the interim.) In December 2015, roughly three-fourths of students and faculty voted “no confidence” in Rochon. On January 14, 2016, Rochon announced that he plans to step down from his position in July 2017.  “I believe it is best for IC to be led in the future by a president chosen by the board specifically to make a fresh start on these challenges,” Rochon said in a statement, “including those that became so apparent to us all last semester.” In a post on their Facebook page, the students who organized the protests wrote, “We did it!… #TomRochonNoConfidence.”‬

University of Cincinnati

What: In July, a white University of Cincinnati police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Samuel DuBose, after a routine traffic stop. Students in response formed the Irate 8—a group that’s named after the percentage of black students at UC last year and has since spearheaded racial-justice efforts on campus. A petition outlining their demands went live November 9th, calling for the development of a curriculum focusing on “racial awareness” and the recruitment and retention of black students and faculty; it’s also demanding that the school improve its handling of police misconduct and divest from companies involved in the operation of private prisons. Students also staged a silent protest on November 18 in solidarity with the other campus demonstrations. (A list of the protesters’ demands, which were first presented to the university on October 15, can be found here.)

Who: The Irate 8, UC Students Against Injustice

Aftermath: The group’s petition has received hundreds of signatures. The university’s chief diversity, Bleuzette Marshall, told The Washington Post that she’s met with the group repeatedly to ensure them that changes are taking place. (The percentage of black students on campus, for example, has slightly increased.) Some activists are skeptical of all the commitments being made, with one telling the Post he’s “getting weary of the niceties.” On January 19th, the University of Cincinnati announced that it will pay the family of Sam Dubose, the man killed by UC police officer Ray Tensing, $4.85 million and offer free tuition to each of his 12 children.

The University of Missouri

What: Protests kicked off after a series of racist incidents on campus in the fall, including a report that feces that had been smeared in the shape of a swastika in a dorm restroom. Black students have long described a segregated and unwelcoming environment at the university that administrators failed to address. On October 10th, activists tried to confront University President Tim Wolfe, stopping his car during the school’s homecoming parade and reciting through a megaphone incidents of racism on campus tracing back to the university’s founding in the 1830s. Wolfe reportedly remained silent during the entire confrontation. The ensuing protests included a hunger strike by one student, a mass student demonstration and faculty walkout, and a strike by the university’s football team—the last of which is believed to have clinched Wolfe’s resignation. During the demonstrations, activists were shown on video seeking to keep journalists away from protests, including a clip of some of them—students and professors—intimidating a photographer. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Concerned Student 1950, a coalition leading the protests that’s named for the year Mizzou admitted its first black graduate student; Jonathan Butler, a graduate student and veteran of the Ferguson protests, launched a hunger strike that ended when Wolfe resigned; Faculty​; The Mizzou football team

Aftermath: On November 9, Wolfe and Chancellor Bowen Loftin both announced their resignations (which seem to have been precipitated not only by the uproar, but also by preexisting questions about their leadership). That same day, the university’s Board of Curators announced that it was enacting a series of diversity initiatives—including the appointment of a chief diversity, inclusion, and equity officer and efforts to recruit and retain more faculty and staff of color—that would go into effect within the next three months. A number of employees involved in the altercation with the photojournalist apologized, including a communications professor who resigned from a courtesy appointment she held at the university’s School of Journalism. The protests were followed by a good deal of disorder on campus, including canceled classes, threats of violence on social media and by phone, and other suspicious activity. On November 10th, a 19-year-old white Missouri University of Science and Technology student was arrested in connection with a Yik Yak post in which he threatened to shoot every black person he saw. The movement leading up to the departures of Wolfe and Loftin has been described as “seismic, ” with the Mizzou protests attributed with sparking a wave of protests on campuses nationwide over racism on college and free speech, among other related issues.