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
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 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 alumni) 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
pre-eminent 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
"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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
Frist Student 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
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
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
"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 capella 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
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."
Nassau Street: 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
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-breakers paradise (U.S.
1, May 26, 2004).
Walk toward Nassau Street to Holder Courtyard (photo on cover).
Rockefeller College in Holder Courtyard partially represents the
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
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
"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
James Axtell, Friday, June 2, 2 p.m.Princeton University Store, 36
University Place, 609-921-8500. www.pustore.com.