Woodrow Wilson, says historian James Axtell, was the architect of Princeton as a modern university. Axtell had been intrigued by Woodrow Wilson, the United States president who had been an Ivy League college president, ever since high school days, when he saw the photo (reproduced here) of Wilson striding across campus, “grim-lipped, eyes and head down, to preside over his last commencement in 1910.” He chose that topic for his English term paper.
When Axtell saw that photograph 30 years later, he knew he wanted to revisit the subject. “The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present” (Princeton University Press, $35) was published this month.
On the same weekend when thousands of alumni will be “going back, going back, going back to Nassau Hall” for the annual Reunions spectacle, Axtell will discuss his book at the Princeton University Store on Friday, June 2, at 2 p.m. (609-921-8500). For a talk on Saturday, June 3, at 9:15 a.m. in Alexander Hall, Axtell (a Yale alumnus) has chosen the title “Can a Bulldog Tell the Tiger’s Tale?”
Axtell’s first chapter, “The Dream Realized,” asks and answers the question — what would Woodrow Wilson think of Princeton University as it is today?
The author credits Wilson (Princeton University Class of 1879, Johns Hopkins PhD) with laying the groundwork for Princeton to become a preeminent university and launching the preceptorial system for which the university is known today. “In eight years Wilson rationalized the curriculum, improved and enlarged the faculty by 50 percent, and adjusted governance to fit the new realities,” writes Axtell.
“He confirmed Princeton’s penchant for Collegiate Gothic. Most of all, he established a realistic and distinctive long-term goal for Princeton: to be selective in what it attempts, but to be absolutely first-rate in all it does. . . As the most popular undergraduate teacher in his day, he continued to give the undergraduates precedence in the university.”
“He did all this with a combination of uncommon eloquence, personal charm — especially when recruiting faculty members — clear vision born of spiritual conviction and intellectual passion, and great energy.”
“Nevertheless, he failed to curb the power of the eating clubs, to build ‘democratic’ residential quads for all four classes, and to place the new Graduate College in the heart of the campus, where graduate and undergraduate life and study would form an ‘organic’ whole,” writes Axtell, who attributes Wilson’s failures partly to health problems that affected his judgment, and partly to rough politics.
“A long century after Wilson assumed the presidency and set off on his path of reform seems a good time to ask . . . how he might, from his perch in Presbyterian heaven, regard the university through the pince nez of his own time, goals, and even disappointments,” Axtell suggests.
Borrowing liberally from Axtell’s book, here is a “Wilson Tour” of Princeton University, which can be followed closely with the aid of the map on page 42:
Start the tour at the Graduate College, dedicated in 1913. America’s schoolchildren had collected pennies for the 173-foot Cleveland Memorial Tower, which Axtell calls a “Gothic dream-house on a knoll.”
Wilson was conspicuously absent at the dedication; he had wanted to put the graduate school near to the main campus, building it “more of brains than bricks and central to university life and work,” as Axtell puts it.
Nevertheless, the university has expanded so much that the Graduate College does not seem so far away now. “Perhaps the first thing Wilson would notice about the new university is its size and its newer architecture,” writes Axtell. “Spreading over more than 600 acres in an exurban setting no longer surrounded by working farms and fields, the campus (a word coined at 18th century Princeton) has almost grown to incorporate the Graduate College.” Prospect Street
Tower Club, the second building on the right when walking along Prospect Street from Washington Road, was the first eating club to admit women. Axtell believes Wilson would have been horrified. “The conspicuous presence of women, blacks, and international students would, from the perspective of 1910, earn his alarmed disapproval,” writes Axtell, adding that Wilson “was worried that coeducation would ruin something precious and mysterious about relations between the sexes.”
A male chauvinist to the core, Wilson told a Bryn Mawr graduate student that “a woman who had married an intellectual educated man” (such as Wilson’s own wife, Ellen) “was often better educated than a woman who had had college training.” When Wilson spoke at Goucher College (then known as the Women’s College of Baltimore) at the commencement of his eldest daughter in 1908, “it was fully in character,” writes Axtell, “that he referred to ‘man’ or ‘men’ throughout and said not a word about women or their educational needs, capacities, or accomplishments.”
When the trustees did finally vote to admit women, “Princeton did its gallant best to welcome the first female members of the classes of 1970 to 1973,” he writes. “They replaced seven-foot male-sized beds with six-foot daybeds, moved in extra wardrobes, and furnished every room with matching bedspreads, curtains, and bolsters (which earned mixed reviews). Little could be done about the spring-loaded toilet seats.”
The sixth building from Washington Road is Cottage Club, famously the eating club to which F. Scott Fitzgerald belonged (photo on page 41). Eating clubs on Prospect Avenue play much the same role as in Wilson’s day, to provide dining facilities for upperclassmen.
“As more sons of the Gilded Age flocked to the university with the ‘country club’ reputation,” Axtell writes, “they and their fathers built increasingly posh clubhouses for elegant dining and vigorous socializing. . . The sticking point for Wilson was not the opulence of the clubs, or even the bibulous behavior of their members, but their admissions procedures and total lack of ‘intellectual purposes or ideals.’ Today, however, Wilson would discover that the eating clubs, though still a distinctive feature of Princeton’s extracurriculum, are no longer its exclusive center.”
Walk down the little street next to the Cottage Club to see a sculpture that is almost as long as a Blue Whale and almost 20 tons heavier.
Richard Serra’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” between Peyton and Fine Halls, is near the Princeton Stadium (photo on page 40).
Wilson had admitted that he knew very “marvelously little about art” when he was courting his future wife, Ellen, in 1884. “After marriage she continued his tardy esthetic education. Their Princeton houses were filled with her work,” writes Axtell. “For the memory of his talented wife, Wilson would regard the art museum’s collections, quality, and associated research library with favor.”
But what would he think of this? Take the advice of sculptor Serra (Yale, Class of 1962) who says to look at it as a passage, rather than an enclosed space, and to enjoy “peripatetic participation.” Walk through it to experience its mass and volume. If you talk, the sound will echo down the two blacktop walkways between the 92-foot curves. If you whisper quietly, with your cheek pressed against the metal, someone can hear your words at the other end.
As for the title, Serra refers to the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one great thing,” and he suggests this might describe a student’s reaction to the academic experience (U.S. 1, November 8, 2000).
The Center for Jewish Life. As a conservative southerner, Wilson would be disturbed by the composition of today’s student body.
But Axtell claims that, based on his research, Wilson was not anti-Semitic. “He had all kinds of friends who were Jewish — he hired the first atheist and hired the first Catholic.” Nevertheless, the percentage of admitted Jews was low. In a telephone interview Axtell tells an anecdote that he found in a senior thesis about John Grier Hibben, who succeeded Wilson as president. Hibben had denied, in conversation, that there was a restriction on the number of Jewish students. “Oh come on,” said Hibben’s wife. “You know that you and (so-and-so) get together every year and decide how many there will be.”
By the late 1970s, the population of Jewish students had grown to 20 percent. Writes Axtell: “The establishment in 1993 of a $4,850,000 million Center for Jewish Life on the site of the old Jewish-friendly Prospect Club sealed Princeton’s institutional commitment to leave behind the unhappy days of exclusionary quotas and religious discrimination.”
Frist Campus Center (photo on page 39) is the backdrop of the opening credits for the TV show “House.” It was also the site of a 2005 demonstration that won the protest of the year award from Mother Jones magazine. Senate Majority Leader William Frist, Class of 1974, and his family contributed $25 million for this building, but that did not keep students from protesting Frist’s position on appointments to the federal bench.
Princeton students launched a filibuster of their own for 384 continuous hours. “After the gabfast moved to Washington . . . the Senate majority agreed to drop its ‘nuclear option’ and the Democrats to be sparing in their resort to the filibuster,” writes Axtell. “Once again, the student mouse that roared proved to be, however briefly, a Tiger.”
Jones Hall, next to the Frist Campus Center, is where Albert Einstein had his office when he first came to Princeton on an appointment to the as-yet unbuilt Institute for Advanced Study (photo, page 45). Then the building was named Fine Hall.
Axtell writes that the public has associated Princeton with brainy theorists, especially Albert Einstein, ever since the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1930. He quotes this ditty sung by college seniors:
“The bright boys here all study Math
And Albie Einstein points the path
Although he seldom takes the air,
We wish to God he’d cut his hair.”
The 1994 movie IQ, starring Walter Matthau and Meg Ryan, “blithely conflated the university and the Institute,” writes Axtell. “From Einstein’s day to this, the fellows of the Institute have enjoyed full library privileges, sponsored colloquia, taught pro bono, and advised dissertations and even senior theses at the university. This close association has not only shed reflected luster on the university, but pushed its own faculty to continue to distinguish the pretty good . . . from the best.”
Robertson Hall, built in 1965 and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, and the Class of 1879 arch. Wilson had declined to add an “ordinary” law school to the university, but Axtell suggests that Wilson would regard the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as a fair trade for a law school, particularly since the former is “such a direct and apposite expression of ‘Princeton for the Nation’s Service,’ the title of his inaugural address in 1902.
Class of 1879 arch (photo on page 39). This building is named after Wilson’s class, and its arch is popular for informal concerts of Princeton’s a cappella groups. Wilson would have approved. “Possessed of a rich tenor voice, he loved to sing and even joined the Johns Hopkins Glee Club as a graduate student. Vocalizing students of all classes discovered the acoustical qualities of the arches in the many new Gothic buildings on campus, especially Blair Hall’s,” writes Axtell. “At football games, much to Wilson’s delight, members of the Glee Club sat together in order to lead student singing at half time, a practice interrupted in 1919 by the advent of the University Band.”
Heart of the Campus: Prospect and Whig
Prospect House. Ellen Wilson had designed the gardens here to reveal the university seal. Built in 1849 on the site of a stone farmhouse that had housed members of the Continental Congress in 1783, the Florentine-style mansion was used as the university’s president’s house until 1968, when it was converted to a faculty club. This beautiful garden is open to visitors.
Whig and Clio halls (photo on page 40). Built in 1769 and 1770 respectively, they housed students in Wilson’s favorite extracurricular activity, the debating societies.
The oldest political literary and debating society in the United States, the American Whig Cliosophic Society was founded in 1765 (James Madison was among the founders). Clio Hall is used for office space, but the society still meets in Whig Hall and, with nearly 500 members, is the largest student-run extracurricular activity. The tiger next to Clio is supposedly the only female sculptured animal on the campus.
Debating was one of the few extracurricular activities that had the stamp of Wilson’s approval: He had been “an ardent member of Whig Hall as an undergraduate,” writes Axtell. “In the wood-paneled, blue-trimmed chamber of Whig Hall, he honed the verbal skills that soon made him Princeton’s best lecturer and one of the most eloquent and persuasive speakers of the 20th century.”
“As the only secret societies allowed on campus, Whig and Clio served as substitutes for fraternities,” writes Axtell. “Adlai Stevenson ’22 reported on his two-hour initiation into Whig: ‘They put black bags over our heads and we had to go through the whole thing crawling on our stomachs. They certainly did paddle us, and we had to crawl through a long winding passage under the foundations of the hall.’ When it was over, President John Grier Hibben spoke to them about the hall’s history, including the role of his predecessor and former friend Woodrow Wilson.”
Firestone & Holder
Firestone Library. Wilson would “take pleasure in the architectural continuity of Firestone Library with his beloved Gothic campus, its vast and accessible holdings, and its abundant quarters for study, research, and writing,” Axtell writes. In 1905 Wilson hired 50 assistant professors and introduced the precept system “to make a reading man of [the student] instead of a mere pupil,” and library use increased dramatically.
The Rare Book Room at Firestone has one of the few copies of the 1499 edition of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is the central “character” in the 2004 novel, “The Rule of Four,” by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, two 20-something Ivy Leaguers who turned Princeton University into a blood and fire-soaked code-breaker’s paradise (U.S. 1, May 26, 2004).
Walk toward Nassau Street to Holder Courtyard (photo on cover). Rockefeller College in Holder Courtyard partially represents Wilson’s ideals. He pushed for self-contained four-year residential colleges, so that the upper classes would influence the younger men.
Walled in on four sides, Holder made it an excellent starting place for the sophomore running of the Nude Olympics. “Typically, at midnight on the first snow of the year,” Axtell writes, “a few hardy men, fortified by warming spirits, dropped their clothes between neck and ankles and proceeded to cavort in the raw (weather) with calisthenics, wheelbarrow and relay races, Frisbee tossing, and an especially daring bonfire jump. When Holder went coed in 1971-1972, women cheered the athletes as loudspeakers, lacking the yet-unwritten ‘Chariots of Fire’ theme, boomed out Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’”
Axtell tells of a William & Mary colleague, an Olympian, who says that the race route included Firestone Library, so students could run in and kiss the books. Axtell believes this to be quintessentially Princeton but can’t reveal the name of the colleague “because he doesn’t have tenure.”
In 1999 a large and disorganized crowd committed “egregious sexual harassment and gross behavior plus considerable property damage. So ended the Nude Olympics.”
Continue down University Place to Dickinson Street and walk through the Henry Hall arch. The lawn between Henry and Laughlin halls is semi-hallowed ground, the site of an important scene of “A Beautiful Mind,” when Russell Crowe, playing Nobel prizewinner John Nash, encounters his fellow graduate students at a lawn party (photo on page 45).
Axtell piles on thick praise for the university’s academic prizes, saying that Princeton has captured more Nobels than its share, nine since 1997, and Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Walk past the Pyne building (which housed women during the first year of coeducation) to Dillon Gym. Sports were to Wilson, according to Axtell, “in themselves wholesome,” a “safety-valve for animal spirits” and teachers of fair play. “Although he didn’t play much himself, he was an ardent and often vocal fan of Princeton football and baseball, attending gridiron practices with half the student body and umpiring faculty baseball games. But as the head cheerleader for an intellectual awakening on campus, he did want to see sports subordinated to learning and the life of the mind.”
At Dillon is where “the winning ways of the basketball squad and the scoring magic of three-time All-American Bill Bradley ’65, the country’s leading player, kept the seats filled and local chauvinism elevated,” writes Axtell, who also notes the prescience of the thesis topic for Bradley, a future senator: Harry S. Truman’s fight for the Missouri senate seat in 1940.
The Daily Princetonian
Walk up University Place to No. 48, the office of the Daily Princetonian since 1967. The student newspaper has had a long presence on the campus — Wilson had been the managing editor in his day. An excerpt:
“Through the first seven decades of the twentieth century, the Daily Prince drew devotees as much for its inky mystique as for its central role and visibility on campus.
“Until 1972, when the Prince finally went to photo-offset composition (and in 1988 to Apple computers), the ink and type-fonts were a nightly reality in the Herald print shop. Since high school journalists had no experience in producing a daily newspaper, the Prince had to rely on an experienced craftsman to show each new generation the ropes, to do the actual composing on a creaky, temperamental, hot-lead linotype machine, and from midnight to 6 a.m., to print the issues on a hand-fed, flat-bed letterpress, made in 1896.
“From the end of World War II until his retirement in 1987, the gruff, indispensable presence behind the Prince operation was Larry DuPraz, a flat-topped, cigar-smoking townie, high school graduate, and volunteer fireman. In the minds of thousands of his student-fans, this stubby veteran with a bite as sharp as his bark was ‘one of the toughest professors at Princeton.’ At his ink-stained, no-nonsense hands, generations of would-be journalists were educated in ‘craft, fidelity, dedication, perseverance, [and] excellence — qualities that not even an [umpteen]-thousand-dollar education can buy.’ His most serious students thought they had attended — though probably not graduated with any honors from — the ‘Larry DuPraz School of Journalism, one of Princeton’s most successful colleges,’ or ‘the University of DuPraz.’
“In late-night commentaries over layouts or in caustic comments at any juncture, ‘Professor’ DuPraz taught two main lessons. One was absolute quality: he was devastatingly ‘scornful of error and sloppiness,’ to which harried student-editors with undone homework on their minds were often prone. The other lesson was humility. He taught his bookish acolytes not to ‘overestimate degrees and titles,’ but, more pointedly, that ‘snot-nosed college kids were not as smart as they think they are.’
“Although many Princelings never realized it, ‘beneath that gruff exterior,’ testified Thomas Bray ’63, former Prince chairman and later president of the board of the paper’s corporation, ‘was a gruff interior.’ Yet most learned to love being ‘abused by him — which he did with great precision — partly because Larry was from the real world, outside the Gothic romance of the campus, and his sarcasm punctured our pretensions.’ Their other professors were bred — and taught — in a kinder, gentler school and often had a harder time earning their respect and attention. Few of them hosted their own ‘class’ reunions after each P-rade, at which they recalled, with deadly precision, each name, face, and former foible.
“In 1999, after 52 years, Larry was still an afternoon presence in the Prince newsroom, deriding the latest ‘crap’ and dispensing stories of hot-lead presses, scandalous editorial boards past, and world-class student pranks.”
James Axtell, Friday, June 2, 2 p.m.Princeton University Store, 36 University Place, 609-921-8500. www.pustore.com.