Exhibition chronicles Wilson from student to professor to president
Princeton NJ -- It was the spring of 1902, and Princeton's trustees were unhappy with the way President Francis Patton was administering the University. Patton saw the writing on the wall and resigned as president at the June board meeting.
The trustees immediately chose Woodrow Wilson, a Princeton graduate and one of its most popular faculty members, to succeed him. Wilson was inaugurated as Princeton's 13th president on Oct. 25, 1902, and the rest, as they say, is history. From the University presidency, he became governor of New Jersey in 1911 and then president of the United States in 1913.
An exhibition marking the centennial of Wilson's presidency of Princeton will open Sunday, May 5, in Firestone Library. "Woodrow Wilson at Princeton: The Path to the Presidency" will chronicle Wilson's student days, his return to the faculty and the achievements -- and controversies -- during his presidency of the University. James Axtell, the William Kenan Jr. Professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary, will inaugurate the display, which will run through Sunday, Oct. 27, in the Exhibition Gallery, with a public lecture Sunday, May 5 (see related story on this page).
Since last fall, Linke has been preparing for the exhibition along with library staff members Lisa Dunkley, Chris Kitto, Christie Lutz and Kristine McGee. They have culled 125 items from the University Archives and the library's vast collections of Wilson papers and memorabilia to paint a vivid portrait of his life at Princeton. The items range from a jaunty photograph of him with his classmates on the porch of an eating club to a flowery poem he wrote to his first wife when they were courting.
The exhibition also features letters (including one from Samuel Clemens confirming that he will be at Wilson's inauguration and hinting about an honorary degree), a copy of The Princetonian from Wilson's days as its managing editor (advocating tougher discipline for students) and reminders of the legacy he has left on campus, such as the Honor Code and the preceptorial method of teaching. Interspersed with the artifacts are quotes from Wilson, who had a "trenchant, dry wit," according to Linke.
"It is a very happy life sir, for those who love strife," Wilson said in an address toward the end of his University presidency at the inauguration of his colleague at Union College. "College faculties are sometimes touched with as much sensitiveness and personal jealousy as church choirs."
Sports and studies
Wilson first came to Princeton in 1875 as a member of the class of 1879. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he spent his childhood years in Georgia and South Carolina. Rather than follow in his father's footsteps, he decided to study politics, which initially caused the younger Wilson "a lot of consternation," according to Linke.
In addition to working at The Princetonian, he was elected speaker of the American Whig Society, secretary of the Football Association and president of the Baseball Association. "As an undergraduate, he was interested in sports as well as studies," Linke said. The exhibition contains a photograph of Wilson from his undergraduate years. Called a "cabinet card," multiple copies of such photographs were produced and traded with classmates for placement in photo albums. In addition, the display features notes Wilson took in his classes -- all in a very neat shorthand.
Wilson studied law at the University of Virginia from 1879 to 1880, and then practiced in Atlanta for a short time. In letters, he described how "dull the noble pursuit of law" was for him. He continued his graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, earning a doctoral degree in government and history in 1885. He taught at Bryn Mawr College for three years and Wesleyan University for two years before being hired by Patton to return to Princeton in 1890.
Although he was unsuccessful in persuading Patton to raise the money for a law school at Princeton, Wilson was known for developing what was then viewed as "the best pre-law curriculum in the country," according to "A Princeton Companion." He also helped institute the Honor Code, the system under which students are fully responsible for their honesty in written examinations, by speaking out in its favor at a faculty meeting. For seven consecutive years, he was voted one of the most popular teachers on campus in the Nassau Herald.
"He seemed to connect with the students in a way others on the faculty did not," Linke said. "He wanted to inspire men to achieve their best."
Upon becoming president of the University, Wilson took this quest for higher academic performance a bit further. "He tightened up academic requirements and even kicked out students who had academic or disciplinary problems," Linke said. "Enrollment actually dropped each year from 1904 to 1907."
A cartoon in the exhibition from Tiger Magazine during that period shows Wilson sitting on the steps of Nassau Hall covered in cobwebs, implying that the president would be on campus alone if his practices continued.
However, Wilson made many important strides that are still evident on campus today, according to Linke. In 1905, he hired nearly 50 preceptors, doubling the size of the faculty and revolutionizing the University's teaching system with the new guided readings and small-group discussions.
Wilson's progress also was marked by a physical change to the campus, as evidenced by several photographs in the exhibition. During his tenure, three academic buildings, four dormitories, a gymnasium, Lake Carnegie and Springdale golf course were added to the University's physical plant.
He is perhaps best remembered for coining the phrase, "Princeton in the Nation's Service," in a speech during the University's sesquicentennial celebration in 1896 and again during his inauguration. The phrase, later expanded by Princeton's 18th President Harold Shapiro, became Princeton's motto.
Wilson's presidency began to unravel in 1906 when he tried to get rid of the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue because they were "detrimental to the intellectual life and social democracy of the University," according to "A Princeton Companion." At the time, freshmen and sophomores took their meals at local boardinghouses, and about two-thirds of juniors and seniors ate regularly at the clubs.
Wilson proposed abolishing the clubs and creating a system of residential colleges --"quadrangles" -- where undergraduates would live and eat. He ran into great resistance from alumni and lost the support of the trustees.
"He quipped, 'I wanted the quads, but I only got the "wrangles,"'" Linke said.
The final battle was over the location of the Graduate College. Wilson wanted the residential facility on the main campus. Andrew Fleming West, dean of the Graduate School, preferred that it be somewhat removed from the campus. Wilson realized that he had lost the fight when an alumnus left his estate, initially valued at $3 million, for the Graduate College and named West as an executor.
"We've beaten the living, but we can't fight the dead," Wilson said at the time.
According to Linke, Wilson was coerced into giving up the presidency, "but in such a face-saving way that he lined up his run for governor without raising suspicions that he was being forced out." He rarely returned to the University, although the exhibition includes a photograph of him marching in the P-rade during the 1914 Reunions. Wilson served as U.S. president until 1921 and died in Washington in 1924.
"Wilson had a larger hand in the development of Princeton into a great university than any other man in the 20th century," wrote historian Arthur Link in "A Princeton Companion." "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."
The University continued to honor that legacy long after Wilson's death: It named the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for him in 1948 and the Woodrow Wilson Award, the University's highest honor for undergraduate alumni, for him in 1956, the centennial year of his birth. Woodrow Wilson Lodge (later Woodrow Wilson College) was established in 1957.
"Woodrow Wilson at Princeton: The Path to the Presidency"
will be open to the public without charge from 9a.m. to 5
p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from noon to 5 p.m.
Saturdays and Sundays.
Clockwise from bottom left: Wilson as University president, 1906. Wilson (hat in hand) with his eating club, the Alligators, in 1879. As a faculty member, he was voted favorite professor by graduating seniors from 1896 to 1903. Wilson at his last Princeton commencement as University president in 1910. A cartoon from Tiger Magazine in March 1903 after Wilson implemented stricter academic standards and discipline, and enrollment temporarily fell off.
Photos/illustrations courtesy of University Archives
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Editor: Ruth Stevens