GOULDSBORO — For the past eight years, I have been serving as director of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows, a program launched at Princeton University 45 years ago by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

The purpose then, as it remains today, is to allow colleges and universities to host for a full week an eminent professional from any of a variety of fields. Fellows talk about their chosen profession in and outside the classroom, formally and informally, and help undergraduates learn about career options.

Fellows include former ambassadors, governors, elected national officials, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, artists, nonprofit leaders, business leaders, civil libertarians, music composers, actors and actresses, writers, filmmakers, political pollsters, lawyers, physicians, military leaders, poets, novelists and artists.

Former fellow Christie Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and Environmental Protection Agency head, wrote at the end of her three-year term, “The experience … reaffirmed my faith in the future of the country. The next generation really seems to want to make a positive difference in the world.”

Without exception, fellows love the opportunity to give back and to get to know students and faculty, and those colleges hosting fellows rave about how successfully fellows have opened the imagination of undergraduates to consider a career different from the one they thought they might pursue.

What a difference a couple of weeks make! Now, widely reported, some students at Princeton University, where Woodrow Wilson served as president before becoming governor of New Jersey and then president of the United States, have rallied for expunging the name of Woodrow Wilson from most academic units and buildings on the campus.

Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, has taken this request under advisement and has promised to engage the governing board in a discussion about the use of the Wilson name.

As a political scientist, I knew when accepting the directorship that Woodrow Wilson, like every other American president before and after him, held some views that are controversial by today’s standards because his thinking, mores and outlook were shaped by his own era.

Wilson was a racist; trampled on civil liberties (e.g., the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918); and supported Nazi-like eugenics of forcible sterilization of certain criminals and the mentally incompetent. He also dragged his feet on granting women the right to vote (a la Obama waiting nearly seven years before supporting marriage equality).

It is also true, however, that in other respects, Wilson was ahead of his time: by proposing the League of Nations, by appointing the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and by championing a law to end child labor (which was then declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court!).

Wilson’s idealism was expressed outside of a president’s inclination to reflect the values of his age. America around the First World War was incorrigibly racist, a plutocracy held political sway, and the mentally incompetent and hardened criminals were regarded as less than fully human.

We can agree: Shame on Wilson for mindlessly sharing such views, but kudos for Wilson for seeking humane policies for children and an institution to improve communications and cooperation among nations.

Now, a century later, racism in our nation lingers, the United Nations, which evolved from Wilson’s stillborn League of Nations, holds high moral ground but is often incapable of breaking new ground in managing aggressions born of national-tribal sovereignty, and the U.S. leads the world in incarcerating criminals, a majority of whom are African-American. While Wilson’s triumphs appear incomplete at best, certain of his moral failings seem to bedevil our nation still.

The current controversy about Woodrow Wilson represents a “teachable moment,” one that Princeton’s president may be overlooking. I suspect that some of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows will be asked by faculty and students on the campuses they visit next spring about Wilson’s legacy. Some angry students may even ask a fellow to denounce the name of the very program he or she represents.

If that happens, I hope the embattled fellow will not plead nolo contendere, but instead will offer the commonsensical observation that presidents, like leaders in all professions, are neither morally nor ethically pure, nor are they perfect problem solvers, but instead reflect the time in which they live and the conditions under which they serve.