On Wednesday, Stanford University released a report documenting the university’s antisemitic practices to limit the number of Jewish students admitted in the 1950s. Those exclusions were followed by decades of denials intended to mislead students, alumni and the public. Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne called the antisemitism, an “ugly component of Stanford’s history.” He observed that the university must “acknowledge” and “confront” this chapter and “seek to do better.”
As scholars on the Stanford faculty who helped research and write the report, we see our work as similar to recent reckonings at Georgetown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton universities and elsewhere. Yet these isolated institutional research projects are, at best, only the beginning of what might be an ongoing undertaking by universities to contend with their pasts. In doing so it may be possible for higher education to repair its eroding relationship with the American public.
Public trust in universities has fallen precipitously in recent years. Steadily rising fees, ballooning student debt, shady dealings in selective admissions and growing dissent from conservatives about the leftward slant of the professoriate all contribute to souring sentiment toward higher education. Though there has always been the perception of a division between the “ivory tower” and the “real world,” our increasingly polarized society has seen the intensification of attacks on faculty and students and a lack of confidence in higher education that is unprecedented in the post-World War II era.
In the wake of this tumult, colleges and universities have begun to tap historians and social scientists to investigate their own, often deeply problematic, pasts. This is new. Universities claim to be custodians of timeless truths, yet they have been less than rigorous when telling their own stories because their real histories conflict with the sunny images the schools want to project. Yet being open and honest about the past can restore trust that universities are institutions focused on rigorous study and discerning the truth — even when it might paint them in a bad light.
For much of the 20th century, elite northeastern universities excluded Jews. Between the two world wars, admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and elsewhere went to great lengths to limit the number of Jewish students in entering classes. They required photographs, personal interviews and references of “character,” among other not-so-subtle ways to identify and screen out Jews, often dubbed “greasy grinds” or “Bronx Science Boys,” who were deemed not to fit prevailing WASP ideals of a masculine, athletic Christianity.
World War II did not so much eradicate antisemitism as alter its form. The plight of German and European-Jewish refugees strangely elicited disgust rather than empathy. By one account, antisemitism climbed in the 1940s and reached its historical peak in 1945.
But American universities also benefited from the prestige of scholarly refugees; by securing appointments in U.S. universities, these academic expatriates helped to solidify the preeminence of American higher education worldwide. Albert Einstein’s long and celebrated appointment at Princeton, and the storied expansion of the New School for Social Research as the “University in Exile,” are two prominent examples of the uneasy integration of Jews into American higher education.