Commentary Magazine


Quotas and College Admission

To the Editor:

In reference to John H. Bunzel’s “Bakke vs. University of California” [March] and the subsequent discussion in your letters columns [July], I have yet to hear advocated the open admission of Jews to universities as a compensation for the injustices of the past—the numerus clausus, the quota, the gentlemen’s agreement, “the ark of the restrictive covenant.”

The advocate of affirmative action will immediately reply that Jews have already—or have always—achieved in higher education all that their proportion of the population entitles them to.

Yet from my years as college adviser and later as principal of a highly academic high school with a 90 per cent Jewish student body, I have some ironic memories. Nobody not a Jew—or somebody in my anomalous position—has any notion of the solidity and effectiveness of the discrimination against Jewish applicants to competitive colleges during the 40′s and 50′s—and of course before, though of that I have no personal knowledge. In those days a Jew from New York could hope for admission to Dartmouth or Smith or Harvard or Vassar or Yale only if he were extremely able and outstandingly vespiform. One virtue without the other was worthless, and he went to one of the city colleges or NYU. If he was not from New York, or perhaps Chicago, the Jew could not be rejected under the fiction of “geographical distribution,” and he had a better chance—but not a fair shake. Even if he had already broken one barrier and had achieved the status of applying from a posh boarding school, he had difficulties.

The climate slowly improved during the 50′s. But in the 60′s, when colleges became publicly conscious of their racial shortcomings and began courting black applicants, the places that had been opening up for Jews were awarded to blacks. College admission for a capable Jew became reasonable only after the colleges had been dismantled by political upheaval, depopulated by transfers and dropouts, or beggared by the Nixon-Arab depression.

For medical and law schools these observations obtain a fortiori.

By the 50′s, furthermore, most competitive colleges (except those like Princeton rejoicing in Old Southern ambience) were eager to get black applicants. My school never, to my recollection, had a black student rejected; some were accepted by colleges so competitive that they had serious trouble in keeping up after admission.

The percentage of Jews in American colleges may have been at least as high as the percentage in the total population. Covert quotas may thus have caused their administrators few qualms of democratic conscience. But the number of financially and intellectually qualified Jews rejected by prestigious colleges was a notorious scandal against which it was hazardous to protest, since a school that protested—and no outsider could readily get the facts to support a protest—would almost guarantee retaliation against its students. My one carefully researched and mildly phrased remonstrance to one proudly libertarian university hurt our applicants for years afterward.

Thus I cannot be persuaded to “open admission” or “affirmative action” by any rubbish of general social and historical guilt. In college admission, at least, Jews have suffered perhaps more than blacks; and quotas and other numbers games now would benefit blacks by excluding Jews.

What is chiefly involved is an economic and cultural question. It is not important, it is not desirable, to make college easy for large numbers. It never was easy for large numbers of poor Jews, who were driven by cultural tradition to work and sacrifice for education. It is demoralizing and disastrous to let colleges lure those who do not want it—whether they are rich Wasps or poor blacks. But it is socially desirable to make higher education possible for those who want it and need money to get it, whether they are poor Wasps or poor blacks or poor Jews.

Spencer Brown
Pleasantville, New York

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