- Historic Sites
The Training Of Woodrow Wilson
His career at Princeton prepared him for a larger role, but also showed his strange blend of strength and weakness
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
But this quirk of character did not hinder his professional advancement. A few years after completing liis graduate study he was a full professor at Princeton. Thereafter he was repeatedly voted the university’s most popular teacher, and soon he was also her highest paid. He was deluged with outside offers. But so highly prized was he at Princeton that, when further ordinary increases in salary became impossible, a small group of wealthy graduates agreed to supplement his income from their private purses in exchange for his promise not to leave. This compact was made in 1898, to run for five years. At the end of the fourth year it was dissolved as a result of Wilson’s election as president of Princeton.
This new position provided Wilson with an expanded field of operations, and his handling of the job oilers many insights into his later management of national office. As was to be the case when he entered politics, he had the great advantage of knowing exactly what he wanted to do, and he seized the opportunity eagerly. He inspired his friends and dazzled his opponents with the breadth and vision of his plans. In his stirring inaugural address he said: “The nation … needs efficient and enlightened men. The universities of the country must take their part in supplying them.” In his first report to the trustees he asked for $12,000,000 of new endowment (the total endowment at that time was only $4,000,000) and he outlined his exciting plans to make Princeton “a real university” so persuasively that the trustees endorsed his proposals almost without a murmur.
Soon the entire curriculum was being revised. The hoary classical program was much broadened, but instead of following the lead of Harvard, which had substituted the chaos of the elective system for the old rigidity, Wilson insisted that every student work out an integrated program that combined flexibility with logical organization. He also raised academic standards. No more would Princeton be a mere finishing school for young gentlemen. Entrance requirements were stiffened, and in the process a number of boys of high social standing but low academic records were turned away. When outraged parents complained, Wilson replied: “Pardon me, you do not understand. … Il the angel Gabriel applied lor admission to Princeton University and coidd not pass the entrance examinations, he would not be admitted.”
Wilson’s inflexibility, so noticeable when he became a politician, was clearly in evidence. Enrollment fell oil. Students grumbled. One disillusioned youngster wrote home to his lather: “Princeton is getting to be nothing but a damned educational institution.” The Tiger published a cartoon showing a cap-and-gowned Wilson seated forlornly on the steps of a deserted Nassau Hall. Below it was this caption, taken from the well-known whisky advertisement: “Wilson—That’s All.” But the president did not relent.
Instead he demanded still further changes. He got the trustees to provide for fifty new instructors so that the tutorial system could be established. Then by the sheer force of his personality and his magnificent enthusiasm, he persuaded the best young men he could find to join the staff. One such man, who was to become a distinguished professor of English and dean of the Princeton faculty, explained Wilson’s approach in these words: “My interview lasted some forty minutes. Mr. Wilson asked me no questions about myself, but spoke with winning eloquence about his plans lor Princeton. Before five minutes had passed I knew that I was in the presence of a very great man. … Before the talk was over my loyalties were entirely committed to him. Had Woodrow Wilson asked me to go with him … while he inaugurated a new university in Kamchatka or Senegambia I would have said ‘yes’ without further question.”
The success of these reforms made Wilson the hero of Princeton. Students, faculty, alumni, and trustees were united in his support, a rare thing in the academic world. “Wilson is Princeton’s most valuable asset,” became a local slogan. The campus seemed alive with a new spirit: students buckling down to work, young proi’essors pedaling furiously from one building to another to meet their classes, visiting alumni beaming proudly in the reflected glory of the school’s achievements.
Had Wilson been content to slow the pace of his reforms at this point he probably would have passed the rest of his life peacefully at Princeton. But he was brimful of additional ideas. In 1907 he introduced the quadrangle plan.
The proposal, briefly, was this: The entire student body was to be divided into groups which would live together in largely sell-governing sub-communities called quadrangles. These groups would cut across academic class lines, lower- and upperclassmen and unmarried members of the faculty sleeping, eating, and studying together in a single plant. Freshmen and sophomores would gain much from association with the older boys, and to these in turn the presence of faculty members would be a valuable extension of the tutorial idea.
At a board meeting on June 10, 11)07. Wilson presented the scheme formally to the trustees, who approved it in principle with only one dissenting vote. But when its nature became known, strong opposition developed among the faculty and alumni. There already existed at Princeton a number of upper-class eating clubs to which at least two thirds of the juniors and seniors belonged. The quadrangle plan would mean their destruction.