Weeded From the Ivy Leagues


How the top schools in the country managed to keep Jews to a minimum.
by Laurel Leff

Book Selection: The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005)

I knew when I headed to Princeton for my freshman year in the fall of 1975 that the university had been, not too long before, an all-male bastion. I was prepared for that. I didn’t know that for almost as long, Princeton had been an anti-Semitic enclave that accepted few Jews and barely tolerated those it did admit. I wasn’t prepared for that.

During my three years at Princeton (I graduated as quickly as I could), I sensed that much of what made me uncomfortable with the University’s present stemmed from Princeton’s exclusionary past. But I assumed those practices—the selectivity of some eating clubs (the imposing houses where upperclassmen took their meals and enjoyed social activities), the social dominance of preppies from Exeter and Andover—resulted from an understandable, if regrettable, slowness in adapting to a changing society. I did not realize it stemmed from a deliberate policy maintained over decades and successive administrations to keep Jews out. Now, having read Jerome Karabel’s excellent book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, I know.

Braced for sexism, not anti-Semitism

At Princeton, I discovered preppies who felt entitled to be there not because they had worked hard to get there, but because their fathers had gone there and their grandfathers and even their great-grandfathers. I learned that they didn’t have to work hard once at Princeton either, because they had an assured place in their families’ very old, very lucrative businesses. And I also realized that preppies controlled the eating clubs. Some clubs wouldn’t admit women at all.

For those of us who grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, feminism shaped our worldview. Although we were too young to join consciousness-raising groups or burn our bras (by the time we were old enough to wear them, no one did), we were constantly on the lookout for sexism in our institutions and our boyfriends—and even understood the deep connection between the two. As a high-school debater I was braced for competing in an all-male world.  I didn’t always succeed either in winning my debate rounds or restraining the anger I felt when I lost because the judge didn’t like my high-pitched voice or my short stature but at least I knew what I was up against.

Living in a predominantly Jewish suburb in Southern California, however, anti-Semitism was the farthest thing from my mind. I barely knew any non-Jews, let alone experienced, their hostility. Jews dominated the only business in town the entertainment industry and its support sector of lawyers, accountants and doctors.  It never occurred to me, or to most of my friends, that being Jewish would make the slightest difference in our social and professional lives.

At Princeton, the shadow of anti-Semitism lurked behind many of the existing institutions. Even though quotas were long gone and one-quarter of the student body was Jewish (a high point, in fact), the exclusionary past was still present in rituals such as “bicker,” the process by which the eating clubs chose their members. Prospective club members were, grilled, and those without the proper social standing and social graces were dismissed.

Setting the record straight

In The Chosen, Karabel, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist, demonstrates how deeply entrenched anti-Semitism had been at Princeton and how hard it was for even a great institution to shake it. In the early 20th century, Harvard, Yale and Princeton realized that if they continued their practice of accepting anyone who passed an entrance exam, they would soon be overrun by ambitious, immigrant Jews arriving in the United States in growing numbers. So all three schools adopted policies to make sure that didn’t happen.

For the first time, they restricted the number of students admitted each year and chose them based, not upon academic merit, but upon intangible qualities of “character” such as leadership, athleticism and manliness. For the most part, Jews were considered too serious, too uncouth, too ugly and even too short (Yale kept track of students’ heights and boasted of the proportion of the class over six feet tall) to meet those standards. The exclusionary policies persisted for decades. Until the mid-1960s Harvard and Yale kept the proportion of Jews at a manageable 10 to 15 percent; Princeton, farther from urban centers and with a more hostile reputation, maintained an even more enviable four to five percent.

Things began to change in the 1960s as more Jews, and not coincidentally blacks and women, were finally admitted in more than token numbers. The Chosen chronicles those changes as well, but the role of anti-Semitism in shaping elite academic institutions is what is most revelatory and relevant about the book. Even as a teenager, I understood how my feminist values clashed with the prevailing power structures, but I didn’t realize how my Jewish values did. I didn’t grasp that being serious, studious and critical could make me an outsider at an institution that seemingly valued intellectual pursuits.

Left on the porch

For me, the most wrenching part of The Chosen was reading about the “dirty bicker” of 1958. That winter, the eating clubs didn’t make offers to about 40 students, including seven of Princeton’s 16 National Merit Scholars, who had gone through bicker. Students who didn’t receive a bid had to endure the embarrassment of being the only upperclassmen to eat with freshmen and sophomores in the school-run dining halls.  So the “unchosen,” most of whom were Jews, gathered on the unheated porch of Ivy, the most selective of the eating clubs, to learn their fate. They waited, angry, agitated and humiliated, as their fellow students argued late into the night over who would have to accept these undesirable “men in trouble.”

Learning of that excruciating episode, I realized why 20 years later, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy parties on that very same porch. And why, almost 50 years later, every Jewish woman should read this book.

About the Author

author_laurelLaurel Leff
Laurel Leff is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.  She is the author of Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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