Written by Anna Rubin ’15
This is the second installment in a two-part series examining two aspects of Woodrow Wilson’s Princeton University presidency, featuring sources in our recently-digitized selections from the Office of the President Records. In the first, we looked at his attitude towards Princeton’s eating clubs. Here, we turn to his conflict over the location of the Graduate College.
At the start of Woodrow Wilson’s Princeton presidency, plans for a Graduate College had been in the works since 1896, as part of the transformation of Princeton from a college to a university. In the summer of 1905, graduate students moved to a building on an eleven acre tract called Merwick just to the north of Princeton’s main campus. Andrew F. West, the Dean of the Graduate College at the time, supported the Graduate College’s placement at Merwick, believing that the small, homey atmosphere of the house was precisely the right environment. In a report to Wilson, West said, “I am very anxious that Merwick shall not take on anything of the character of a boarding house, a club, or a hotel, but shall preserve at all times the aspect of a quiet studious home.” (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 63, Folder 1)
Graduate students appreciated Merwick’s removed but walkable location from the campus, “aloof” and secluded, yet homey air, beautiful and distinctive appearance, and distance from the raucous undergraduate happenings on campus and around Prospect Avenue. Those who lived there found it to have an “atmosphere of consistent and dignified work” (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 62, Folder 11). But Wilson feared that Merwick’s location would thoroughly remove the graduate student population both academically and socially from the life of the campus and the University at large. “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….” (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 62, Folder 11)
Wilson hoped to move the Graduate College to the heart of Princeton’s campus, between Prospect House (where as University President, he lived) and Class of 1879 Hall (where his tower office was located), in the area now occupied by Woolworth (music) and the School of Architecture. He was passionate about the move, framing it as the cornerstone of his Princeton presidency. 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. (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 62, Folder 11)
Wilson’s desire to have the graduate college at the heart of Princeton’s campus was not purely social or intellectual. The benefactor who was to pay for a portion of the new college, the estate of Josephine Thomson Swann, had specified that the fund must be used on “the grounds” of the University. Swann passed away before final plans for the placement of the College were made, causing the phrase to become the center of controversy among those determining where to place the College, including former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, a bastion of Princeton town and gown.
Wilson’s plans to relocate the graduate college to the campus were no secret and in fact were part of his original goals for the University upon taking up the presidency in 1902. In March 1907, as the plans began to move forward more rapidly, 30 graduate students wrote a letter to the Trustee’s Committee on the Graduate School, lamenting that “It is with the deepest regret that we have heard of the possibility that the graduate school may be removed to the campus. There are many reasons why the present situation of the house appeals to us, and we venture to hope that they may seem valid to you.” The committee cited the need of “retirement and seclusion,” defined as “freedom from the too easy intrusion of undergraduate friends, remoteness from the campus noise and excitement, and from the club street and club life of the college.” They believed it was especially important to for those who earned undergraduate degrees at Princeton to have a distinction between undergraduate and graduate life. “Proximity of their quarters to the campus would mean that they would continue to live the undergraduate life.” (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 62, Folder 11)
The Committee on the Graduate School ultimately resolved that the “Graduate College be fixed in the grounds of Prospect about midway between Seventy Nine Hall and the President’s house…” on April 9, 1908. In May 1909, William Cooper Proctor offered the Board of Trustees a $500,000 gift for the Graduate College, under the conditions that a) it be matched by another gift, b) only $200,000 of it would be used for the actual buildings of the graduate college and c) that the graduate college not be built in the middle of campus. Mr. Proctor preferred instead the golf links west of campus.
Although Wilson attempted to convince the Board of Trustees not to accept the gift if it meant the graduate college must be placed elsewhere, they nonetheless did. The Committee of the Graduate School felt that too much emphasis was being placed on the graduate college residences, rather than the faculty and classroom facilities, and they wanted to commence with construction quickly with as little continued fanfare as possible. While Wilson believed that the residence, which played an integral role in his social reorganization of the University, was the most important aspect of bolstering the reputation of the new Graduate College, the Committee wanted the focus to be on academic and intellectual excellence. When the final decision was made in 1910, Wilson was outnumbered and, once again, lost. He left the Princeton presidency later that year, successfully running for New Jersey’s governorship. The initial buildings of the Graduate College were completed in 1913, just to the west of campus on the other side of what is today the Springdale Golf Club.
Anna Rubin ’15 worked as an archives assistant at the front desk here at Mudd while completing her senior year at Princeton. She was heavily involved in the digitization of this collection.