American Jews have an important stake in the nation’s system of higher education. For second and third-generation Jews college was the major channel of upward mobility, and among young Jews today college attendance is practically universal. In addition, Jews are heavily represented among faculty in institutions of higher learning. According to recent surveys conducted by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, Jews, who comprise 3 per cent of the national population, are 9 per cent of the faculty in the nation’s colleges and universities. In the seventeen ranking universities, the proportion of Jews is 17 per cent, and among faculty in such fields of traditional Jewish concentration as medicine, law, and social science, the proportion of Jews runs as high as one-third. In certain institutions near Jewish population centers, the figures are even higher.
These achievements are largely a result of two trends since World War II. The first has been the tremendous expansion of higher education, especially of state universities. The second has been the lowering of discriminatory barriers that once limited Jewish access to many private colleges, including some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation.
More recent trends, however, threaten to alter the structure of educational opportunity for Jews. First of all, cutbacks in government funding of higher education have brought an abrupt end to a quarter-century of steady growth, and this will inevitably influence the educational chances of Jews and non-Jews alike. Other changes will affect Jews selectively. In recent years many state universities have adopted percentage restrictions against out-of-state students. Others discourage out-of-state applicants by charging higher fees or by demanding higher qualifications than apply to residents. Since the great majority of Jews are concentrated in just a few states, these restrictions are bound to affect them disproportionately.
While primarily a response to economic conditions, in at least some instances geographical restrictions have had anti-Jewish motives. A view widely shared both within and outside the university is that many radical students come from the East and that many of these students are Jews. Acting on this assumption, at least two universities have singled out areas of high Jewish concentration as deserving lowest priority in the recruitment of students. In one instance a quota was specifically aimed at students from the New York City metropolitan area. This trend could severely restrict Jewish access to some of the largest universities in the nation.
If geographical restrictions are new to state universities in the West, they are longstanding practice in private colleges in the East. Since the 1920’s, when these colleges were flooded with Jewish applicants, their policy has been to strive for a “regional balance” by giving preference to applicants from outside the East. This practice originated as a device for preserving the upper-class and Protestant character of the elite Eastern colleges. In contrast, the quotas adopted in recent years are designed to increase the representation of disprivileged blacks. One can only speculate on whether this will significantly diminish educational opportunities for Jews. It is just as plausible that the increasing black enrollment will be at the expense of those students who previously were admitted less for their academic qualifications than because they had the “right” family credentials or came from the “right” preparatory school. The process of eliminating privilege from Eastern colleges was initiated by Jews and may well be advanced one step further by blacks. Nevertheless, many Jews are alarmed by the introduction of unofficial quotas favorable to black applicants. As a small minority, Jews are obviously threatened by the concept of “proportional representation.” Indeed, the very idea of quotas is anathema to Jews. They have the memory of the numerus clausus that restricted Jewish access to universities in Russia. And, more immediately, in America the first quotas established in higher education were aimed specifically against Jews.
The immigration of several million Jews from Eastern Europe drastically changed the character of the American-Jewish community, as well as its relation to the larger society. Prior to the East European immigration, American Jews had been a small, inconspicuous, and highly assimilated group. Most were either descendants of early settlers or recent German immigrants. In all they numbered roughly a quarter of a million in a population of sixty-three million, or just six-tenths of one per cent. As Nathan Glazer comments: “. . . before 1880 or 1890 there were too few American Jews for them to constitute a question.”
More than small numbers was involved. Given their German origins, Jews blended in culturally with the American mainstream. By 1880 the great majority had entered middle-class occupations. The prevailing mood in the Jewish community was to abandon “outmoded” beliefs and customs, and to seek ways to reconcile historical Judaism with the demands of modern society. This was the period during which the Reform movement flourished and reached its most radical expression. In 1885, a group of leading Reform rabbis adopted a statement of principles that rejected whatever in Mosaic law was “not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”
A small Jewish population, its integration into the class system, the absence of sharp cultural differences between Jews and non-Jews, the mood of accommodation in the Jewish community—these factors contributed to a low level of religious conflict during most of the 19th century. However, beneath the surface of religious harmony was a layer of anti-Semitic beliefs and stereotypes handed down from the past. As one historian, John Higham, writes: “. . . the Jews in early nineteenth century America got along very well with their non-Jewish neighbors although American conceptions of Jews in the abstract at no time lacked the unfavorable elements embedded in European tradition.”
The presence of anti-Semitic conceptions, however inert, did not augur well for the immigrants from Eastern Europe. Even before their arrival, upwardly mobile Jews with German origins confronted social barriers erected by a nervous Protestant upper class. It was largely in response to this development that, as Oscar and Mary Handlin put it, “after 1880 the longings for exclusive, quasi-aristocratic status increasingly found satisfaction in associations with an hereditary basis.” Yankee ancestry became a condition for respectability, and the old class sought refuge in exclusive societies and resorts. Discrimination also became the practice in prestigious clubs, including some university alumni clubs.
By 1924, the year that immigration quotas were imposed, the nation’s Jewish population had increased to approximately four million. Moreover, Jews were heavily concentrated in the urban centers of the Northeast, where they did in fact constitute a significant portion of the population. The Jewish population of New York, the port of arrival for most immigrants, grew from 80,000 in 1880 to 1,225,000 in 1910. From a practically invisible minority of 3 per cent, by 1920 Jews constituted 30 per cent of the city’s population.
Even more important than the increase in numbers was the social character of the newer immigrants. Impoverished, refugees from persecution, natives of an alien and sometimes backward culture, adherents of pre-modern religious beliefs and customs, the East European Jews were a new factor in American life. The “new immigration,” as it was called, made Jews visible as a group for the first time. The spectacle of over one million Jews clustered in New York City aroused the predictable xenophobic reaction. America now had a “Jewish problem,” and American nativism a new target.
The essence of the “Jewish problem” was how to control the influx of Jews into areas of social activity that were predominantly Protestant. By 1920 a pattern of anti-Jewish discrimination had become established, and was being sustained by an upsurge of anti-Jewish propaganda, especially in the Northeast where the Jewish settlements were located. Discrimination became commonplace in neighborhoods, clubs, resorts, and private boarding schools, and was making headway wherever else Jews turned in large numbers. The Eastern colleges—elitist, tradition-bound, repositories of Puritan values and upper-class standards—could not remain untouched by these trends, especially when their enrollments contained increasing numbers of Jewish students.
“The Jew undergoes privation, spills blood, to educate his child,” boasted an editorial in a 1902 Jewish Daily Forward. “In [this] is reflected one of the finest qualities of the Jewish people. It shows our capacity to make sacrifices for our children . . . as well as our love for education, for intellectual effort.” While the Jewish passion for education is easily romanticized, the fact is that Jewish immigrants did place high value on education and sent their children to college in disproportionate numbers. As the Forward’s editorial observed: “You don’t find many German, Irish, or Italian children in City College. About 90 per cent of the boys there are Jews, and most of them children of Jewish workers.” What the Forward neglected to mention was that, according to one early report, “as the percentage of Russian-Jewish boys in attendance increased, the families of Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, German, and Huguenot descent, who had been accustomed to register their boys in the College in the old days, sent them elsewhere for a college education.”
As more and more Jews enrolled in City College, it acquired a reputation for being a “Jewish school.” Indeed, by 1920 both City College and Hunter College had become between 80 and 90 per cent Jewish. A number of other Eastern colleges showed rapid increases in their Jewish enrollment. Before Columbia instituted restrictive quotas after World War I, it had a Jewish enrollment of 40 per cent. The figure for New York University was probably higher; the figure for Harvard was 20 per cent. Without its pejorative implications the notion of a “Jewish invasion” would not be inappropriate for describing the trends in these institutions prior to World War I.
The high rate of college attendance among Jews is easier to understand against the background of conditions in the secondary schools. During the early 1900’s American society did not place much value on a continuing education. The vast majority of Americans were employed in occupations that required few skills, especially of a kind that comes with formal education. For most people anything beyond a rudimentary knowledge of the three R’s had little practical value, and the tendency in the schools was to emphasize “life adjustment” rather than intellectual development with an eye to college preparation. The individual who graduated from high school was the exception, not the rule. Those who did complete high school came mostly from the economically advantaged strata of society. They alone could afford to postpone employment and could see in a high school or college education some prospective utility and economic benefit.
Nevertheless, the common school did provide an opportunity for those in the lower classes with sufficient ingenuity or will to obtain free education for their children. Jews availed themselves of this opportunity with greater frequency than most other groups. A 1922 study of one Eastern high school found that the academic record of Russian-Jewish students was surpassed only by children of German or Scandinavian parents. In comparison to other ethnic groups, including native Americans, Jewish children were more likely to reach high school, more likely to finish high school if they entered, and more likely to enroll in college preparatory rather than commercial or technical courses.
From a historical perspective it makes little sense to explain Jewish academic success in terms of a special aptitude or brilliance on the part of Jews. It was enough that Jews placed high value on education, that they were more often willing to undergo sacrifices, and that their children had the motivation and perseverance to stay in school when most of their contemporaries had liberated themselves from academic routine and discipline.
Nor did it demand any special talent to gain admission to college, even a prestigious college. Fifty years ago the gates to most of the nation’s colleges were open to anyone with only minimal academic credentials. In 1922 admission to Harvard was guaranteed to anyone with the appropriate high-school training who passed an entrance examination. The fact of the matter is that Jews did not face intense competition from non-Jews, at least not on the scale that is characteristic today. With determination, average intellect, and modest financial resources, a student could make his way through the academic system.
The fact that the Jewish entry into institutions of higher learning began with second- rather than third- or fourth-generation Jews was of utmost significance. Jewish college students during the 1920’s carried the mark of their immigrant culture. The editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward could take pride in Jewish students marching off to City College with clothes that were “mostly poor and old.” But they were greeted with indignation and hostility by their upper-class schoolmates, especially in the elite Eastern colleges. A writer in a 1923 edition of the Nation put it bluntly: the upwardly mobile Jew “sends his children to college a generation or two sooner than other stocks, and as a result there are in fact more dirty Jews and tactless Jews in college than dirty and tactless Italians, Armenians, or Slovaks.”
No matter how strong the Jewish penchant for education, no matter how deeply rooted in Jewish religion and culture, it would have mattered for little if room had not existed in the colleges. It was fortuitous that the tide of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe coincided with a period of unprecedented expansion in American higher education. Between 1890 and 1925 college enrollments grew at a rate nearly five times faster than the population.
Just as important as the physical expansion of the university were the related qualitative changes. For several decades a revolt had been gaining momentum against a curriculum that consisted principally of Latin, Greek, rhetoric, mathematics, and natural philosophy. By 1880 the attitude that all knowledge must begin with the classics gave way to demands for practical education. Behind this changing conception of higher education was the advancing industrial and scientific revolution, which created a need for an educated managerial class as well as trained professionals and technicians. Thus Latin and Greek were no longer required for admission to most colleges, the “elective principle” was instituted to free students from traditionally required subjects, and it was generally conceded to be compatible with the ideals of a college to train students for careers in business, engineering, scientific farming, the arts, and a variety of new professions such as accounting and pharmacy that made their appearance in American colleges for the first time. Thanks to their penchant for education and their determination to succeed, Jews availed themselves of the newly created opportunities more than did other groups. Thanks to the basic structural changes in society that transformed American higher education, the opportunities existed in the first place.
One writer in 1910 observed that in colleges there were “two classes, the one, favored according to undergraduate thinking, holding its position by financial ability to have a good time with leisure for carrying off athletic and other showy prizes; the other class in sheer desperation taking the faculty, textbooks, and debating more seriously. Each class runs in the same rut all its life.” Second-generation Jews obviously did not have the economic resources or the social standing to participate in the collegiate “leisure class.” For them a college education was less a mark of status than a vehicle out of the lower class, and this inevitably gave Jews a sense of purpose lacking elsewhere.
Numerous writers during the early 1900’s commented on the outstanding academic record of Jewish students. According to one observer: “At every university and college that I have visited, I have heard ungrudging praise of the exceptional ability of the Jewish, especially of the Russian-Jewish, students.” Even those uneasy about the influx of Jews rarely denied their enterprise as students. One comments begrudgingly: “History is full of examples where one race has displaced another by underliving and overworking.” Indeed, Jewish academic success, and the willingness of Jews to violate the “taboo on scholarship” (as one Yale professor called it), was a source of considerable resentment, and constituted no small part of the “Jewish problem.”
Nothing more need be said about the class of students who took faculty, textbooks, and debating seriously; they were not very different from the contemporary college student with serious aspirations, a competitive spirit, and a respect for scholarship. Jews evidently possessed these qualities long before they became established as norms in the better universities. Early in the century, the prevailing mood in the American college, especially the prestigious Eastern colleges, was anything but one of seriousness and devotion to learning. According to Laurence Vessey:
The undergraduate temperament was marked by a strong resistance to abstract thinking and to the work of the classroom in general, by traits of practicality, romanticism, and high-spiritedness, and by passive acceptance of moral, political, and religious values taken from the non-academic society at large.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent to which honor societies, Greek-letter fraternities, eating clubs, and sports dominated undergraduate life. “The cultivation of gentility,” as Thorstein Veblen called it, was pursued to the exclusion of virtually all other values. The prevailing attitude toward scholarship was at best one of indifference, as symbolized by the concept and reality of the “gentleman’s C.”
The class origin of students in these prestigious universities was of central importance. Recruited largely from upper-class families, their route to college typically traversed the private preparatory school. In 1909, for example, 78 per cent of Princeton students, and 65 per cent of Yale students came from prep schools. Significantly, the figure for Harvard was lower—47 per cent. In these colleges upper-class students established a clubby atmosphere and patterns of expensive and frivolous habits. Veblen bluntly called them “gentlemen’s colleges” where “scholarship is . . . made subordinate to genteel dissipation, to a grounding in those methods of conspicuous consumption that should engage the thought and energies of a well-to-do man of the world.”
It was no doubt as a reflection of class formation elsewhere in society that higher education assumed the features of a caste system. At the top of the hierarchy stood Harvard, Yale, Princeton, with Columbia struggling to retain its elite position. Within each institution was a wealthy class who dominated social life and set patterns imitated throughout the system of higher education. The leading institutions were measured more in terms of these status characteristics than by standards of scholarship or academic achievement.
The important thing to be said about Jews is that they threatened this respectability. They did so, first of all, because they were lower class, and frequently exhibited ethnic characteristics that violated what Veblen called “the canons of genteel intercourse.” Secondly, the seriousness and diligence with which they pursued their academic careers not only represented unwelcome competition, but implicitly called into question the propriety of a “gentlemen’s college.” Finally, Jews were unwanted simply because they were Jews, and it was feared that their presence might diminish the social standing of the college and its students.
Some of the flavor of this conflict is conveyed in an autobiographical essay entitled “The Coming of the Jews.” The author, Francis Russell, came from an old-guard Protestant family and attended Boston Latin School, an elite public high school that sent its best students to Harvard. By 1920 it had become over half Jewish. Writes Russell:
My own background was middle-class, Protestant, non-competitive, like that of most Roxbury Latin boys. I had always taken for granted that I should go to Harvard because my father in his time had gone there; and I never doubted the possibility of this any more than I stopped to consider whether I really wanted to or not. That Harvard could be the goal of anyone’s ambitions never occurred to me.
In contrast, Jews
worked far into each night, their lessons next morning were letter perfect, they took obvious pride in their academic success and talked about it. At the end of each year there were room prizes given for excellency in each subject, and they were openly after them. There was none of the Roxbury solidarity of pupils versus the master. If anyone reciting made a mistake that the master overlooked, twenty hands shot into the air to bring it to his attention.
Such a competitive situation does not generate good feeling, especially when the group with superior status takes second place. As Russell says: “It was a fierce and gruelling competition. . . . Some of us in the Gentile rump were fair students, most of us lazy and mediocre ones, and by our position at the foot of the class we despised the industry of those little Jews.” It was just as inevitable that Jews would begrudge the status and privilege of their competitors: “They hated us in return with the accumulated resentment of the past, and because they knew that the way for us was easier.”
The picture that emerges from Russell’s candid essay is of a complacent ruling class living off past achievements and suddenly challenged by talented newcomers, resented all the more because they were Jewish. For the first time the conflict between the status claims of the elite colleges and their educational functions became apparent. As one writer in a 1922 journal put it:
Each student in an American college is there, for some other purpose than acquiring knowledge. He is to be the transmitter to others of ideals of mind, spirit, and conduct. Scholarship is perhaps the most strongly emphasized of these ideals, but it is not the only one, or even the one most generally prized. [Emphasis added.]
No one suggested that Jewish students threatened academic standards. Rather it was argued that the college stood for other things, and that social standards were as important and valid as intellectual ones.
A college song during the 1910’s had these lyrics:
Oh, Harvard’s run by millionaires,
And Yale is run by booze,
Cornell is run by farmers’ sons,
Columbia’s run by Jews.
So give a cheer for Baxter Street,
Another one for Pell,
And when the little sheenies die,
Their souls will go to hell.
A climate of intolerance prevailed in many Eastern colleges long before discriminatory quotas were contemplated by college officials. From the turn of the century anti-Semitism was a common feature of campus social life. Although exceptions were sometimes made, Jews were generally excluded from the honor societies and eating clubs at Yale and Princeton. In 1902 a dormitory at Harvard came to be known as “Little Jerusalem” because of its large number of Jewish residents. In 1913 a fraternity suspended its charter at CCNY because “the Hebraic element is greatly in excess.” Such anti-Semitic incidents checker the history of American colleges after 1900.
However unpleasant, social discrimination was not a serious disability. For one thing Jews tended to avoid campuses like Yale and Princeton that had a reputation for bigotry, and to seek out others—City College, New York University, and Columbia—that offered a less hostile atmosphere as well as proximity to New York’s Lower East Side. Under President Eliot’s administration, Harvard earned a reputation as the most liberal and democratic of the “Big Three” and therefore Jews did not feel that the avenue to a prestigious college was altogether closed. While campus anti-Semitism probably left Jews with a feeling of social inferiority, it was a small price to pay for education and economic advancement. The author of a 1916 article in Harper’s Weekly went so far as to see social discrimination as an asset: “. . . indeed, their exclusion from societies stimulates their education on the intellectual side; and a final judgement on the whole matter would depend in part on the relative importance we give to ‘college work’ and ‘college life.’” His prediction that Jews would pioneer a “new and higher conception of the purpose of university education” may have proved correct in some respects. But frequently the principal result of Jewish exclusion was that Jews formed their own fraternities and social groups. Ironically, this only reinforced the prevalent notion that Jewish students were clannish and unassimilable.
At least some administrators of Eastern colleges shared the anti-Jewish sentiments of their students, hardly surprising since both groups had similar social origins. In 1890 the editor of the American Hebrew mailed a questionnaire to a number of prominent Christians, including several college presidents and professors. Those who replied were unanimous in condemning prejudice as indefensible and irrational, but a question regarding “standards of conduct” elicited some critical comments about Jews. The following from a Harvard professor was typical:
Many Jews have personal and social qualities and habits that are unpleasant. . . . These come in large measure from the social isolation to which they have been subjected for centuries, by the prejudice and ignorance of Christian communities. Most Jews are socially untrained, and their bodily habits are not good.
The president of Tufts University concurred:
The social characteristics of the Jews are peculiar. The subtle thing which we call manners, among them differs from the manners of Americans generally.
These men would have been indignant if their remarks had been construed as prejudiced, for they repudiated prejudice as un-Christian and irrational. They were convinced that their opinion of Jews was based not on myth or religious bigotry, but on social reality. As a dean of Columbia wrote in 1904: “What most people regard as a racial problem is really a social problem.”
Indeed, to a certain extent it was a social problem involving real differences in “the subtle thing which we call manners.” It would be simplistic to attribute the religious antagonisms of the period solely to bigotry handed down from the past. But it would be equally naive to assume that class and ethnic differences alone explain the unfavorable attitudes toward Jews that prevailed in educated circles. If not for the history of virulent anti-Semitism and the various stigmas attached to Jews, their cultural characteristics would have received less notice. Besides, even Jews with “proper” manners were victims of social discrimination. The tendency was to think of all Jews in terms of the immigrant, and to think of all non-Jews in terms of the highest standards of gentility and Christian virtue.
During the 1910’s there was increasing pressure in certain Eastern colleges to control the Jewish influx. The Jewish “takeover” of City College, whose student body was by then over 80 per cent Jewish, served as a warning. Other factors were also at work. World War I fanned the flames of nationalism, and a combination of political demagoguery and nativist propaganda heightened anti-Jewish feeling. For largely independent reasons, the mood inside the colleges was also undergoing change. Reaction was setting in against the reforms of the past twenty years—the expansion of enrollment, the subordination of the classical subjects to science and vocational training, and the related trend toward increased class and ethnic heterogeneity in the student population. Soon after his inauguration as President of Harvard in 1909, Abbott Lawrence Lowell complained that Harvard men were not as intellectually or socially rounded as they ought to be, or by implication, as they once were.
From the turn of the century there were colleges that limited their Jewish enrollment. However, beginning around 1920 some of the Eastern colleges that had previously been open to Jews adopted policies designed to reduce their Jewish enrollment. To the public, and possibly to themselves, they maintained the fiction of non-discriminatory admissions. But in fact quotas were instituted, though concealed behind a number of subterfuges. Some colleges set up alumni committees to screen candidates, a device that passed on the responsibility of religious discrimination to agreeable alumni. Other colleges limited their total enrollment and employed waiting lists that permitted a biased selection of students. Still others, under the pretext of seeking a regional balance, gave preference to students outside the East and thereby limited the number of Jews, almost all of whom lived in the East.
The most common ploy for excluding Jews was the introduction of character tests and psychological exams. Before the 1920’s only criteria of scholastic performance were used in the admissions process; now admissions boards began to scrutinize the “outside” interests of students. In addition, school principals were asked to rank students on such characteristics as “fair play,” “public spirit,” “interest in fellows,” and “leadership,” These traits were exactly the opposite of those generally ascribed to Jews. According to the prevailing image, Jews did not use “fair play” but employed unfair methods to get ahead. “Public spirit” and “interest in fellows” were Christian virtues; Jews were outsiders who cared only for themselves. “Leadership” was seen as a prerogative of non-Jews; Jews exhibiting this quality would be regarded as “pushy.” School principals, who were invariably Protestant and middle class, could be expected to reflect these stereotypes in evaluating their Jewish students.
It is not possible to determine precisely how prevalent quotas were during the 1920’s, though writers of the period give the impression that by 1930 most private colleges with a large and growing Jewish enrollment had instituted some kind of restrictive device. The most dramatic reversal occurred at Columbia where the Jewish enrollment declined from 40 to 22 per cent in a two-year period. New York University was also reported to have sharply reduced the number of Jewish students. In 1922 a dean explained their policy of selective admissions in this way:
We do not exclude students of any race or national origin because they are foreign, but whenever the student body is found to contain elements from any source in such proportions as to threaten our capacity for assimilating them, we seek by selection to restore the balance.
By 1920 Harvard’s Jewish enrollment reached 20 per cent; no restrictions were yet in effect. Syracuse was roughly 15 per cent Jewish in 1923, though the chancellor had to fight off an attempt to “rid the hill of Jews.” In 1930 Rutgers admitted only thirty-three Jewish students in order to “equalize the proportion” in the college. Rumor had it that Princeton used a quota based on the percentage of Jews in the United States; whether true or not, the proportion of Jewish students was minuscule. At Dartmouth in 1930 it was just 7 per cent.
It is evident that a tide of bigotry swept college campuses during the 1920’s, just as it did the nation as a whole. Yet the extent and significance of quotas should not be exaggerated. For one thing, they were confined geographically to the East, and what is more important, to private schools. Secondly, as objectionable as quotas were, they stopped far short of excluding Jews altogether. If excluded from the elite Eastern colleges, Jewish students could, and did, go elsewhere. They had the bitter experience of being treated as outcasts, and some had to settle for a less prestigious education. But in the final analysis the quotas of the 1920’s did not constitute a major obstacle to Jewish aspirations.
So long as quotas were administered surreptitiously, they were difficult to combat. Few people, least of all Jews, were deceived by the subterfuges that colleges employed, but they were effective in forestalling public exposure and political agitation. This situation suddenly changed with a terse announcement issued by Harvard University in June 1922. The full text was as follows:
The great increase which has recently taken place in the number of students at Harvard College, as at the other colleges, has brought up forcibly the problem of the limitation of enrollment.
We have not at present sufficient classrooms or dormitories, to take care of any further large increase. This problem is really a group of problems, all difficult, and most of them needing for their settlement more facts than we now have. Before a general policy can be formulated on this great question it must engage the attention of the Governing Board and the Faculties and it is likely to be discussed by alumni and undergraduates.
It is natural that with a widespread discussion of this sort going on there should be talk about the proportion of Jews at the college. At present the whole problem of limitation of enrollment is in the stage of general discussion and it may remain in that stage for a considerable time. [Emphasis added.]
Why did Harvard not proceed more discreetly and simply adopt the subterfuges employed elsewhere? The reason is to be found in the personality of President Lowell, perhaps in his New England candor, more likely in his naiveté and underlying prejudice. Lowell believed that he was acting courageously. As he wrote on one occasion: “This question is with us. We cannot solve it by forgetting or ignoring it.” In his commencement address a week later he added a touch of eloquence: “To shut the eyes to an actual problem of this kind and ignore its existence, or to refuse to grapple with it courageously, would be unworthy of a university.” The “problem” was that Jewish enrollment at Harvard had increased from 6 per cent in 1908 to 20 per cent in 1922. Lowell, however, was determined to avoid the “indirect methods” employed elsewhere. The storm of protest that ensued must have given him occasion to question the practicality of such moral rectitude.
Elected officials were among the first to react. On the day after the papers reported the news from Harvard a state legislator from Massachusetts proposed a bill for a legislative inquiry. On the next day, President Lowell traveled to the State House where he conferred privately with the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The Speaker obliged Lowell with a public statement that dismissed the press report as “idle rumor,” adding that “Harvard would remain, as in the past, a great university for all the people. . . .” Nevertheless, the protest in the State Legislature continued unabated. One pending bill proposed to eliminate all reference to Harvard University from the State Constitution, in order to dissociate the State from Harvard’s discriminatory policies. Another proposal called for a review of the tax exemptions that Harvard enjoyed on its property. The Boston City Council passed its own resolution condemning the Harvard administration. Finally, the Governor appointed a committee to investigate possible discrimination at Harvard. The New York Times reported that Harvard officials were “surprised” since they had assumed that “any plan for a State investigation would die a natural death.”
This was an impressive response from the official sector, unusual for the 1920’s. Still the resolute President of Harvard stood his ground. An exchange of letters with a dissenting Jewish alumnus was printed in the New York Times. Lowell’s letter began with the disclaimer that “there is perhaps no body of men in the United States . . . with so little anti-Semitic feeling as the instructing staff of Harvard University.” The letter continued: “There is, most unfortunately, a rapidly growing anti-Semitic feeling in this country . . . fraught with very great evils for the Jews, and very great perils for the community.” Finally the logic becomes clear: quotas were designed not to harm Jews, but to reduce anti-Semitism. They were in the best interests of Jews themselves:
The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become 40 per cent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense. When on the other hand, the number of Jews was small, the race antagonism was small also. . . . If every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews, I suspect we should go a long way toward eliminating race feeling among the students, and as these students passed out into the world, eliminating it in the community.
For President Lowell, restricting Jewish enrollment at Harvard was a way of restricting the gowth of anti-Semitism. His Jewish correspondent was unconvinced: “If it be true . . . that anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, should it not be the function of an institution of learning to discourage rather than encourage such a spirit?”
The criticism that was marshaled against President Lowell and Harvard owes itself in large measure to the political influence that Jews enjoyed both within and outside the university. The Jewish concentration in and around Boston was given further significance by gerrymandering practices that drew political boundaries so as to maximize ethnic homogeneity. As a consequence there were a number of “Jewish districts” that elected Jewish candidates to the State Legislature. This was at least one factor in the strong action that state and city officials took against Harvard’s proposed quotas.
In addition, Jews were strategically located within the power structure of the university. First, there were the Jewish alumni, like the one quoted above, who were outspoken in their opposition to quotas. Secondly, Harvard’s governing body, the Board of Overseers, had one Jewish member, Judge Julian W. Mack of Chicago, who was a leader in the American Jewish Congress. According to one newspaper report, he was “much exercised over the matter.”
A third political resource was the presence of Jews among the faculty at Harvard. When President Lowell appointed a committee of thirteen to review the college’s admissions policies, it included three Jews. All had German names, and judging from the committee’s final report, it is doubtful that they did much to defend Jewish interests. But the very presence of Jews on the faculty and through the ranks of the college made it all the more difficult to justify the sudden imposition of quotas.
Student opinion at Harvard was divided. A professor of social ethics asked his class to discuss whether religious restrictions were ethically justified. In the class of eighty-three, forty-one defended religious quotas. Thirty-four, including seven with Jewish names, held that such a policy was not justifiable; the remaining eight were undecided.
Some students who defended quotas expressed resentment of Jewish academic success: “They memorize their books! Thus they keep the average of scholarship so high that others with a high degree of common sense, but less parrot-knowledge, are prevented from attaining a representative grade.” A second criticism was that Jews were clannish and did not fit into student life: “They do not mix. They destroy the unity of the college.” “They are governed by selfishness.” “Jews are an unassimilable race, as dangerous to a college as indigestible food to a man.” Other responses were not explicitly anti-Jewish. A few expressed the view that Harvard’s founding fathers “wanted certain traditions maintained and it is a duty to maintain them. . . .” A more common argument was that “Harvard must maintain a cosmopolitan balance.”
As these comments suggest, the arguments in defense of quotas were basically of two kinds. One pointed to objectionable traits of Jews; the other pointed to desirable traits of the university that were presumably endangered. The latter argument did not accuse Jews of any objectionable behavior, but assumed the absence of qualities necessary for the preservation of the institution’s special character. This view was expressed by some of the leading journals of the day. One writer commented that Jewish immigrants “had little training in the amenities and delicacies of civilized existence,” and if the proportion of Jews at Harvard increased to 40 per cent as President Lowell warned, “this means that its character would be completely changed.” Another journalist was more forceful:
It is one of the severest and most distressing tasks of college authorities today to exercise that discrimination which will keep college ideals and atmosphere pure and sound and yet not quench this eager spirit. . . . Racial and religious oppression and prejudice have no place in America, and least of all in academic environments. But the effort to maintain standards against untrained minds and spirits is not oppression or prejudice.
Even the Nation, in commenting on the genteel tradition at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, conceded that “the infiltration of a mass of pushing young men with a foreign accent accustomed to overcome discrimination by self-assertiveness would obviously change the character of any of these institutions and lessen its social prestige.” However, the Nation’s editorial did not defend quotas. It was resigned to the inevitability that “some of the beauty of the aristocratic tradition” would be lost, but argued that America should not imitate the methods of “the most backward in Europe.” As might be expected, Jewish opinion challenged the legitimacy of judging applicants in terms of character as well as intelligence. As one Jewish writer put it: “We think that a university which keeps a man out because it doesn’t like his character is almost as benighted as the one which would sift him out because he is a Jew.”
“Almost as benighted.” It was difficult to deny the difference between rejecting applicants on sheer religious grounds and rejecting them because they lacked a preferred set of social characteristics. Advocates of quotas did not question the right of Jews to a college education. Rather the issue was the right of certain Eastern colleges to preserve their unique character, which was Protestant and upper class. The problem was not simply that Jews were displacing upper-class Protestants. More important was the effect that this had for the reputation of the college. City College was stigmatized as “the Jewish University of America,” and the University of Pennsylvania was said to have “the democracy of the streetcar.” As these colleges lost prestige, they ceased to attract students from prestigious families.
One might assume that the President of Harvard was motivated by a sincere desire to preserve Harvard’s historic identity, rather than by anti-Semitism. After all, was he not the President of an institution with a reputation for liberalism and tolerance? Was this not the A. Lawrence Lowell who in 1902 warned his predecessor of the “great danger of a snobbish separation of the students on lines of wealth” and who, in his own administration, had constructed compulsory freshman dormitories and commons? And had he not, in the same commencement address in which he defended his proposal for selective admissions, also expressed the view that “Americanization does not mean merely molding [foreigners] to an already settled type, but the blending together of many distinct elements . . . [each] with qualities which can enrich our common heritage.”
However, considerable doubt is cast on Lowell’s motives by an incident that occurred on Christmas day, 1922. Traveling on the New York-New Haven railroad, Lowell was engaged in conversation by a man—Victor Albert Kramer—who, unbeknownst to Lowell, was both Jewish and a graduate of Harvard. Several weeks later, at a synagogue forum on discrimination against Negroes, Kramer described his encounter with Lowell. Thanks to the presence of a New York Times reporter, the event was reported in the press.
According to Kramer, Lowell predicted a worsening of conditions for Jews so long as they remained apart and resisted intermarriage. Jews had outworn their religion, he believed, and must give up their peculiar practices if they expected to be treated with equality. The man who, in his commencement address six months earlier, had extolled the contributions each immigrant group could make to the evolving American, now in private conversation asserted that a Jew could not be both a Jew and an American. Finally, he expressed satisfaction in the fact that New York University had reduced the Jewish enrollment and took credit for Harvard’s plan to do so likewise.
Lowell never denied the encounter on the train, though a statement issued by his office claimed that the newspaper report “grossly misrepresents his views.” The statement continued sanctimoniously: “His earnest desire is to see anti-Semitic prejudice and Semitic segregation abolished in this country, and he believes that Jews and Gentiles should work together to this end. . . .” In Lowell’s view “Semitic segregation” stirred up latent anti-Semitic prejudice. A ceiling on the number of Jews at Harvard was therefore in the interest of both groups.
While President Lowell disapproved of “Semitic segregation,” he was of a different opinion with respect to Negroes. Even before becoming President, Lowell expressed his dislike for the residential separation between Harvard’s wealthy students, who lived in lavish apartments known as the Gold Coast, and the less privileged students. His construction of compulsory freshman dormitories won him a reputation as a champion of democracy. But it was also Lowell who instituted a color ban in these dormitories. For the handful of Harvard’s black students, it was compulsory to find living quarters elsewhere.
Like the proposed religious quotas, the color ban became a cause célèbre. Negro civil-rights groups agitated against it, and 149 Harvard alumni signed a protest petition. But to no avail. As Lowell said in a letter to the father of one of Harvard’s black freshmen:
. . . I am sorry to have to tell you that in the Freshman Halls, where residence is compulsory, we have felt from the beginning the necessity of not including colored men. To the other dormitories and dining rooms they are admitted freely, but in the Freshman Halls I am sure you will understand why . . . we have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together.
Ironically, Lowell’s correspondent was himself a Harvard graduate and his son had received his previous schooling at fashionable Exeter Academy. Therefore it could not have been in response to a conflict between two cultures that Harvard chose to discriminate. The basic truth is that racial and religious prejudice was one of the underpinnings of upper-class society. On the surface upper-class Protestants may have been protecting their status prerogatives and their cultural symbols. But prejudice was a factor in the very definition of status, just as it was a factor in the choice of cultural symbols. Harvard was elite not simply because it was upper class and genteel, but also because it was predominantly white and Protestant. In the final analysis, the class origins and ethnic peculiarities of Jews were only of secondary importance. As Horace Kallen wrote in 1923:
. . . it is not the failure of Jews to be assimilated into undergraduate society which troubles them [President Lowell and his defenders]. They do not want Jews to be assimilated into undergraduate society. What troubles them is the completeness with which the Jews want to be and have been assimilated.
Practically all the political agitation over quotas was confined to a five-day period that began with the Harvard announcement raising the possibility that they might be instituted and ended with a decision by the college’s Board of Overseers to refer the issue to a special faculty committee. When the Board dramatically met in emergency session and announced that no changes in the college’s entrance requirements would be made until after the committee had reported, the opponents of quotas probably assumed that the administration was on the retreat. Whether by design or not, however, the committee functioned as a protective screen for the administration. It removed the issue of quotas from the public arena and insulated Harvard’s officialdom from public scrutiny and political pressure.
The six-page report issued by the committee after almost a year had passed was unequivocal in repudiating quotas as inconsistent with Harvard’s tradition of “equal opportunity for all regardless of race and religion.” Indeed, the authors of the report seemed to go out of their way to avoid any proposal that might even be construed as prejudiced by suspicious minds: “Even so rational a method as a personal conference or an intelligence test, if now adopted here as a means of selection, would inevitably be regarded as a covert device to eliminate those deemed racially or socially undesirable. . . .”
The report did not stop here, however. The committee’s assigned task was not simply to study religious quotas, but to review all of Harvard’s admissions procedures. This the committee did with apparent good conscience. It announced its opposition to the policy of giving preference to the sons of graduates, and recommended several minor changes in the college’s entrance requirements that were intended to upgrade the student body. These reforms, the report asserted, “would solve one part of our problem.”
The report continued: “The other part of the problem, namely, the building up of a new group of men from the West and South and, in general, from good high schools in towns and small cities, is more difficult.” The difficulty was that students from these regions did not receive a high-school education that, in quality or substance, prepared them for Harvard College. As a consequence they were unable to pass Harvard’s entrance examination. The committee’s solution was to waive the entrance examination for students in the highest seventh of their graduating class, if they had completed an approved course of study and had the recommendation of their school. The committee reasoned that such students had demonstrated their fitness within their own schools, and that “the best product is likely to succeed in college better than the poorer portion of the group admitted under our present examinations.” On this dubious assumption the committee felt confident that Harvard’s standards would not be lowered by accepting students who could not pass the usual entrance examination.
The men who drafted this proposal must have been aware that, if implemented, it would drastically alter the religious composition of Harvard’s undergraduates. Jews were overwhelmingly concentrated in the urban centers on the Eastern seaboard, and “to raise the proportion of country boys and students from the interior” would obviously reduce the Jewish representation. Other Eastern colleges had already employed this as a strategy for excluding Jews (between 1920 and 1922 Columbia instituted regional quotas, with the result that the Jewish proportion at the college was cut in half, from 40 to 22 per cent) and although no comparable figures are available for Harvard, there is no reason to think that its motives were different. It was not until the influx of Jewish students that Eastern colleges began to worry about achieving a “regional balance” and it was not until the crisis over Harvard’s proposed quotas that a student’s geographical background was deemed relevant to his admission to the college.
A policy of recruiting nationally can be, and often is, defended on legitimate grounds. It is said to increase the quality of the student body, to diversify and enrich student culture, and to extend the influence of the college at the same time opportunities are extended to deserving students outside the East. Whatever merit these arguments have, the concept of “regional balance” unquestionably originated as a rationale for discrimination and may well continue as such today.