Wilson, Woodrow

Wilson, [Thomas] Woodrow (1856-1924), thirteenth president of Princeton, was born December 29, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson, D.D., a Presbyterian minister. Tommy Wilson, as he was called until after his graduation from college, grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina. After a freshman year at Davidson College, 1873-74, he withdrew to prepare himself for Princeton, where he matriculated in 1875 as member of the Class of 1879.

The next four years were a time of rapid maturing for the precocious youth. He supplemented a meager course fare with an ambitious program of reading; kept a commonplace book of passages from his reading; and organized a student club for discussion of public affairs. His peers recognized his leadership abilities, electing him speaker of the American Whig Society, secretary of the Football Association, president of the Baseball Association (he remained an avid supporter of college sports the rest of his life), and managing editor of the Princetonian. He made a number of loyal friends who later played crucial roles in advancing his career.

From 1879 to 1883, Wilson studied law at the University of Virginia and practiced in Atlanta. Disillusioned by the tedium and materialism of damage suits, he entered the Johns Hopkins University in 1883 for graduate work in political science and history. His doctoral dissertation, Congressional Government (1885), brought immediate fame and academic appointments at Bryn Mawr College (1885-88) and Wesleyan University (1888-90). Meanwhile he had married Ellen Louise Axson of Rome, Georgia, in 1885. They had three daughters: Margaret Wilson; Jessie Woodrow Wilson, who married Francis B. Sayre; and Eleanor Randolph Wilson, who married William Gibbs McAdoo. Ellen Axson Wilson died in 1914; Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt in 1915.

Wilson's fondest dream came true with his election to a professorship at Princeton in 1890. When his efforts to prod President Francis L. Patton to raise the money for a law school failed, Wilson set about preparing what was undoubtedly the best pre-law curriculum in the country. Year in and year out he was voted the most popular teacher on the faculty; he was also a friend and counselor to numberless students who worshipped him for his warmth and highmindedness. At the same time, his fame as a scholar grew. A regular lecturer at the Johns Hopkins and the New York Law School, he also spoke widely, contributed to popular magazines and wrote best-selling biography and history. However, his greatest triumph during this period was his eloquent and influential oration, ``Princeton in the Nation's Service'' at the Sesquicentennial celebration in 1896.

When President Patton was persuaded to retire in June 1902, the trustees with one accord elected Wilson to fill the chair of Witherspoon and McCosh. In his first report to the Board of Trustees, the new president presented a program, to cost $12.5 million, to transform Princeton into a major university. Substantial sums were not forthcoming, so Wilson moved slowly. He tightened academic standards so severely that enrollment declined sharply until 1907. Princeton had no administrative structure to speak of in 1902. One of Wilson's first actions was the creation of departments of instruction with heads directly responsible to the president. He later arranged the creation of new deanships of the departments of science and of the college. At the same time, he took the effectual power of faculty nominations out of the control of the Trustees' Curriculum Committee and lodged it in the president and departments.

These innovations were a prelude to more far-reaching changes. In 1904, Wilson led the faculty in instituting the most significant curricular reform in American higher education in the twentieth century. In place of the aimless, free elective system, which had heretofore prevailed at Princeton as at other institutions, Wilson substituted a unified curriculum of general studies during the first two years, capped by concentrated study in one discipline (the first program for a major) and related fields during the junior and senior years. There was the added provision of an honors program for ambitious students.

The following year, 1905, Wilson revolutionized the teaching system. Supported by the first organized yearly alumni fund-raising campaign in Princeton's history, Wilson overnight doubled the faculty by the appointment of almost fifty assistant professors called preceptors. (See Preceptorial Method.) They were to be the companions and guides of undergraduates. Instead of memorizing lecture notes and textbooks, students would master fields of knowledge through guided reading and small-group discussion. With a remarkable eye for quality, Wilson assembled what was probably the finest young faculty anywhere. Out of this group came many of the professors and administrators who later made Princeton renowned among the universities of the world.

Wilson supported Dean Henry B. Fine 1880, in strengthening the science program, insisting all the while that research in science should be pure research. He took biblical instruction out of the hands of a fundamentalist and appointed a scholar in his place. He broke the hold of conservative Presbyterians over the Board of Trustees, and symbolic of this change was a 1906 Board resolution that formally declared Princeton a non-sectarian institution. He appointed the first Jew and Roman Catholic to the faculty. He was instrumental in the addition to the physical plant of three buildings for instruction (McCosh Hall, Palmer Laboratory, Guyot Hall), four dormitories (Seventy-Nine, Patton, Campbell, and Holder Halls), the gymnasium and Lake Carnegie, the faculty room in Nassau Hall, the FitzRandolph gateway, and the Mather sundial. The University also acquired the Springdale golf links, 221 acres of valuable real estate.

Administration, curriculum, and teaching methods had been brought into organic unity by 1906. However, in Wilson's view the social life of the undergraduates remained not only beyond university control but also detrimental to the intellectual life and social democracy of the University. The social life of about two-thirds of the upperclassmen centered in the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue. Wilson said that they were the sideshows that were swallowing up the main tent. Worse still, the clubs encouraged snobbishness and elitism, and the one-third of excluded upperclassmen lived in isolation and, frequently, ostracism and humiliation.

In the early months of 1906, Wilson resolved to move against the clubs, but he well knew that it might take years to effect any significant change. A severe stroke in May 1906 threatened his life, and he decided to act while time was left to him. He presented a plan to the trustees, tentatively in December 1906 and in mature form six months later. It proposed the creation of quadrangles, or colleges, in which undergraduates of all four classes would live, with their own recreational facilities and resident faculty masters. Membership would be by assignment or lot, and the clubs would either be absorbed into the quads or abolished.

The trustees approved the quad plan in principle and Wilson announced it at commencement in June 1907. Alumni, particularly in New York and Philadelphia, were soon up in arms against a plan that they said would deprive undergraduates of freedom of social choice and destroy class spirit. Wilson responded patiently, but to no avail. Opposition grew, annual giving declined. Bowing in October 1907, the trustees withdrew their approval of the quad plan. One wealthy trustee and donor, M. Taylor Pyne 1877, threatened to withdraw his support if Wilson resumed his campaign for the plan.

Wilson did not give up the fight. It sensitized him to glaring social injustice for the first time and transformed him into a radical social democrat by 1909. By then, however, he was embroiled in another controversy, over a residential graduate college.

Andrew F. West 1874,, dean of the Graduate School since its creation in 1900, had one great obsession -- erection of a handsome graduate college where he could preside in Gothic splendor. At first he said that he wanted the college located in the center of the campus. Wilson heartily concurred, for he believed that the graduate establishment should be the energizing force in the intellectual life of the University. Wilson also worked hard, and successfully, to add distinguished professors in order to strengthen the graduate teaching program.

Relations between Wilson and West deteriorated after 1906 as West made it clear that he wanted a luxurious graduate college with gentlemen scholars, far removed from the bustle of the campus. Josephine Ward Thomson Swann, a Princeton resident, died in 1906, leaving $275,000 for a graduate college. Supporting Wilson, the trustees in 1908 voted that it should be built upon the grounds of Prospect. But while the plans were being drawn, in May 1909, William Cooper Procter 1883, of Cincinnati, announced that he would give $500,000 for the graduate college and program, provided that the trustees raised an equal amount and agreed to an off-campus location for the college. In October, Procter selected the Springdale golf course as his site.

Wilson fought desperately against the Procter offer, charging that money was trying to dictate educational policies. He finally came out into the open, saying that the fundamental issue was Dean West and his exclusive social ideals. The New York and Philadelphia alumni joined the fray, with Pyne taking leadership of the anti-Wilson element. Procter withdrew his offer in February 1910 before a special trustees' committee could recommend against it. However, Isaac C. Wyman 1848, of Salem, Massachusetts, died on May 18, 1910, leaving his entire estate, estimated to be worth at least $3 million, for the graduate college and program and naming West as one of his two executors. Wilson surrendered at once. ``We've beaten the living,'' he said to his wife, ``but we can't fight the dead.'' Ironically, the Wyman estate turned out to be worth only $794,000.

With West and Pyne in control and the latter maneuvering for Wilson's removal, Wilson now began to turn a receptive ear to George Harvey, New York editor and politician, and James Smith, Jr., of Newark, leader of the New Jersey Democratic party. They had been urging the Princetonian to accept the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey, as a stepping stone to the White House. West's triumph did not leave Wilson much choice. He accepted the nomination in September and went on to win the governorship in 1910 and the presidency of the United States in 1912. The story of his political career belongs elsewhere. Although he maintained his voting residence in Princeton, he rarely returned to the scene of his great academic achievements and defeats. He died at his home in Washington on February 3, 1924, and was interred in the Washington Cathedral.

Wilson had a larger hand in the development of Princeton into a great University than any other man in the twentieth century. He left a vision of an institution dedicated both to things of the mind and the nation's service, promoted a spirit of religious tolerance, and held up ideals of integrity and achievement that still inspire the Princeton community.

Arthur S. Link


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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