Underlying these tendencies is the illiberal conviction, which shows up again and again on campuses, that professors, staff members, administrators, journalists, and figures from the past who fail to conform to a rigidly and narrowly defined standard of moral purity should be fired, demoted, cast out, blocked, and erased from university life.
The latest and highest profile example is the push to expunge Woodrow Wilson’s name and image from Princeton University — despite the fact that the 28th president of the United States also served as a historically important president of the school.
As many have pointed out, Wilson was indeed a racist whose views on African-Americans were retrograde even for his time. Yet even if we grant that institutional racism is a significant problem on contemporary college campuses, it’s hard to understand how Wilson’s prominence at Princeton contributes to it. Does anyone seriously believe that in 2015 even a single member of Princeton’s faculty, staff, or administration walks past Wilson’s name and image on campus and thinks, “I’m so proud that a racist like this once led our university”? The suggestion is absurd. Wilson is honored on campus despite his racism, not because of it.
But that, one suspects, is precisely the problem. What the protesters most want to deny is that a man with Wilson’s racial views can be deserving of admiration in any respect.