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 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

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:

Cleveland Tower

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."

Ivy Lane

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."

Washington Road

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

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 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

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."

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

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-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."

University Place

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.

Facebook Comments