The Jewish Problem

In 1895 women's colleges were predominantly white-Protestant. By the late nineteenth century, Roman Catholics and Jews were entering the college in the single digits. Bryn Mawr hired a Jewish professor in the 1890s, and at the same college, a parent complained because her daughter was being forced to shared a room with a Jewish student. The President of the college didn't want to be part of the "religious controversy" and didn't see it necessary to make any changes to the living arrangements. However, in the end the students ended up living apart.

Gildersleeve faced many issues during her deanship. On the issue of college life, she faced the problem that students were "divided sharply among economic and ethnic lines", and that sororities were open to a select few (Lefkowitz-Horowitz 256). These sororities didn't accept Jewish students, even if their presence was prominent at the college. The sororities also left out those too poor to pay the fees. Sororities were ended within three years after Gildersleeve appointed a committee to examine the problem. The committee decided not to allow new students to join sororities.

In "Alma Mater", Lefkowitz-Horowitz points out that Barnard attracted more Jewish students than any other female college in the country. At the beginning, these were mostly German-Jews "who assimilated easily and enthusiastically: their presence formed part of Barnard's positive self-image as an urban college." During Gildersleeve's deanship Barnard attracted more poor students than those "ethnically conscious Eastern European Jews" (258).

The Christian Association at Barnard serves as proof of the diversity of the students in the college. Early on, Jewish students joined the Catholic Association. However, they were driven away by the fact that in 1912, members had to pledge themselves with the spirit of Jesus. They went on to form the Menorah, which was a religious and social organization.

In 1920 the "Jewish Problem" was experienced at Barnard, and there were allegations of anti-Semitism against Dean Gildersleeve, which could have been attributed to her comments about Jewish students.

There were many qualified applicants to the college, but Dean Gildersleeve made a distinction between two groups of Jews: Sephardic and German Jews, and those Eastern European Jews. She referred to the latest as "crude and uneducated" in a letter written to Annie Nathan Meyer, when Meyer asked for a donation for those Jews that were part of the American past. Gildersleeve's reputation followed her and in another letter to Annie Nathan Meyer she tried to explain that her other Barnard students were not benefiting because they compared poorly to the overachieving Jews attending Barnard at that time. There is no record that Barnard had a quota for Jewish students, however, there was wider recruitment which automatically reduced the number of Jewish students accepted at Barnard. At that time New York City's population was not reflected in the number of Jews at Barnard.

Annie Nathan Meyer, who was Jewish, served as a trustee until 1951. However there was tension between those early Jewish supporters of the college and those "members of the New York elite" seeking admissions. There was another Jewish member in the Board of trustees at Barnard, Jacob Schiff, who left in 1891. Not until the 1930s did another Jew joined the Barnard Board of Trustees. At this point Annie Nathan Meyer was distraught by the fact that the trustees would not use the name of a Jew for one of their buildings; instead, when renaming one of the student's halls, they called it Barnard Hall.

Under Gildersleeve, Barnard became a college in the line of Vassar and Wellesley, and it downplayed its "distinctive history and urbanity" (Lefkowitz-Horowitz 260). In 1925, Barnard continued to recruit non-New Yorkers. In order to fulfill the need of housing for those students, Hewitt Hall was built, which allowed one third of Barnard students to live in campus.

The problems at Barnard were only a fraction of the bigger picture: the phenomenon called "The Jewish Problem", also affected Columbia and New York City. Before touching on the "problem" it is necessary to make a reference to the history of admissions at the college. Nicholas M Butler was president from 1902 to 1945 and it is safe to say that Columbia's history is very much connected to his presidency.

Every decision taken in the history of the college has affected its future. Most of the reforms in the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century were geared towards facilitating admissions to those who demonstrated academic competence. Butler and its administration instituted a combined program between the college and the professional schools; he also worked closely with New York City High Schools to admit their students after graduation. There were not major concerns about ethnic or religious backgrounds since most Columbia students were born in New York or the surrounding areas. The Jews and Catholics attending Columbia were living in New York long enough to have assimilated socially, and therefore were "desirable" candidates.

There was a mass immigration in the 1880s which was not ignored by New York City. However, Columbia didn't foresee the "problem" to come. Columbia did not expect these people to seek an education, especially at Columbia. Those early reforms made by Butler only made it easier and convenient for these sons of immigrants to want to attend Columbia. By 1910 the NYC High Schools population was 50% children of immigrants. Most of these children would use these high schools as "vehicles" (Wechsler 206).

Why was the Jewish seeking education a "problem"? It could be that Columbia envisioned educating the leaders of tomorrow, and this group was not conformed by the type of person who makes a leader in the eyes of the trustees. It could also be that the trustees and the administration wanted students that came from "homes of refinement" as written in Frederick P. Keppel, "Students and Student Life," in Columbia (1914). These students from well-to-do families will also become the future alumni and contributors of the college. At the same time, many of these families didn't want their sons to associate or socialize with that "undesirable" group of Eastern European Jews attending Columbia. Keppel's document defends Columbia against charges that European Jews were swarming the University, which he saw as a problem. Apparently, Columbia felt pressured by both the Jewish community to accept their sons to the University, and by the New York elite who were sending their sons to schools outside the city.

According to Keppel the University had an equal share of Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Jewish students and he pointed out that enrollment of Jewish students was decreasing.

How could the Jewish student population decrease when the New York City population was increasing? According to Keppel, Jewish parents were sending their boys outside New York City to avoid the danger of "inbreeding," and maintaining their objectionable "family and racial traits." Perhaps parents had no choice but to send their sons elsewhere since Columbia was not opening its doors wide enough. Keppel makes it clear that he too believes that those Jews who lived in New York for more than one generation were desirable because they had assimilated to their social surroundings and were truly smart. On the other hand those recent immigrants were not intelligent, but ambitious, and lacked the social skills necessary to be part of the Columbia community.

Why was the Jewish population really decreasing? Columbia attempted to filter those Jews who were trying to "educate themselves beyond their intelligence," this according to a Letter from Columbia College Dean Herbert Hawkes to Professor E. B. Wilson in 1922. However, Columbia couldn't openly discriminate against this unwelcome group.

One of the fist steps to try to reduce the numbers of Jews into Columbia was to create new channels for students to go to. One of these channels was City College, which at one point was considered a contender and not a supporter. Another step was to send officers of the college to good preparatory schools to talk about the benefits of attending Columbia. Another way to limit the entrance of unwanted candidates was to attempt to change the terms of the Pulitzer award. These awards were granted to those students with the desire to educate themselves but didn't have the financial means to do it. Most of these students were attending NYC high schools and most of these would choose Columbia as their college of choice. Unfortunately for the administration, it was impossible to change Joseph Pulitzer's will.

The college also tried to offer scholarships to students from out of state and even Canada, failing in the efforts due to lack of funding. At one point, it was even suggested that only those able to afford living on campus would be considered for admittance, but Keppel was adamant in his decision not to allow this to happen. He believed that this would lead in the decrease of "desirable" students.

Not surprisingly, World War I brought both an accentuation of the problem and a solution to the "problem." Many American boys were seeking a career in the military and most of those applying to college were recent immigrants. Butler realized that changes need to be made in the admission policies procedures at Columbia.

Shortly after the declaration of war, President Butler made some significant changes to the admission policies. Columbia would no longer depend on New York City High Schools for their supply of students. Also, more information was required from students in the entrance application: place of birth, name of father, occupation, leadership role, interests… According to Wechsler, the question following the blank for Name was "To which professional school, if any, do you expect to enter later."

An essay explaining why Columbia was chosen was also part of the requirement, together with a picture, three letters of recommendation from high school, and very possibly, an interview (Wechsler 248).

Even though many colleges, including Harvard and Lowell, had adopted a quota for the number of students accepted for entrance, Columbia did not want to do it. However, a test developed by E.L. Thorndike was. Is it possible that a test could separate those who are intelligent and those who are pretending to be? Granted, every person has a different level of understanding, however student ambition is one of the driving forces behind education, then and now; which doesn't necessarily mean that a student is not bright. Yet this test attempted to recognize the intelligence that a person inherited at birth. It attempted to know what a person was capable to learn in the future and not what the person already knew.

From 1915 this test was part of the many requirements for admissions at Columbia. At this point, the funnel which students had to go through was getting very narrow. After the war Columbia was flooded with applicants by those young men returning and wanting to continue their education. The Columbia administration had plenty of individuals to choose from and it made sure that the chosen ones were of the "desirable" kind. By 1921 only 22% of Columbia's new students were Jewish. Finally, Columbia adopted a quota for Jewish and Catholic students seeking entrance.

There appeared to be a clear distinction among different groups of Jews, those who had been in America since the previous century and those recent immigrants. The problem not only extended to students but also faculty and trustees of the University. In Professor McCaughey's website we can find some documents pertaining to the "Jewish Problem".

In a Letter from President Seth Low to Trustee W. Bayard Cutting in 1901, President Seth Low recognizes the need for Columbia to represent its surrounding community. During his presidency Seth Low elected four Jewish faculty members. Columbia was aware of the continued allegations of anti-Semitism and in Low's letter there appears to be some sort of self interest in the matter of securing the support of the Jewish community by representing it in the Board of Trustees. However, the Board of trustees thought of themselves as part of an upper class above any other group in New York City (Wechsler 209). Not until 1928 was a Jewish trustee elected to the Board of Trustees at Columbia.

In the 1930s, in the period following World War II, the selective admission procedures were questioned by Jewish groups. Allegations of anti-Semitism and discrimination practices circled around Columbia. Columbia faced many anti-administration demonstrations by students. It is important to point out that Columbia may not be the place it is today if it weren't for many of the decisions taken by the administration early on. Columbia made a decision that in order to keep and attract a certain type of student, it had to get rid of those who were not desired as part of the college.

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Created By: Wendy J. Villa,
Profesor Robert McCaughey
Date: April 10th 2002