The Supreme Court yesterday heard two combined cases dealing with the question of racial preferences in college admissions at Harvard and UNC. Although these cases do not specifically reference Jewish college applicants, there is a lot of Jewish American history tied up in these questions. Just about a hundred years ago, most of the Ivy League had quotas which limited the number of Jewish students that could be accepted. The concern as expressed quite forthrightly by the WASPs who controlled the Ivy League and other elite universities at the time, was that their institutions would be unattractive to the traditional upper class Protestant students if there were too many Jews. By 1919, 40 percent of Columbia’s undergraduates were Jewish and and 20 percent at Harvard. Shortly after, both schools created quotas that were aimed at keeping Jews to around ten percent of the student body.
Interestingly, some of the diversity measures that we take for granted today -- and that strike almost everybody as unobjectionable -- were originally instituted as part of the quest to reduce Jewish numbers at elite institutions. For example, geographical diversity; since 100 years ago the overwhelming majority of Jews in the United States were in East Coast cities, admissions offices broadened their recruitment efforts to the western and southern parts of the country.
This brief presentation of the history of Jewish quotas is not intended to take a position either for or against the current admissions practices of Harvand and UNC. I think racial and ethnic diversity in student bodies is a desirable thing but everything in life has a cost as well as a benefit. If a university decides that it is going to admit 2000 undergraduate applicants in a particular year, that is a finite resource. If some students are advantaged in the quest for admission, the inevitable corollary is that other students are thereby disadvantaged.
The myth in all of the discussion of college admissions is that universities could create a perfectly objective admissions system if they wanted to. First of all, racial preferences are not the only preferences which universities use. Many schools have “legacy” preferences as well for children or siblings of alumni (I jokingly tell my brother, who was admitted to Georgetown the year after I graduated, that he only gained admission because he was a legacy). Scholarship athletes receive preference, of course, but so do non-scholarship athletes as evidenced by the recent “Varsity Blues” scandal where students received admissions preference in sports like tennis, crew, and sailing in which they did not actually compete.
If an objective process was created, what would it look like? I did alumni admissions interviews for many years and in my opinion over 90 percent of the students I interviewed were capable of successfully doing the work. But less than ten percent of the students I interviewed were accepted -- and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason that would predict who was accepted and who rejected. In theory, Stanford is a more competitive school than Georgetown -- but one student I interviewed was rejected from Georgetown and admitted to Stanford, where he got his undergraduate degree. Lest one think that I had something to do with his rejection, I in fact rated him quite highly. He later went on to Berkeley Law, one of the Top Ten law schools in the country.
I’ll discuss “The Jewish Stake in the College Admissions Debate” next Thursday night in my “Contemporary Jewish Controversies” class.
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian