Dean of Columbia College, Frederick P. Keppel, “Students and Student Life,”
in Columbia (1914)
One of the commonest references that one hears with regard to Columbia is that its position at the gateway of European immigration makes it socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement. The form which the inquiry takes in these days of slowly-dying race prejudice is, “Isn’t Columbia overrun with European Jews, who are most unpleasant persons socially?” The question is so often asked and so often answered in the affirmative by those who have made no effort to ascertain the facts that it will do no harm to speak frankly about it. In the first place, Columbia is not “overrun” with Jews any more than it is with Roman Catholics or Episcopalians. The University is open to any student of good moral character who can satisfy the entrance requirements, without limitation of race or creed, and it is to be hoped that this always will be so. No questions are asked and no records kept of the race or religion of incoming students, but it is evident that the proportion of Jewish students is decreasing rather than increasing. Each year more Jewish parents are realizing the advantages to be obtained from sending their boys away from home. The family and intimate social life of the Jews is so intense that there is a real danger of social inbreeding; family and racial traits which ought to be minimized are accentuated, and the Jewish prejudice against the Gentile, which is as real a thing as the prejudice in the other direction, is maintained.
By far the majority of the Jewish students who do come to Columbia are desirable students in every way. What most people regard as a racial problem is really a social problem. The Jews who have had the advantages of decent social surroundings for a generation or two are entirely satisfactory companions. Their intellectual ability, and particularly their intellectual curiosity, are above the average, and the teachers are unanimous in saying that their presence in the classroom is distinctly desirable. There are, indeed, Jewish students of another type who have not had the social advantages of their more fortunate fellows. Often they come from an environment which in any stock less fired with ambition would have put the idea of higher education wholly out of the question. Some of these are not particularly pleasant companions, but the total number is not large, and every reputable institution aspiring to public service must stand ready to give to those of probity and good moral character the benefits which they are making great sacrifices to obtain.
With the rapidly growing improvement in the economic condition of the Jews throughout the country, the problem of their assimilation in undergraduate life is one which will have to be faced by every college of the first class–and they will go to no other. It is hard, in fact it is impossible, to do away in a day with the prejudices of twenty centuries. It is particularly difficult in the intolerant period of youth, but harder problems have been faced and solved by the American community.