A Little History of Jewish Enrollment in Higher Learning

"In Effort to Lift Their Rankings, Colleges Recruit Jewish Students." That was the front page headline from the April 29, 2002, Wall Street Journal. The article tells a marvelous tale of tantalizing ironies. "'Yes, we're targeting Jewish students,' Chancellor Gordon Gee told a March 17 board meeting of the Vanderbilt affiliate of Hillel, the nonprofit national Jewish campus organization. 'There's nothing wrong with that. That's not affirmative action. That's smart thinking.'" Later in the story, Gee, a Mormon who left Brown University to head Vanderbilt, indicated the effort was part of his "elite strategy" to move Vanderbilt into Ivy League status. "'Jewish students," he said, "by culture and by ability and by the very nature of their liveliness, make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life."

The irony arises from the Ivy League's historic efforts, from the 1920s until at least the end of World War II, to use "quotas" and other means to constrain the number of Jews attending Ivy League schools. One delights at how interesting it would be if one could listen to a conversation between Chancellor Gee and A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard's president in 1922. Eighty years earlier, Lowell's plans to establish a quota of 15 percent Jewish students at Harvard was derailed by Harry Starr, a second-generation Russian Jewish emigrant student. Starr learned of Lowell's plan and challenged it. He made the issue public and ultimately forced Lowell to back away from the quota. The retreat however, was only tactical. Shortly thereafter, Harvard and other Ivy League schools introduced "geographic diversity," refined standards for reviewing applications, and in 1926 adopted the SAT tests, all steps intended, at least in part, to accomplish the same result, namely, reduce Jewish enrollment....

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