Friday, May 8, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Alum Thwarts Wilson at Princeton)

May 8, 1909—Woodrow Wilson’s plans to transform Princeton University into a more egalitarian institution were struck a staggering blow when a wealthy alumnus gave a sizable donation, but with enough strings attached that it only perpetuated the school’s rigid social hierarchy. The failure of Wilson's bold vision led him to look to wider national vistas for his idealistic dreams to remake the world.

In the most uncanny way possible, the arc of Wilson’s Presidency was foreshadowed by his service in a similar post at the university where he studied as an undergrad, taught as a charismatic professor, and finally led. Both tenures covered eight years; kicked off strongly, with triumph leading to triumph; featured a stroke that very likely affected his ability to compromise; and ended in catastrophic disappointment at the hands of a reactionary but cagey nemesis.

In Wilson’s first four years as Princeton’s leader, from 1902 to 1906, he grabbed the national stage not only as an eloquent speaker but also as a reformer who, in a relatively short time, impacted his school as much as any other college leader before or since, by:

* tightening academic standards;
* instituting sweeping curriculum reforms that moved away from electives to structured studies common to all;
* doubled the faculty by appointing nearly 50 assistant professors, or preceptors;
* changed the school’s status to non-sectarian (and made it a reality by hiring the first Jews and Roman Catholic to the faculty); and
* added to the physical plant.

Nearly a decade later, in his first term as President, Wilson would repeat that success on a national level, by passing the Underwood Tariff, the Clayton Antitrust Act, legislation creating the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission, and the first permanent income tax. He made Congress dance to his bidding.

Severe overwork, however, led to a stroke in 1906, as it would again, to far more devastating effect, in 1919, as he stumped the country for the peace treaty and League of Nations he helped negotiate.

Perhaps he felt his time was running out; perhaps his faculties were affected; perhaps his prior successes had led to arrogance; but for whatever reason, the suppleness and willingness to consult and persuade deserted him, just when he embarked on his most ambitious project yet.

Wilson’s social ideal was something on the order of Oxford University, where students lived and debated in close proximity to each other and their instructors. He loathed Princeton's eating clubs on Prospect Avenue. If you were F. Scott Fitzgerald, they instilled lifelong instruction in the notion that “the rich are different from you and me,” but for all too many others these establishments produced isolation and humiliation.

A plan, which he floated in a trial balloon to the board of trustees in December 1906 and then, more fully developed, six months later, proposed circumventing that, creating four quadrangles in which undergraduates of all four classes would live. Most important, the eating clubs would no longer hold sway on the social scene.

Alumni opposition led the board to retreat from their initial support—and provoked a grim reaction from Wilson, whose blood was up now about the blatant social inequities being perpetrated.

The club issue, just by itself, would have been enough for anyone to deal with—but now Wilson became embroiled in yet another heated dispute involving residences and the alumni.

His archenemy in this case was Dean Andrew West, a Falstaffian figure who dreamed of an architectural wonderland in which he could create the first American residential college devoted solely to postgraduate liberal studies.

You’d think that the two men, both sons of Presbyterian ministers, would get on famously together, but you’d be wrong. Wilson’s eloquence was a major factor in his success at the school, but his dreams would be insufficient without money.

And nobody could raise it like Dean West. In many ways, it made him the indispensable man on the Princeton campus, so much so that all stops were pulled out when, like Simon Cowell of American Idol these days, he announced that he was considering his career options, courtesy of a very fine offer to come to MIT.

Wilson was faced with the haunting knowledge that there was only one other man besides himself whose loss to Princeton would be “irreparable”—Dean West. Drafting a resolution to this effect for the trustees must have really stuck in his craw. The two men clashed when West pushed to place this college far away from the center of campus. He would prove as implacable and successful a foe as Henry Cabot Lodge would in blocking Wilson's plan for the League of Nations.

In May 1909, West’s hand was strengthened immeasurably with an announcement by William Cooper Procter of the Princeton Class of 1883 that he’d donate $500,000 for the graduate college and program. Oh, but with two conditions: 1) the donors had to raise an equivalent amount, and 2) the college would have to be located off-campus, just as West wanted.

Does that name, “Procter,” sound vaguely familiar? He’s now in the National Business Hall of Fame, but I don’t think that’s why his name rings a bell.

Give up? Well, the Cincinnati industrialist had, only two years before, assumed command of his family firm—one that continues today. I think you know its name now: Procter & Gamble. (The affection for West ran in the Procter family: Mrs. Procter had been a student of West’s in high school back in Cincinnati.)

Obviously, with a background like Procter’s, only one thing succeeds: You give him the soft soap! Lyndon Johnson was a master of this, even flirting shamelessly with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in the hope that it might secure him a friendly reception at the paper.

Now, when he had to turn Procter away from West, Wilson couldn’t do it. Five months after Procter’s initial announcement, the business titan made clear, lest anyone had any doubts, what the nature of this new institution would be: he selected the Springdale golf course as his site.

I remember, just before I entered Columbia University, that the school rejected an endowed professor post from Nelson Rockefeller, because it came with a stipulation—it had to be filled by his old pal Henry Kissinger. The school believed that was an infringement on its academic policies. Wilson used similar logic to go to war against West and Procter.

Once again, the board of trustees took Wilson’s side, as Procter decided to withdraw his offer before a trustees committee could rule against it. But opposition was now coalescing, as it would against Wilson’s League of Nations a decade later.

Once more, an alumnus figured in the war between Wilson and West—only this time, it was too much for even the Princeton president to master. West had used all of his persuasive skill on Isaac C. Wyman, a wealthy elderly bachelor who ended up leaving his $3 million estate to the graduate college—with West as his executor.

Later on, it would turn out that Wyman’s estate was worth only one-third of its original value. But at the time of the announcement, $3 million was a lot to argue against. Wilson couldn’t, and he was forced to give in to his hated rival.

Another alum, M. Taylor Pyne, now wanted Wilson’s removal. Exhausted from nearly three years of fighting, Wilson thought that politics—a path that had long seemed appealing to him—might be just the tonic for his spirits now—lots of crowds cheering his name, with plenty of opportunity to change the world, that sort of thing.

By September 1910, he accepted the Democratic Party nomination for governor of New Jersey, and two months later was swept into office. He was occupying the Oval Office three years later when Princeton University Graduate College was finally dedicated. I doubt that he cheered.


Robert J. said...

And now a hundred years later, Wilson's collegiate plans for Princeton are at last being realized.

MikeT said...

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