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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
These clubs were rich and powerful organizations. Club men developed strong loyalties to Tiger Inn, Cap and Gown, Ivy, and the others—loyalties which persisted beyond graduation and stirred the hearts of many influential alumni when their clubs were attacked. Soon such men were showering the campus with criticism of a plan they felt would undermine college traditions and destroy school spirit. They were supported by certain practical-minded souls who were disturbed both by the probable cost of constructing the quadrangles and by Wilson’s blissful lack of interest in the details of what was bound to be a very complex alteration of the structure of Princeton. Throughout the summer of 1907 a bitter controversy raged.
Wilson simply refused to heed the arguments of those who objected to his proposal. The clubs, he said, were anti-intellectual in spirit and socially undemocratic. When some of the trustees began to waver he accused them of knuckling under to the clubs. When his (losest Princeton friend, Professor John G. Hibben, opposed the quadrangle plan in faculty meeting in order lo “save Woodrow i’roni himself,” Wilson was mortally oflended and broke oft their friendship. 11 he had been willing to compromise he could have converted the clubs into something very close to what he wanted the quadrangles to be, but he saw the issue as a struggle between good and evil, and would not yield an inch. His intransigence foreshadowed the stubbornness that characterized his battle with the Senate over the League of Nations, and it led to the same result. In April, 1908, the trustees, more in sorrow than in anger, gently but firmly wrote a quietus to the quadrangle plan by formally declaring their support of the club system.
Wilson emerged from the quadrangle fight with his reputation scarred but essentially intact. The strongest supporters of the clubs recogni/ed that his motives had been unexceptionable, and they were still wholeheartedly behind his administration. But the clash aggravated another Princeton problem that had been building up over the years. This concerned the expansion of the graduate school.
The club controversy had been largely impersonal; it arrayed groups against one another more than individuals. But the graduate school controversy was chiefly a battle between two men, Wilson and Andrew Fleming West. Superficially they had much in common. Both were sons of Presbyterian ministers, both Princetonians, both first-rate scholars who had taken the lead in the Nineties in the fight to modernize their alma mater. But underneath they were entirely different. West was bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met. A big, hulking man, he was at his best in close personal relationships of the kind that Wilson could not handle. He had a way with the old grads, particularly with those possessed of large sums of loose cash that might somehow be transferred to Princeton’s coffers. He could spot a potential donor on the campus, accost him with a warm greeting and a friendly hand on the shoulder, “giving the impression that he had been longing for weeks to run across just this particular fellow.” It was quite natural that he should be an intimate of Princeton’s most distinguished trustee, former President Grover Cleveland, a man much like himself.
When Wilson became president of Princeton in 1902, West was dean of the graduate school, devoting all his fierce loyalties and extraordinary energies to its advancement. That summer, with $2,500 provided by the trustees, West visited the leading European universities to study their methods of housing graduate students. He returned deeply impressed, especially by Oxford, where he had been awarded an honorary degree, and wrote an elaborate report describing his plans to construct a new graduate school, the “crown” of Princeton’s educational system. Wilson, to his great chagrin later, provided this report with a preface in which he said: “The plans … which Professor West has conceived seem to me in every way admirable.”
In the controversy which developed, the ostensible cause of the trouble between Wilson and West was the location of the graduate school. West wished it to be off by itself, secluded from the distractions of undergraduate life, while Wilson, with his passion lor integration, demanded that it be placed in the heart of the campus. Actually, the real cause was personal. Wilson had never liked West, whom he considered bigoted and conspiratorial. Furthermore, while supporting its development in principle, Wilson was less interested in the graduate school than in his OAVII multifarious projects. And he resented West’s power, which rivaled his own.
Whatever the justification for Wilson’s attitude, he should have forced a showdown with West early in his administration. He had a perfect opportunity to do so in 1906, when West was offered the presidency of M.I.T. at a handsome salary. West, who well understood Wilson’s feelings, was ready to make the move. At a dramatic meeting of the trustees’ committee on the graduate school, he told Wilson plainly that he would not continue at Princeton unless lie could have his own way in working out the graduate program. “The trouble, President Wilson,” he stated 1'rankly, “is that I have not hit it off with you.”
But at this juncture Wilson exhibited one of his most curious weaknesses. He hated to base a decision on personal feelings; he could not i’ace West’s departure on such an issue. He therefore joined with the trustees in asking West to remain.