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Woodrow Wilson


Princeton: 1890–1910

Summary Princeton: 1890–1910

In 1900, after two years of teaching at Wesleyan University, Woodrow Wilson and family packed their bags and moved to New Jersey, where he accepted a professorship at his alma mater, Princeton University. Although Wilson had been happy in Connecticut, he still felt that he was not achieving his full academic and professional potential, and reasoned that Princeton would provide more opportunities to do so. While at Princeton he wrote and published Division and Reunion in 1893, a work that charted the course of American history from the 1830s to Reconstruction after the Civil War. He also published a biography of George Washington in 1897 and published a large five-volume History of the American People in 1902. In addition to his books, Wilson also authored dozens of magazine articles, editorials, pamphlets, and essays. He intended to write a crowning work that he planned to call The Philosophy of Politics, but was called to other duties before he even began to research the subject.

Just as at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan, Wilson was received at Princeton with much enthusiasm; he was lauded as an excellent professor of political economy and jurisprudence who could make his lectures both interesting and informative. He also taught public administration, English law, international law, and constitutional law. Hundreds of students attended his lectures; his popularity was unequaled. His fame as an orator and teacher spread throughout the American academic world. While a professor at Princeton, Wilson was offered the chairmanship of the history departments at the University of Chicago and at Johns Hopkins University (to replace his former professor Dr. Herbert Adams), and he was offered the presidency of numerous other schools, including the University of Illinois and the University of Virginia. Yet he declined to accept any of the offers, preferring to remain at the school he loved. His twelve years as a Princeton professor were among his most challenging and stimulating.

Ever a religious man, Wilson and his wife Ellen joined the Second Presbyterian Church in 1897. That same year, Woodrow also became a governing elder of the church. In 1905, after trying to unite the First and Second Presbyterian Churches into one body, he withdrew his membership from the Second congregation and entered the First as an elder. Throughout this period Wilson retained every ounce of the strict sense of morality that his father and the church had instilled in him during his youth.

Wilson also became a leader among the Princeton faculty members. During his teaching years at Princeton, many both inside and outside the university believed the quality of education had been waning and that Princeton was losing its place among the nation's top schools. Many of the teachers, led by Wilson, cried for higher standards and better leadership to guide the university into the new century. When the university's president, Dr. Francis L. Patton, caved into popular demand and resigned his position, the faculty and trustees of the school looked to Wilson to lead them, unanimously electing him president of the university in 1902. He was the first Princeton president who had not previously been a clergyman.

President Wilson stepped up to the task of strengthening and reorganizing Princeton with vigor, and was blessed for the first five or six years with almost complete support from the faculty, trustees, and even students. Furthermore, for the first time in his career, he was in a position to write policy and to make changes. Wilson began a series of reforms designed to convert the school from a "place where there are youngsters doing tasks to a place where there are men thinking." The reformist attitude and tendencies he developed during these years would stick with him throughout the remainder of his political career.

The first task Wilson set out to accomplish was reorganizing the university budget to fund his visionary reforms. With a check for six million dollars from the trustees, he set about allocating money to various departments, including the undergraduate college, a new school for science, a fund for new teachers and facilities, a new graduate school, a school of jurisprudence, a natural history museum, and a school for electrical engineering. He then set about redesigning the methods of teaching undergraduates, transforming the system to a style modeled after a program used at Oxford University. Entitled the preceptorial system, this method of teaching brought small groups of students together under the tutelage of a professor trained in their chosen field rather than in large impersonal lecture halls. The system was devised to stimulate thinking, student-teacher interaction, and discussion rather than requiring students to memorize information. Nothing like the preceptorial system existed anywhere else in the United States at the time, and it quickly helped push Princeton back up into the ranks of elite American universities. Many modern universities and colleges throughout the country now have similar programs based on Wilson's revolutionary method.

Woodrow Wilson: Popular pages