Statue of John Witherspoon in Princeton

Naming committee continues to evaluate Witherspoon statue proposal

Princeton’s naming committee continues to evaluate a proposal by members of the University community to remove or relocate a 2001 statue of John Witherspoon, following listening sessions and a symposium held by the committee this academic year.

As part of the “inclusive and rigorous process” governing renaming and changes to campus iconography, the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) Committee on Naming provided an update on its work and its plans for the upcoming academic year at a recent CPUC meeting.

The committee has hosted listening sessions with alumni, faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduate students, and continues to accept feedback through the submission form on its website.

The group also organized an April 21 symposium focused on different aspects of Witherspoon’s life and the period in which he lived, featuring scholars from Princeton and beyond. Academic research was presented related to Witherspoon’s political work, his theology and his teachings, the history of abolition in New Jersey, and new scholarship on the two enslaved members of Witherspoon’s household. Video recordings of their remarks are available on the naming committee’s website.

This fall, a second panel of experts will discuss the subjects of statues, memory and commemoration during another public symposium.

Installed on campus in November 2001, the Witherspoon statue is one of a pair of twin works by Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart. The other is at the University of Paisley, in Scotland, which originated the Witherspoon statue project.

“We have found a wide range of opinions about the statue and the legacy of John Witherspoon,” said Angela Creager, interim chair of the CPUC Committee on Naming, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor in the History of Science and chair of the Department of History.

Creager said the April symposium helped provide a nuanced understanding of many historical issues.

“It was a good illustration of how scholars approach the same evidence, as well as gaps in evidence, in different ways, with quite divergent interpretations,” Creager said. “It’s important that non-academicians understand that this is not atypical, but rather typical, of good humanistic scholarship.”

Scholars included: Emmanuel Bourbouhakis, associate professor of classics and the Stanley J. Seeger '52 Center for Hellenic Studies; the Rev. Kevin DeYoung, associate professor of systematic theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary; Tera Hunter, the Edwards Professor of American History and a professor of history and African American studies; the Rev. Gordon Mikoski, associate professor of Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary; Class of 2017 graduate Lesa Redmond, Ph.D. candidate at Duke University; Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History; and Peter Wirzbicki, assistant professor of history.

Witherspoon, a Scottish minister, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of Princeton from 1768-94. As documented by the Princeton and Slavery project, Witherspoon and all of Princeton’s first nine presidents at some point in their lives owned enslaved people of African origin.

The naming committee’s current work stems from a petition submitted by members of the University community to remove the statue of Witherspoon located in front of East Pyne Hall. The concerns relate to the work’s unique aesthetic considerations and its placement on campus given Witherspoon’s ties to slavery.

The committee expects to continue its evaluation and make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees during the 2023-24 academic year.

The CPUC Committee on Naming was established in 2016 to provide advice to the trustees with regard to the naming of programs, positions and spaces at Princeton as well as the renaming and/or changing of campus iconography. The group is made up of representatives from the faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, staff and alumni. Associate Professor of History Beth Lew-Williams will return as chair in July.

Among the University principles guiding the committee are that decisions be “governed by a clear, inclusive and rigorous process” that is “open to community input and informed by scholarship.” In addition, naming decisions should be grounded in the University’s “educational mission and core values, including its commitments to teaching and research of unsurpassed quality, to truth-seeking and to inclusivity.”

The committee has informed the naming of various spaces on campus, including most recently Laura Wooten Hall and Ikeda Arch.