Thursday, April 19, 2007

Jewish Quotas at Harvard in the 1920s
Gail Heriot

I recently did a book review of Jerome Karabel's The Chosen:  The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton that will appear in Academic Questions. What follows is an excerpt from my review concerning the Ivy League Jewish quotas during the 1920s and 30s.  Note that Harvard hid its quotas behind character assessments that call for "well-rounded" students, just as modern universities sometimes hide preferential treatment based on race behind so-called "holistic" review.


In her 1979 book, The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Marcia Graham Synott documented the efforts to exclude Jews at those institutions in great detail. If anyone had been naive enough to believe that the sudden reduction in Jewish students in the Ivy League in the 1920s had been an unintended consequence of some otherwise-legitimate admissions policy, Synott would surely have dispelled that belief. Now Karabel adds further detail to Synott’s already-extensive documentation.

As Karabel illustrates, some of the pressure to limit Jewish enrollment came from alumni. As an extreme case he quotes an alumnus who had recently attended the Harvard-Yale game:

"Naturally, after twenty-five years, one expects to find many changes but to find that one's University had become so Hebrewized was a fea[r]ful shock. There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me, in fact they were so obviously everywhere that instead of leaving the Yard with pleasant memories of the past I left with a feeling of utter disgust of the present and grave doubts about the future of my Alma Mater."

Like any college president, [Harvard's A. Lawrence] Lowell had to worry about the effect that such bitter feelings would have on fundraising. That's only rational. Alumni were the university's top donors; if they thought the beneficiaries of their generosity would be strangers rather than their children, grandchildren and students like them, they might become less generous. If students shared the alumni's bitter feelings, that too could cause problems. He warned:

"The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also. This happened to a friend of mine with a school in New York, who thought, on principle, that he ought to admit Jews, but who discovered in a few years that he had no school at all."

It's unclear whether or to what degree Lowell's fears of student and alumni abandonment were well-founded. His involvement in the Immigration Restriction League suggests that he may have had such feelings himself and hence over-estimated their hold on others. Lowell admitted that "the Hebrew problem" as he called it was not that Jewish students who passed the entrance examination had character defects as that term is conventionally defined. Their problem appears to be simply that they were Jewish and usually members of the working class. They didn't fit in among the polished sons of the established social elite. A common complaint was that they were "grinds," even "greasy grinds." In somewhat more modern terms, Lowell might have called it a "nerd" problem; the Jewish students just weren't cool.

He wanted to deal with the problem the same way he wanted to deal with immigration--by publicly adopting a ceiling on Jewish enrollment. But he encountered fierce opposition that he had not expected. Boston Mayor James Michael Curley declared, "If the Jew is barred today, the Italian will be tomorrow, then the Spaniard and the Pole, and at some future date the Irish." Samuel Gompers condemned the scheme on behalf of the American Federation of Labor. Newspapers across the country editorialized against it. And a frail [Charles W. Eliot, Harvard's previous presdient,] fought it with all the energy he had left in his nearly 90-year-old body. Obviously, many Americans, perhaps a majority, strongly favored non-discriminatory admissions policies. To its credit, the Harvard faculty rejected Lowell's plan.

Lowell needed a Plan B. And he had one--a disingenuous one. Instead of an explicit quota, he argued for

for a character assessment of each applicant--a test that he had previously suggested "should not be supposed by anyone to be passed as a measurement of character really applicable to Jews and Gentiles alike." It wasn’t that he thought the entrance examination system was not a good one. Indeed, he admitted that "apart from the Jews," there was no "real problem of selection, the present method of examination giving us, for the Gentile, a satisfactory result." He nevertheless wrote:

"To prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews, I know at present only one way which is at the same time straightforward and effective, and that is a selection by a personal estimate of character on the part of the Admission authorities, based upon the probable value to the candidate, to the college and to the community of his admission."

Lowell knew that such a plan would have superficial appeal to traditional Ivy Leaguers. Indeed, Princeton and Yale were already quietly imposing such a plan. Even Eliot had emphasized the importance of good character and leadership ability in students, though his administration did not take on the daunting task of deciding which applicants possessed those traits and which did not. Why not explicitly take them into account in the admissions process?

The problem, of course, was that while many at Harvard genuinely prized good character, it required willful blindness (especially in view of Lowell's explicit acknowledgment) to believe that admissions officers were going to try to measure good character fairly and honestly. It was all a ruse. Furthermore, there was a good reason that Harvard had not attempted to take character into account in the past except in the rare case of demonstrably bad character: It is devilishly difficult to do so. Efforts to employ objective measures can always be circumvented. Subjective measures will become too subjective, since admissions officers will tend to pick their personal favorites. In practice, "good character" at the Ivy League of the 1920s meant a diploma from one of the "right" prep schools and letters of recommendation from the "right" people. It meant being good at with a football. It even meant being tall and handsome. Most of all, it meant not being Jewish.

Lowell's plan was nevertheless adopted at Harvard in 1926–the year of Eliot’s death. Shortly thereafter, Yale's Dean Clarence W. Mendell paid a visit to Harvard's admissions director. He reported that Harvard was "now going to limit the Freshman Class to 1,000 .... They are also going to reduce their 25% Hebrew total to 15% or less by simply rejecting without detailed explanation. They are giving no details to any candidate any longer." Lowell had finally gotten his quota.

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Gail Heriot


I was just wondering about "diversity" and the old Ivy League quotas. Jews were vastly overrepresented in the Ivy League in the 1920's, right? --They were about 25% of the class, and probably about 5% of the population. Was that justification used? (they could also perhaps have used a geographic justification, if the Jews were heavily New York).

Bringing the Jewish fraction of the class down to 15% would make them only 200% overrepresented, in the eyes of those who like to count that way. What do supporters of current-day affirmative action think about that?

For that matter, if we're looking at current-day elite colleges, I suppose someone who really wants to get the fractions right ought to increase the number of non-Jewish whites (probably reducing the number of WASPS, though) and of Asians.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Apr 23, 2007 9:45:27 AM

The Ivy League admission policies in the 20s to control entry of Jews seems strangely familiar to arguments I've seen regarding the number of Asians at nranches of the University of California. By the way, the Ivies were not the only private universities practicing Jewish exclusion in the 20s and 30s or, for that matter, even I can personally attest.

Posted by: joe silverman | Apr 24, 2007 11:17:29 PM

In the late 70s early 80s I lived in Cambridge and attended the Unitarian church at Harvard Square. We had a member who was in his 80s, and who had worked in Harvard admissions in the late 20s. Nice guy, lots of stories. One of his stories was about why they required photos on the applications - to enable them to weed out the Jews. He told me, "We had a saying - 'they can change the "Moses", but they can't change the noses!'"

One other nice line was that Abbot Lawrence Lowell had three Massachusetts cities named after him, and they were? And the easy answers were Lawrence and Lowell, and then the third was happily supplied, depending on your audience, as either Athol or Marblehead.

Posted by: dave s. | Apr 25, 2007 8:17:32 AM