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Jared Lafer '11: A history of discrimination against Jews

In 2005, the New Yorker published an article by Malcolm Gladwell called "Getting In," which discussed admissions at elite universities. It cited Jerome Karabel's book "The Chosen," which argues that discrimination against Jews in the early 20th century gave rise to modern day admissions practices. I believe Karabel is correct, and a greater effort to acknowledge this unjust past is in order.

According to Gladwell by way of Karabel, the current era of admissions can be traced back to 1905, when Harvard "adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending." Other schools that would later form the Ivy League followed.

With a bit of pride I can say that this gave rise to a major increase in the Jewish population at Harvard — and presumably other future Ivy League schools — over the next 20 years. In 1908, Jews composed 8 percent of Harvard's student body; by 1922, that number rose to over 20 percent. (This proportion was determined by searching through admissions records and rating students on their likelihood of being Jewish.)

Gladwell says, "The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy WASP alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising."

Gladwell reports that measures were taken by Harvard to remedy the situation, including a 15 percent Jew quota, a decrease in scholarship funds available for Jews and a large effort to recruit students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. But, these were collectively unsuccessful. This led to the realization among Ivy League universities "that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit."

And so admissions underwent a major shift. The emphasis on academic prowess was supplanted, at least in large part, by an emphasis on personal character. According to Gladwell by way of Karabel, applicants were mandated to provide letters of recommendation, personal essays and a list of extracurricular activities, and asked to submit to an interview and supply personal information like "Race and Color," "Religious Preference," "Birthplace of Father," etc. To top it off, Harvard suggested that applicants send a photograph.

By 1933, "the percentage of Jews at Harvard was back down to 15 per cent."

To experienced college applicants, this should all sound familiar. Indeed, this application construction is still used today. Thus when we apply to college, we are participating in the very process originally intended to weed out Jews.

Now, I'm not going to evaluate the admissions system at Ivy League schools. Its ability to determine the best candidates for admission is beside the point. But I feel it is important to acknowledge and investigate the relationship between anti-Jewish discrimination and modern-day admissions practices. In fact, I believe it is even more important to acknowledge and investigate the relationship between anti-Jewish discrimination and higher education at large. I believe this for two reasons:

1) It will be historically valuable. No significant effort has been taken by Ivy League schools to examine their historical relationship with Jewish students. Outsiders like Karabel have certainly taken the initiative, but only in the narrow scope of admissions. Furthermore, internal reviews would undoubtedly bring a fuller light to the story.

2) We owe it to the victims and ourselves to learn from the past and never let this happen again. Jews are still susceptible to discrimination today and so this effort will be a vehicle for self-reflection and edification.

So what can we do? First, I concede that I haven't done the necessary research to know whether Brown particularly discriminated. Perhaps it was the exception — a distinct possibility in light of the liberal philosophies on which it was founded. Nevertheless, given that Brown was an elite institution, competing with and conforming to the standards of peer institutions (e.g., uniform admissions practices), and the fact that anti-Jewish sentiment was pervasive at the time, we likewise cannot deny the contrary possibility. Either way, I believe uncertainty about our connection with such an injustice alone should be enough to motivate us to do something.

Second, while I may not know for sure whether Brown discriminated, other elite schools sure did. So whatever is done should be done in an intermural manner.

With regards to what exactly to do, we should look to precedent. In 2003, Ruth Simmons appointed the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. According to the Steering Committee Web site, it "was charged to investigate and to prepare a report about the University's historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade."

A lot of good came from the Steering Committee's investigation, and I think the formation of a similar committee is warranted in the present context. To spell it out: the Ivy League should form an intermural committee to investigate its ties with anti-Jewish discrimination. Let us wash away the injustice through enlightenment.


Jared Lafer '11 is a philosophy concentrator from Manhattan. He can be reached at jared_lafer at brown.edu 

Updated Nov. 2 to correct "intramural" to "intermural."




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