Opinion: November 27, 1996
WOODROW WILSON AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
How would Princeton's 13th president have viewed this divisive issue?
BY BILL PAUL '70
It would be interesting to know what the great educational reformer Woodrow Wilson would say about what some see as the U.S. Supreme Court's drive to eliminate racebased affirmative action in higher education.
In a sense, we already do know, for while affirmative action is a child of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, its intellectual foundation was set forth by Wilson during the future U.S. President's final years as the president of Princeton.
Every lawyer, every American, concerned about the future of affirmative action in higher education should read what Wilson said in connection with an episode in Princeton's history known as the clubquad controversy. Ninety years later, Wilson's fiery words during the heat of this battle remain a benchmark for what affirmative action should be, and what it should not.
The history is this: in 1907, after having radically restructured Princeton's academic life around the new preceptorial system, Wilson pushed for an equally radical restructuring of campus social life. Dubbed the Quad Plan, Wilson's proposal called for the establishment of residential colleges, or quadrangles. Every undergraduate would live in the quad to which he had been randomly assigned; unlike the five freshman and sophomore residential colleges in place at Princeton since 1984, Wilson's quads would have housed all four classes.
Alumni opposition was fierce, mainly because Wilson's plan, if implemented, would have killed the eating clubs, which by then were well entrenched. Although Wilson publicly maintained that the clubs could themselves become quads, he really wanted the independently run dining halls shuttered. He sought direct control over the university's social life in order to integrate the social with the academic life of the college, and to eliminate the prejudice that was rampant in Bicker, the system by which sophomores were elected to clubs. "Little less than deplorable," was how Wilson described campus life for the onethird of upperclassmen who weren't "clubbable."
The Quad Plan was first made public in the final issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly of the 190607 academic year. By September, alumni were howling in protest. They hit Wilson where he had no defense-in the pocketbook. By the end of the 190708 academic year, fear that alumni would withdraw their financial support for the university caused the trustees to deepsix Wilson's plan.
As Wilson's position became increasingly desperate, his defense of the Quad Plan became less scholarly and more political. After he had lost his battle with the Board of Trustees, he continued to refer to the plan in evermore universal terms, calling it egalitarian in nature and rooted in bedrock democratic principles. The Quad Plan evolved into a war against privilege and prejudice, a war Wilson would soon carry onto the national political stage.
The starting point for seeing Wilson's words in the context of affirmative action is to recall that Wilson viewed Princeton (and other universities) as being "in the nation's service," a phrase the then- Professor Wilson first uttered publicly on October 21, 1896, during the university's Sesquicentennial celebration. Princeton, he said, "is intended for the service of the country and it is by the requirements of the country that it will be measured."
In 1902, in his first speech after becoming president of Princeton, Wilson said a university is judged by how well it provides for "the subtle linking of all men together, and behind it all the country itself, the country's welfare, the progress of America." In October 1907, Wilson told Princeton's faculty that a college is no place for "exclusiveness." "Any organization that has the idea of exclusiveness anywhere embedded in it makes the right training for a democratic country impossible." By 1910, his final year as university president, Wilson was saying, "The American college must be saturated in the same sympathies as the common people."
To be sure, in those days Princeton was white, male, and, for the most part, moneyed. Nevertheless, for Wilson, being in the service of a democratic country meant that a university should "draw in and welcome" a nation's "peasants."
In more than one speech, Wilson rhetorically asked how the Middle Ages had survived their aristocratic order. The answer, he believed, lay in the organization of the Catholic Church, an institution, he said, where peasants could rise up and become priests or even Pope, thus allowing them to perform many vital functions of society. Wilson said that, in a modern democracy, universities must serve the same purpose that the Church did in the Middle Ages.
"The function of a university is to afford open, unclogged channels for the rising of the obscure powers of a nation into observation and supremacy," he said in a February 1909 speech. When universities "cease to be the open channels," he said in a July 1910 speech, "they will have ceased to be worthy of the patronage of the nation-they will have ceased to supply her with the things that are necessary for her renewal and for her wholesome life."
In that speech, Wilson reached for a "higher realism," to borrow a phrase from Arthur S. Link, a Wilson biographer and professor of history, emeritus. Said Wilson, "Men of culture, men of achievement, may be the flower of a civilization, but the flower does not supply the plant with its power; it is the mere expression of what has come from the dark and silent processes of the obscure earth. . . . You must look for the feeding of your universities down in that dusky soil from which all fruitage comes. . . . The task of the day [is] to open those channels, to clear them of all the artificial obstructions."
Wilson would have opposed anything that smacked of a group preference in college admissions. His counterpart at Harvard, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, saw things differently. Lowell believed that a "democratic, national university" should draw "from all classes of the community," but Wilson's focus was on the individual. To be sure, in a 1908 speech to Princeton alumni in Chicago, Wilson said, "Whenever you have shut classes up tight, nations have begun to rot." But in the next breath he said the rot occurs when "the individual worth has been checked and individual opportunities denied." Princeton's eating clubs, Wilson angrily wrote in paw in 1907, had succeeded in "dividing the University into two classes, those who were distinctly clubbable and those who were not."
In chipping away at racebased affirmative action in higher education, today's Supreme Court is taking aim at the sort of class or group thinking that permeated Lowell's approach to admissions. If history is any guide, the Court is right to do so. "The important factor," said Lowell, "is not the quality of the individual but of the group." By seeing students not as individuals but as members of a group, Lowell could argue, as he did, that Harvard should limit the number of Jewish students by imposing a quota. (Lowell's plan was never implemented, but Harvard, as well as Princeton and Yale, practiced de facto discrimination against Jews until after World War II.)
It is clear why Bill Clinton's Justice Department fears that the "practical effect" of eliminating racebased preference in college admissions would be a sharp decrease in the number of minority college students. As Fred A. Hargadon, Princeton's dean of admission, has written, "Many . . . minority students generally find themselves in the high schools with the fewest resources, and in the least affluent of our communities." That reality cannot be changed by the mandating of a colorblind society.
At Princeton, according to Hargadon, "We treat each applicant individually. We look for individual strengths, both academic and personal." At the same time, "When assessing a student's academic achievements and abilities and potential for success at Princeton, we also take into consideration any educational disadvantages that may have accrued . . . from a specific minority background. As in the case of every applicant, minority or nonminority, we ask ourselves how well a student has used the (sometimes limited) resources available."
Wilson, I believe, would have approved of the kind of affirmative action practiced by Princeton's admission office. "A free field and no favor," he used to say. "No favor to the sloth, no favor to those who can take care of themselves, but an absolute equality" [emphasis added]. He would have endorsed affirmative action, but only as a way of giving opportunity to individuals. In a Wilsonian sense, affirmative action should allow for "a free field" so that persons-individuals-can be judged on their merits, relative to the resources available to them.
Bill Paul '70 is the author of Getting In: Inside the College Admissions Process (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1995), an adaptation of which appeared in the November 22, 1995, PAW.