16. Interwar Academe’s “Hebrew Problem”

Alma Mater/Spring 2014
March 24, 2014

16. The Interwar Colleges and “The Hebrew Problem(s)”

Last couple lectures on the interwar period and its reversion to a focus on undergraduates and the college scene, as opposed to faculty,  scholarship and the university’s place in the public arena

Contributing Factors:
Faculty overreach in asserting its “disinterested” authority in matters of state and policymaking;
Some public concern as to academe’s patriotism; its good sense; its morals/rectitude

University faculty assume a lower profile in the 1920s; less interest in influencing policymakers who
not much interested in them (exceptions – Hoover/Al Smith of NY)

Prominent university presidents looking to turn institutions away from graduate instruction:
Abbott Lawrence Lowell at Harvard (1910-1934)
Robert Maynard Hutchins at U Chicago (1930-50)
University of Wisconsin – Alexander Meiklejohn’s experimental college (1923-38)
John Erskine/John Coss/Irwin Edman at Columbia College

Little new federal funding for higher education; surge in new institutions at junior-college level accommodating increasing percentage of college-age Americans

Importance of athletics, especially football, in the public’s image of collegiate life

Another consideration – Organized fundraising starting in World War I war bond drives; put in the service of colleges soliciting alums in 1920s [Columbia slow into it]…. Appeals to alums on the basis of their experience aligning with the present campus scene (fraternities and reunions important), not its world-class  faculty or the school’s importance to the  nation’s defense or scientific supremacy…..or its diversity….

Top colleges not out front in anticipating sweeping social changes; more committed to holding the line,
especially when it came to the question, whose country is it, anyway?
At Columbia – “Who Owns New York?” – The Columbia Board of Trustees – The Last Stand of the Knickerbockers –
The Harvard Corporation/ Board of Overseers – The Last Stand of the Boston Brahmins
The Yale Corporation/Princeton Board of Trustees


Newcomers vs. Natives a perennial aspect of American life
Europeans vs. Native Americans – 17th century (Pequot War/King Phillips) in NE to Cherokee wars in Old Southwest/Little Big Horn in 1870s….

Post War of 1812 immigration – Germans and  Scandinavians and Irish – the most problematic
Opposition to Irish —  often desperately poor and uneducated – and Catholic – and politically ambitious – millions who “voted early and often” – set up their own educational system
Later supplemented by Poles and Italians (Eastern Europeans and Catholic) – continuous flow until the shortlived “Celtic Miracle” of the 1990s – My Barnard daughter inquiries….

Emancipated slaves and free African Americans – a special instance
If not subjugated, then segregated – black colleges in 1850s in North; in Reconstruction South; handfuls of Free Blacks in ante-bellum colleges (Oberlin/Bowdoin….)

The Jews
1. Tiny pre-revolutionary contingent of Sephardic Jews – Gerson Seixas/Nathans/Cardozos/Lopezes of Newport

2. German Jews in 1840s – better educated; high value on it; entrepreneurial/commercial experience;
Far fewer of them – quickly assimilated in many ways – sent some of their sons to the traditional colleges  (Harvard/Yale/Columbia)

By 1890s many of these German-Jewish families of financial means to have an impact on the cultural life of their cities

Banking – links to Rothschilds in Europe
Jacob Schiff
The Seligmans
The Kuhns, Loebs

Newspapers – The Sulzbergers/Pulitzers
But also important in other cities where they dominated the retail /department stores business

If  wealthy Jewish alums ready to make substantial contributions to their colleges, were their colleges ready to put them on their boards??
Or ready to appoint their sons to their faculty??
1880s – Outpouring of “pushed” immigrants from Czarist Russia and neighboring countries of rural, Yiddish-speaking, ghetto-dwelling Jews – to America in even worse shape than the starving Irish of the 1850s….
Concentrated in NEastern big cities – Boston/NYC/Philadelphia/Baltimore –

Two different groups of American Jews who presented the standing colleges with two different problems:

Problem 1. How solicitous to be to secure financial support from well-heeled German Jews?
Building naming?
Trustee election?

Problem 2. How welcoming to be to ambitious sons and daughters of the more recently arrived but academically ambitious Russian Jews?


“The Vanishing Wasp” was a third problem – especially at Columbia; especially felt by trustees whose sons not interested in Columbia

Two seemingly unrelated developments:

1. NM Butler a force — on college admissions front:
Development /adoption of standardized requirements and entrance exams — > College Entrance Examination Boards
Dropping of Greek as a prerequisite in 1890s – ditto Latin in early 1900s….
Some urban/public high schools now able to create college-prep tracks
Its best students could do as well as the prep school kids or privately tutored….
Had the grades/scores – How to keep them out??
Jews staying in high school through graduation – Irish and Italians into the workforce….

2. New York Regents Scholarships – generous stipend (1/2 the tuition?) if admitted to a private NY college
Helped make Columbia College affordable if —
commuted; worked on the side; stayed out of time-taking student activities;
got top grades for scholarship prizes along the way
If cut Columbia time short by going to free CCNY for two or thee semesters; then transferring to CC and going on to law or medicine after a total of six semesters ; even less prospect of these kids engaging in “the life of the college”
But top grades could get you into the CU law school; CU medical school likely had an unacknowledged quota for Jews, but chances better if excelled at CC; engineering school taken out of business of admitting applicants from high – only after three years in CC…..

1910 – At Columbia – 10% of student body Jewish; applicants on the rise
Elsewhere in NY, % higher (CCNY a majority; almost the same at NYU)

1917 Fall/Spring 1918 – pushing 35%??

1920 – NYC’s population 30% Jewish – Graduating high schoolers – 50-60%??

Problem 3: How to attract/retain the sons (and across the street at Barnard, the daughters) of old New York when both Colleges becoming so attractive to applicants decidedly not “old NewYork”??

Dean Keppell to NMButler, 1911–

Dean Hawkes to CU faculty member explaining CC admissions policy:

Registrar Liggett to Treasurer George A. Plimpton:


How done elsewhere:
Harvard used a quota system (15%?), although Lowell’s publicly calling for one in 1922  rejected by his faculty; Yale (10%) and Princeton (<5%) relied on their prep school feeders to provide them the WASP remnant

All colleges reported to their alumni the percentages….
How it was done at Columbia: à 25%
1. Application forms requiring information identifying ethnic/religious identity:
Language spoken at home; father’s birthplace; mother’s maiden name/birthplace
2. IQ tests – Culturally skewed questions – waived for prep schoolers
3. Photograph
4. Physical exam     4b. Swimming requirement??
5. Personal interview – applicants stirred to NYU, CCNY, or in 1930s, Seth Low JC in Brooklyn
6. Stated preference for applicants not from NYC – in the name of geographical diversity….
7. Cap on admissions  at 550 per class – “Sorry otherwise academically qualified applicant , the class is filled…”


An upper limit was placed on proportion  of Jews accepted each year into the College – 22 – 25%
Adhered to even in the Depression when Columbia hurting for enrollment income
Did  not retain/recapture the sons “of our kind” – lost to Harvard/Princeton/Yale (until  now)

Princeton/Yale  contrast – in 1930s, > 30% of admits as legacies; < 20% from public high schools

Princeton had more admits with fathers from Columbia than Columbia….

Did not slow the de-Protestantization of Columbia
By keeping down the numbers of Jews and not getting the wanted numbers of WASPs, CC administrators found themselves quietly making up their classes with more and more Catholics (25% in the 1930s)  — Italians/Irish/Polish

Restrictive policies abandoned after WW II without being acknowledged – and under legal pressure from American Jewish Congress and New York State anti-discrimination legislation passed in 1947….

CU quicker to put this chapter behind it than Princeton, Yale, maybe even Harvard??
Post-war Columbia faculty with lots of professors who went to CCNY (or comparable city colleges like Temple) for their college; then GI-Bill to graduate school; then to Columbia on their academic record…..

Benjamin Cardozo, 1928-1932
Arthur Hays Sulzberger  1944-
William S. Paley 1950
1980s – a majority?

Michael I. Sovern, 1980-93



Long-term consequences:
A discreditable aspect of the history of American colleges and universities;
On other hand
May have helped universities see the justice of opening its doors to African Americans in 1960s
Belated  – but earlier than some other institutions (country clubs/
On other hand

May have made post-war academics uncomfortable with “Affirmative action” initiatives to support access for underrepresented minorities and women….


Last updated; March 24, 2014


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