Guest Voices

History Repeats Itself At Harvard

A landmark lawsuit alleging that Ivy League Harvard University discriminates against Asian American applicants goes to trial in October, thwarting months-long campaigns waged by the university to avoid a courtroom fight.

Filed by the group Students for Fair Admissions, it asserts that Harvard uses “racial balancing” to artificially determine the demographic breakdown of each incoming class.

Harvard’s campus

Admissions officers gave Asian-American applicants lower scores for personal traits such as “humor” and “grit” in order to offset their higher academic grades from tests. Through such means, Harvard sets a cap on the number of Asian Americans it will admit, the plaintiffs argue. They ask the court to bar colleges from being able to consider, learn about or even become aware of an applicant’s race.

Other major universities have also been accused of the practice.

We might see gifted Asian American students, in this as in many other respects, as the “new Jews.” Because similar underhanded practices kept Jews out of top-rated universities a century ago, a practice not discontinued at some until the early 1960s.

Abbot Lawrence Lowell

When Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell assumed the Harvard presidency in 1909, Boston “Brahmins” and alumni of elite boarding schools made up most of the student body.

In an attempt to diversify, the admissions committee of the day created the “Top Seventh Rule,” which required Harvard to reach out to those who finished in the top seventh of their class, regardless of school or location.

By 1922, Jews constituted over 21.5 percent of Harvard’s student body, while they were only around 3.5 percent of the U.S. population.

So in that year, Lowell sought to institute a Jewish quota. He had “discovered” that a major cause of antisemitism was the presence of Jews. “The antisemitic feeling among students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews,” Lowell wrote in a 1922 letter.

If they “should become 40 percent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense. 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 students.”

Abbot Lawrence Lowell and President Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Lowell contended that enrolling a high number of Jewish students would “ruin the college” by causing elite Protestant students to attend other schools.

Jews were widely regarded as competitive, eager to excel academically and less interested in extra-curricular activities such as organized sports. Non-Jews accused them of being clannish, socially unskilled and either unwilling or unable to “fit in.”

So new standards were put in place to put downward pressure on the “troublingly” high Jewish population and restore Harvard’s traditional demographics by requiring applicants to demonstrate “character and fitness and the promise of the greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education,” as well as good academic standing.

The new criteria would reward “leadership” and “well-rounded” candidates. They would be achieved through recommendation letters and interviews. As well, a passport-sized photo would be required as an essential part of the application.

Finally, to ensure “geographic diversity,” students from urban states were replaced by students from places with few Jews, such as Wyoming or North Dakota, who ranked in the top of their high school classes.

 Elite colleges also began to use legacy admissions during this period by giving preference to children of alumni — who were mostly not Jewish.

Through such subterfuge, most Jewish students could be rejected, without openly discriminating against them.

By 1931, Harvard’s Jewish ranks were cut back to 15 percent of the student body.

Not until the early 1960s did Yale University end an informal admissions policy that restricted Jewish enrollment to about 10 percent, according to the book Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale by Dan Oren, originally published in 1986.

The book describes a folder in the university archives, labeled “Jewish Problem,” that contained a memo from the admissions chairman of 1922 urging limits on “the alien and unwashed element.” The next year, the admissions committee enacted the “Limitation of Numbers” policy. Jewish enrollment was held to about 10 percent for the next four decades.

The campus of Princeton University

The same methods ensured informal quotas of Jews at other top-tier universities. At Columbia University during that period it fell from 32.7 percent to 14.6 percent. At Princeton, perhaps the most exclusive of the Ivies, the university had fewer than two percent of Jews in its student body in 1941.

University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor Jerome Karabel detailed this discrimination against Jewish students in his acclaimed book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, published in 2005.

By the 1960s, the Ivy League had ended its quotas for Jews, but now it’s doing the same thing to Asians.

Just as their predecessors of the 1920s always denied the existence of “Jewish quotas,” top officials at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the other Ivy League schools today strongly deny the existence of “Asian quotas.” But there exists powerful statistical evidence to the contrary.

Discrimination against Asian students, and not just by Harvard, but throughout higher education, has been an open secret for years. Like Jews, they come from cultures that prize education and academic achievement, and so proportionately, many work harder, study longer and care more about school.

Asian American students at Harvard

In response to the suit launched against it, Harvard contends that it does not discriminate but that “colleges and universities must have the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse communities that are vital to the learning experience of every student.”

Of course, in the 1920s, such schools also denied they were discriminatory. They just created vague excuses which effectively placed a quota on the number of Jews admitted. Back then, it was designed to keep out Jews. Today it’s Asians.

It seems history is repeating itself at Harvard.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island

Henry Srebrnik

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