The decision before the board of trustees was important, and each of its members knew it. They understood that their vote would affect the future of the institution.
Did any of them think they were voting on the most important decision of the 20th century?
Princeton University had been working on plans for a Graduate College since 1896. Graduate studies were taking place in temporary locations, but the permanent site was a source of contention between two of the university’s top leaders.
Andrew F. West, Dean of the Graduate College, thought the ideal location would place the school a bit of a distance away from the main part of the campus. The site was removed but walkable and afforded a secluded, aloof, and distinctive environment for the contemplative life required of the students.
Princeton’s president, Woodrow Wilson, opposed separating the graduate students from the undergraduates. He said, “Geographical separation from the body of the University has already created in the Graduate School a sense of administrative as well as social seclusion which, slight as it is and probably unconscious, is noticeable, and of course undesirable….”
Wilson thought a better place for the school would be in the heart of the campus. The space between his residence, Prospect House, and Class of 1879 Hall, where his office was located, would be ideal.
Just to be clear, Wilson didn’t just think it was a good idea. He was solidly convinced that it was the only plan that made any sense. He was passionate about the matter. In May 1907, he wrote: “My hopes and my chief administrative plans for the University would be injured and deranged at their very heart were the Graduate College to be put at any remove whatever from such a central site. I count upon it as model and cause of intellectual and social changes of the deepest and most significant kind. It is upon the model and by means of the inspiration of such a College, with its dignified, stimulating, and happy life, that, in my judgment, the University is to be made over into a body academic, vital and of universal example in America.”
The Board of Trustees settled the matter in 1910. To Wilson’s utter disappointment, the Board sided with Dean West. Disillusioned, Wilson left Princeton later that year. He then ran for the governorship of New Jersey. In 1912, he defeated incumbent William Howard Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt and was elected as the 28th President of the United States.
Those who look on the Woodrow Wilson administration with fondness will likely applaud the fateful decision of Princeton’s Board of Trustees. Others may share the opinion of George Will, who said:
“I firmly believe that the most important decision taken anywhere in the 20th century was where to locate the Princeton Graduate College…. When Wilson lost, he had one of his characteristic tantrums, went into politics, and ruined the 20th century.”
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