How America’s Universities Discriminated Against Jews
By Rafael Medoff
Rixford Snyder, director of admissions at Stanford University, was worried.
It was early 1953, and large numbers of students from two heavily Jewish high schools in Los Angeles had been applying for admission to the prestigious northern California university.
If even “a few Jewish applicants” from those schools were admitted, there would be “a flood of Jewish applications,” Snyder warned Frederic Glover, assistant to Stanford president Wallace Sterling.
“Rix feels that this problem is loaded with dynamite and he wanted you [Sterling] to know about it, as he says that the situation forces him to disregard our stated policy of paying no attention to the race or religion of applicants,” Glover wrote in a memo to Sterling. The president concurred, and by the fall of that year, there was a “sharp drop” in the number of students from those schools who were admitted to Stanford.
The Glover memo came to light as a result of an internal investigation ordered last year by the Stanford University administration, following years of rumors that the university had implemented a restrictive anti-Jewish quota in the 1950s. The final report by the investigators found that the drastic reduction in enrollment from students at those two L.A. schools, Beverly Hills High School and Fairfax High School — said to be “95 to 98 percent Jewish” — contrasted sharply with admissions from other high schools. “No other schools experienced such a sharp reduction in students enrolling at Stanford at that time,” the 75-page report found.
Stanford University’s current president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, issued a public apology for “this appalling antisemitic activity,” which he called “wrong,” “damaging,” and “unacknowledged for too long.”
While Stanford’s belated apology was widely welcomed in the Jewish community, it is also a reminder that the practices at Stanford were just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, and sometimes beyond, many of America’s elite universities quietly imposed quotas to keep their Jewish student body to a minimum.
DENTAL SCHOOL DISCRIMINATION
Stanford is the second major university to own up to its anti-Jewish past. Ten years ago, the dental school at Emory University in Atlanta underwent a similar process of self-reflection.
Ex-Emory student Dr. Perry Brickman was the catalyst. At the end of his first year at the Emory dental school, 1951-52, Brickman was shocked to receive a letter from the dean telling him he had flunked out. Three of his Jewish classmates received similar letters. Ashamed, they quietly transferred to other schools rather than challenge the Emory administration. Brickman ultimately finished fourth in his class at the University of Tennessee dental school.
In 2006, Dr. Brickman began contacting other Jewish students who had been forced out of Emory. He later told The New York Times that he was shocked to discover how widespread the phenomenon had been. “I had no idea how many there were,” he recalled. “It was obvious that it was a systemic problem.” Brickman’s taped interviews with the students were made into a documentary film called “From Silence to Recognition.”
One student recalled: “Can you imagine trying to study, knowing that whatever you did was not acceptable to a dean who was committed to flunking you out?” Another described how that dean, Walter Buhler, actively encouraged him to drop out. Dean Buhler said to him, “Why do you Jews want to go into dentistry? You don’t have it in the hands.”
According to the documentary, 65% of Jewish students during Buhler’s years as dean (1948-1961) either were flunked out or were compelled to repeat years of classes. As a result, Jewish enrollment at the dental school dropped drastically. The school’s application for admission actually had a line designating applicants as “Caucasian, Jew or Other.”
As a result of Brickman’s research, Emory president James W. Wagner hosted the premier of the documentary in 2012 and publicly apologized for the school’s discriminatory past policies.
HARVARD — AND FDR
Harvard was the pioneer in using quotas to limit Jewish students. Many achievement-oriented children of East European Jews who arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the century sought admission to top Ivy League universities such as Harvard. By 1920, 20% of Harvard’s students were Jews — and President A. Lawrence Lowell decided that was too many.
With the support of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the admissions office began quietly implementing a quota on Jewish applicants that was masked as an attempt to ensure “geographical diversity” in the student body.
Applications from students in New York City were classified according to whether their family name and photograph indicated they were Jews. They were classified as “J1” (definitely Jewish), “J2” (probably Jewish), or “J3” (possibly Jewish). Applicants to Harvard were also judged according to the subjective label “character,” which gave an admissions officer another way to reject Jews without saying it was because they were Jews.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served on the Harvard board in the 1920s, later boasted that he helped implement the quota on Jewish students. He and his fellow board members decided that “the number of Jews should be reduced one or two percent a year until it was down to 15%,” Roosevelt explained to Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the only Jewish member of his cabinet, in 1941. “You can’t get a disproportionate amount of any one religion.”
RESTRICTIONS AT JOHNS HOPKINS
A senior adviser to President Roosevelt, Dr. Isaiah Bowman, was the key figure in restricting the admission of Jews to another major institution, Johns Hopkins University.
Bowman advised FDR on population settlement issues, including the Jewish refugee problem, in the 1930s and early 1940s. He was widely known as “Roosevelt’s geographer.” In the wake of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, FDR assigned Bowman to undertake a two-year study of settlement possibilities for Jewish refugees in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Bowman and his team concluded that no country was suitable for “a large foreign immigrant group.” Jews should be settled only “in limited numbers here, there, and elsewhere,” Bowman advised the president, warning against “the danger [of] Jewish control…if too many are allowed into the country and particularly the cities.” The best solution would be to “keep the European elements within the framework of the Old World,” he recommended.
Bowman also served as president of Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, from 1935 to 1948. Worried that there were too many Jews on campus — he privately complained that Hopkins was “becoming a practically Jewish organization” — Bowman in 1942 instituted a quota on the admission of Jewish students. “Jews don’t come to Hopkins to make the world better or anything like that,” Bowman told a colleague. “They came for two things: to make money and to marry non-Jewish women.”
Bowman was also hostile to Jewish faculty members. In 1939, he fired one of the most promising young historians on the Hopkins faculty, Eric Goldman, on the grounds that “there are already too many Jews at Hopkins.” Bowman expressed interest in hiring the scholar Henry Bruman for the geography department only after confirming “that Bruman is not a Jew. One of the new men could be…but I do not want two of them in the same department.”
Harvard’s willingness to openly limit Jewish enrollment inspired other major universities to look for ways to do likewise. The problem they faced was that if applicants were judged solely on their academic credentials, many Jews would be admitted. “Any college which is going to base its admissions wholly on scholastic standing will find itself with an infinitesimal proportion of anything else than Jews eventually,” Dartmouth president Ernest Hopkins privately complained.
As a result, many schools added criteria to their applications that could be used to limit Jews. Sarah Lawrence College’s application asked if the student had been “brought up to strict Sunday observance.” Columbia asked the student’s “religious affiliation” and whether or not either of the applicant’s parents had ever changed their name. A 1947 study by the American Jewish Congress of 171 American colleges and universities found that 135 of them (79%) had questions on their admissions applications about the applicant’s “race, religion or national ancestry.” The study triggered lawsuits by Jewish organizations against Columbia and Cornell, and increased the pressure on colleges to end their discriminatory practices.
By the late 1960s, a combination of factors finally brought the anti-Jewish quotas at American universities to an end. The new willingness of Jewish organizations to publicly protest discrimination, including the threat of legal action, was a major factor. So was the enactment of new federal and state anti-discrimination legislation. There were positive factors, too: Governor Thomas Dewey’s establishment, in 1949, of the State University of New York system, including four medical schools, became a magnet for the state’s Jewish students.
Overall, it could be said that the quotas ended because American society changed. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, antisemitism became increasingly unacceptable in the United States. As bigotry of all kinds fell out of favor, legislative and social protections followed. Today, the main challenge facing Jewish students is not gaining admission to the university of their choice, but the atmosphere they encounter once they are on campus — but that is another story.
Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.
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