Commentary Magazine


Sarah Lawrence's Secret

To the Editor:

It is hardly a “secret” that, during the first half of this century, American private higher education discriminated against virtually every minority group, including Jews. That fact does not excuse the involvement of any college, including Sarah Lawrence, in this practice. It does, however, raise questions about the purpose of Louise Blecher Rose’s supposed exposé “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence” [May]. It is regrettable that, in resorting to sensationalism, Mrs. Rose missed the opportunity to examine the larger issues surrounding this tragic policy and to address the more important question: why did this practice exist in the presumably most enlightened segment of society, our colleges and universities? In place of a serious discussion of what Mrs. Rose describes as “an important piece of social history,” the article blends historical fact with inference and innuendo, concluding with the absolutely false suggestion that the college deliberately tried to suppress its past.

This inaccurate and shallow treatment of an important issue is appended to a series of distortions and caricatures attacking a college Mrs. Rose has repeatedly and publicly professed to love and admire. The denial of tenure to a faculty member is always a painful process, both for the college and the individual. Nevertheless, Mrs. Rose’s pain does not justify this kind of attack and we cannot allow these distortions to stand uncorrected.

Sarah Lawrence is a thriving and vital educational community. The cornerstone of the college is a superb faculty, noted for its unqualified commitment to helping students discover and develop their potential. Sarah Lawrence students, 40 percent of whom are on financial aid, represent a rich diversity of economic, social, and religious backgrounds. Despite their differences, they are united in their intellectual zest, their creativity, and their unfailing decency and good humor.

Sarah Lawrence is well-known for having introduced the concept of individualized education to American education. Its seminar and tutorial system is made possible by a student-faculty ratio that is one of the lowest in the country. We continue to act on the belief that the cloth of education must be cut to fit the individual and that genuine learning engages both the intellect and the imagination in the service of truth, quality, and compassion.

We are sorry if this rich and unique education failed Mrs. Rose. Even more, we are sorry that, in both purpose and product, the article failed to meet the standard of scholarly excellence and integrity that Sarah Lawrence expects of its faculty, students, and alumni.

Alice Stone Ilchman
President
Sarah Lawrence College
Bronxville, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I suppose Louise Blecher Rose wouldn’t want to join any tenured faculty that would have her as a member—and perhaps this is understandable.

Before inviting her to write a history of Sarah Lawrence, I had read some of her work and found it amusing. My hope was that she could produce a light-hearted send-up of the typically dull, self-congratulatory histories which surface when colleges find themselves at silver, gold, or other precious-metal anniversaries. Having read a goodly number of such I knew what I had in mind but, alas, obviously didn’t communicate it to her.

The submitted draft was a disappointment—neither witty nor funny, with a bland juvenile reminiscence of college days and a journalistically dull exposé of early-day anti-Semitism.

With respect to the last, who would deny that until well after World War II American private higher education was anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-Catholic—indeed almost anti-biotic, save for those special specimens extracted from North European life-stock? And who can deny that Sarah Lawrence, more than most, should have found these practices unacceptable to its educational principles?

But surely Mrs. Rose knew those principles grew from the ideas of Whitehead, Dewey, and Newman—ideas which were grafted by a few gifted teachers upon the gnarled rootstock of know-nothing primitive Americanism. The marvel is that the graft took so well, transforming a fledgling institution into a serious intellectual enterprise whose pioneering ventures are now replicated broadly throughout higher education. This is the story, and Mrs. Rose missed it.

Mrs. Rose’s recitation of the college’s inadequacies lies, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. That she did not develop a useful course of study, that she did not overexert, that she did not see a status in the future equal to the one she had “already achieved as a nineteen-year-old Sarah Lawrence student” are sad recognitions, but nonetheless of her own making. Perhaps Mrs. Rose would have been better served by attending a college where SAT’s are held in awe, and where exams can winnow the Gentile chaff from the Jewish wheat.

The life of a small college is perilous indeed, but from what I saw of it over a decade, I think Sarah Lawrence (even with a clay toe or two) has made a contribution to American education immeasurably larger than its size or foibles.

In sum, the cookie Mrs. Rose so righteously crumbles is stale and her grapes of wrath are sour.

Charles DeCarlo
President Emeritus
Sarah Lawrence College
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

As an Honorary Trustee of Sarah Lawrence College and a long-time reader of COMMENTARY, I was offended and angered by Louise Blecher Rose’s article. What would possess a responsible magazine to publish an outrageously mean-spirited, vengeful article by a teacher who was only recently denied tenure? Surely the information that Sarah Lawrence, along with most other colleges in the 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s, had quotas for Jews is not news, and the patently subjective diatribe of an employee with an ax to grind is unworthy of publication.

There is a distinction between censorship and the editor’s duty of self-restraint to forgo publishing material that can have as its only purpose not the enlightenment of the public but the defamation of an outstanding institution. You owe an apology.

Saul Z. Cohen
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Even though Louise Blecher Rose’s quotation from my letter of some three decades ago, found in the college’s records, portrays me in a favorable light, I am deeply concerned that a less than attentive reader might form the impression that I share in the many disparaging remarks made about the standards, the practices, the aims, and values of the college.

If Mrs. Rose’s sweeping indictment had merit, I would hardly have encouraged three of my daughters to graduate from Sarah Lawrence. I would not, myself, have spent eighteen most fulfilling and rewarding years there.

Carla Pekelis Seitz
Professor Emeritus
Sarah Lawrence College
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Jewish quotas in the past of prestigious colleges? Disgraceful, but scarcely a closely-held secret. Perhaps more worthy of scrutiny is the actual experience of Jewish students who attended these schools so many years ago.

I was a Jewish student at Sarah Lawrence from 1950 to 1954. Unlike my Jewish friends at other colleges, I found at Sarah Lawrence a very high proportion of Jews and, even more important, an atmosphere completely free of institutionally-fostered anti-Semitism. While my friends at other colleges told me nasty tales of exclusionary practices, I enjoyed a campus that on principle had no sororities, no exclusive clubs, no secret ceremonies. While my friends at many of these prestigious colleges felt they had to blend in by pretending to be Gentile in their speech, their manner, and their clothing, I was encouraged to be myself, valued for who and what I was and could become.

The commitment to civil liberties the college preached was practiced daily on its own campus. I was editor of the college newspaper. My closest friend, also Jewish, was president of the student government. Indeed, in the early 1950s, when Sarah Lawrence was one of the few institutions actively defending its teachers against McCarthyism, we were often labeled with opprobrium as “that Jewish school.” Therefore, it seems particularly ironic to me that Sarah Lawrence should be singled out for censure on the quota issue and that we should have to defend ourselves today against charges of anti-Semitism for that same period of history.

Both Louise Blecher Rose and I are alumnae who returned to Sarah Lawrence—she eight years ago to join our distinguished writing faculty, I this past fall to join the administration. Given her scathing characterization of the college, I don’t know why Mrs. Rose returned and stayed, but I know why I have. Once again, I have found an institution that practices what it preaches—respect for individual difference and demand for individual excellence—an institution quite unlike the one Mrs. Rose describes in COMMENTARY. But then, administrators are on yearly contracts; thus their view is unclouded by questions of tenure.

Marilyn Katz
Dean of Studies and Student Life
Sarah Lawrence College
Bronxville, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

This year I have been teaching a former student of Louise Blecher Rose, a fine, hard-working, serious young woman who valued her year with Mrs. Rose and decided to stay on at the college because of that good experience and because Mrs. Rose herself urged her to stay. I had heard this from a number of students, and I regret that Mrs. Rose did not mention in her piece how very satisfying it is to teach in our tutorial-conference system, so special to Sarah Lawrence.

As I look back at my own thirty-five years at the college, I find that most of my students were serious about their studies. I can name many who have achieved outstanding careers in academic and other fields, and a very much longer list of people whose lives undeniably have been enriched by their four years here. Of course, there were some few like those who warranted Mrs. Rose’s caricaturing pen. Such students may exist at any private college, but as I think about it, we have had surprisingly few at Sarah Lawrence.

I regret that Mrs. Rose did not do credit to those of her students who appreciated her teaching and, through her, came to appreciate the college’s unique education.

Meyer Rabban
Member, Psychology Faculty
Sarah Lawrence College
Bronxville, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

What a scoop! Anti-Semitism during the 1930’s in American colleges!

Congratulations on upholding courageously the proud tradition of yellow journalism. In “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence” Louise Blecher Rose manages to meet all the criteria listed in the American Heritage Dictionary as characteristic of “yellow journalism”: she “exploits, distorts,” and “exaggerates” the facts “to create sensations and attract readers.” In addition, she pulls things grossly out of context, makes a number of rather nasty, completely unfounded generalizations about the character of everyone associated with Sarah Lawrence, and, best of all, she chooses to invent much of her material herself. It’s much more fun that way!

It is a shame that Mrs. Rose is so immature that she cannot distinguish between her own personal shortcomings and those of her school, so immature that when she fails to receive tenure she must throw an adult temper tantrum in the print media (despite Mrs. Rose’s bitter feelings to the contrary, the last thing a school would do if it wanted to hide information would be to deny tenure to the holder of that information). Perhaps her “history of the college” was rejected for being too completely an account of her personal experience, just like her COMMENTARY article.

Why, after eight years of teaching there, did Mrs. Rose suddenly decide to go public with the pathetic absurdity of Sarah Lawrence? Why did she wait so long to let the world know just how dirty Sarah Lawrence students are, just how Marxist the faculty is? Could it possibly have something to do with bad feelings she harbors as a result of being denied tenure?

As a student at Sarah Lawrence, I applaud Mrs. Rose’s apparent goal of exposing hypocrisy in the school. I am sure some exists, and pointing out hypocrisy wherever it turns up, is very important in formulating philosophies and policies—whether in one’s own life, in government, or whatever. However, Mrs. Rose has failed completely in her attempt at expose, and instead has come up with a vicious intermingling of some terrible historical facts, some truths about the present, and a cauldron full of outright lies and unjustified innuendoes about Sarah Lawrence. I do hope she finds a new and personally satisfying job very soon. Perhaps as a staff writer for the National Enquirer. . . .

Leo Shapiro
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I am a freshman at Sarah Lawrence and find it a complete disgrace that you would allow Louise Blecher Rose’s article to be published.

Mrs. Rose lashes out at virtually everything imaginable and consequently leaves the reader wondering why the article was written in the first place. Is she attacking the admittedly discriminatory practice of admitting only a certain percentage of Jews to the college (a practice, by the way, embraced by the majority of academic institutions at the time and disbanded by Sarah Lawrence in 1958) or is she protesting the fact that one of her students happened to write about a homosexual experience in her fiction-writing class?

It’s interesting to note that despite Mrs. Rose’s “horrifying” research into “the secret life of Sarah Lawrence,” she applied for tenure here this past year. Alas, she was denied her wish, and the hurt arising from such a denial appears to have resulted in this woman’s frenzied bit of yellow journalism.

Jennifer L. Douglas
Bronxville, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

As a Sarah Lawrence student, I was angered and saddened by the view of the students and administration taken by Louise Blecher Rose. . . .

It is very hard to respond rationally to such allegations, especially when the impact is so personally felt. Yet I know that the majority of students on campus do not fit into the stereotype into which Mrs. Rose is trying to pigeonhole us. One of the reasons Sarah Lawrence students may at times appear disheveled in our personal and environmental appearances is that we have been up all night finishing what we feel is important work for our professors, and our first concern is to finish our work and attend class—as well it should be, for we are at Sarah Lawrence to get an education.

If we are neurotic, it is because we are learning more and more about ourselves and the world—and the assimilation of this knowledge is not an easy thing. The process of maturation is not a simple one, and Mrs. Rose, more than anyone else, should be able to understand that. Aside from learning about ourselves, it is very difficult to continue working and learning in a world like ours. We live with the ever-present horrors of countries like Chile, South Africa, and Kampuchea on our television screen. We are constantly confronted with both physical and emotional violence on the news and in our own lives. And we are nearly paralyzed by the fear that we will one day all be blown up by situations that we feel are beyond our control. If we are neurotic, it is because we care and are concerned about these issues. . . .

I am also surprised to hear Mrs. Rose say that she all but floated through her career here at Sarah Lawrence. If she did, then it was her loss. Speaking as both an academic student and a performing artist, I don’t feel that there are any easy courses here—nor should there be. All the departments try to challenge the student to want to learn, to want to do more. I also strongly disagree with the idea that people who concentrate on the performing arts have an easier time of it. We spend more time in individual and ensemble rehearsals, are required to do technical work for shows, and have more components in our courses. This is all done in addition to our academic course-work, which is accorded a position of equal importance. . . .

As for the last section of the article, I, as a black woman, did not find it at all surprising that Sarah Lawrence once had admissions quotas for Jewish students. I was more surprised—and proud—to discover that Sarah Lawrence had been among the first to drop quotas as a means of discrimination. . . .

Claire Rodman
Bronxville, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

In her article, Louise Blecher Rose mentions a film shown at a gay film festival at Sarah Lawrence. She calls the film Dyketectics. The correct spelling is Dyketactics, and it is an aesthetic, upbeat, four-minute masterpiece by lesbian avant-garde film-maker Barbara Hammer . . . whose work has been critically compared to that of Maya Deren. If one were to look at this film—one in a body of work of some thirty exquisite experimental films—with some sense of artistic appreciation rather than with a preconceived prejudice against lesbians, one might find oneself aesthetically enriched by it. I rather suspect that Mrs. Rose never even viewed the film.

Barbara Hammer is a serious film-maker of enormous talent and energy. It is a reflection on the integrity of Mrs. Rose that she did not research the film before so offhandedly mentioning it in a snide and pejorative way. Dyketactics is about as far from “sunburned penises and unhappy childhood memories . . .” as one could imagine. Dyketactics, as many of Barbara Hammer’s other erotic women’s films, is proof that there is a difference between pornography and eroticism, art and vive la difference! Barbara Hammer’s films exemplify segments of women’s culture which are freed from patriarchal and masculinist propaganda which suppress, negate, trivialize, and revile it. Her films are uplifting and life-affirming, and Dyketactics is a fine example of what one woman’s and one lesbian’s artistic sensibility can create when eschewing patriarchal influence.

Batya Bauman
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Over the years, although I have found COMMENTARY’s editorial policy a great deal too conservative for my moderate philosophy, and I have disagreed more than agreed with it, at least the positions and the views expressed in the articles you chose to print had some intellectual basis. Such can certainly not be said for “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence.”

Perhaps this diatribe by an ex-Sarah Lawrence professor, venting her dismay at being refused tenure by the college, gave you a certain amount of indignant satisfaction because it accused Sarah Lawrence, well-known for its liberal policies, of moral hypocrisy. In other words, because it gave you a chance to really “give it to those liberals.”

This, however, . . . is no excuse to . . . print a dishonest piece which smacks of “yellow journalism”; and in doing so to strike a low blow at a fine academic institution which, like so many other small, private, liberal-arts colleges, is having a tough enough time these days struggling for its existence.

The facts are, of course (if you had bothered to check them), that during the 20’s, the 30’s, and the 40’s (the period the author selected), there was hardly any private college in this country which did not have a “Jewish quota.” In other words, why pick on Sarah Lawrence? What about Harvard, Princeton, Williams, Bennington, Swarthmore, etc., etc., etc.? Secondly, Sarah Lawrence was, in fact, one of the first private colleges to recognize that the policy of religious or ethnic discrimination was morally wrong and eliminated all discriminatory practices in admissions more than a generation ago. The very fact (quoted by the author) that between the 30’s and the 50’s the percentage of Jewish students admitted to the college increased from 1 percent to 10 percent to 50 percent attests to this.

I suggest that your indiscriminate acceptance of Louise Blecher Rose’s emotional outburst has left you and your editorial staff in a highly compromising position, and that you owe Sarah Lawrence a public apology.

Frank M. Goldsmith
White Plains, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I am shocked at the editorial irresponsibility your publication exhibited in the article alleging anti-Jewish discrimination at Sarah Lawrence College. . . .

As one of the finest, if not the finest, private fine-arts college in the New York City area, the obvious truth is that Sarah Lawrence has drawn students of Jewish background since the 1930’s and 40’s. Many Jewish graduates of the college have distinguished themselves in the arts. . . .

Some years ago the New York Times ran a poisonous article by the novelist Anne Roiphe accusing Sarah Lawrence of being a hotbed of gay student activity. The article was a venomous and pathetic example of a writer of mediocre talent attempting to promote herself by making a splash at the expense of her alma mater. . . .

How dare you publish such a piece of obvious trash which impugns the integrity of this quiet, excellent little campus? . . .

Greta Litchenstein
Greenwich, Connecticut

_____________

 

To the Editor:

What great bunches of sour grapes Louise Blecher Rose tosses about. Indeed, what a hypocrite she must be if she went through the college doing nothing but sunbathing, talking to classmates and teachers, wandering around Bronxville staring at mansions, never staying up late to study or exert herself. If she believed Sarah Lawrence was on another planet, that academic life did not relate to the outside world, that her college years were an extended vacation, more is the pity that Sarah Lawrence chose her as a member of its faculty. The college is to be censured for this—rather than for its quota policy.

Why did she stay for eight years? Clearly the tone of her article is that of the injured Jew, and I grow weary and sick of this sort of attitude among Jews.

It is strange, but when I attended Sarah Lawrence from 1945 to 1948, I did not have time for sunbathing. Indeed, I didn’t know that Bronxville had mansions. I knew that Sarah Lawrence was very much a part of the world and the community; its instructors (unlike those in other universities) were a part of the American scene. Rudolf Arnheim, Marc Slonim, Horace Gregory, Robert Fitzgerald, Helen Merrill Lynd had much to teach and impart. The divergent groups on campus were exciting to me, the most important part of a liberal education, and I found friends in all groups—friendships I maintain to this day.

Sarah Lawrence was anything but “implausible.” It gave me the background, the impetus, the wherewithal to give back to the many communities where I have lived a small portion of what it gave me. Nor does it need to “redeem its own past.” It should be grateful that Mrs. Rose has left; that can be its redemption, if one is needed.

Myra Cohn Livingston
Beverly Hills, California

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . Those who were at Sarah Lawrence in the 50’s, when I was, experienced a generous Jewish population, a Jewish dean who later became president, and better opportunities than in many other colleges (perhaps any) for blacks. We lived through the McCarthy period, which was a nightmare for most educational institutions, and during which special prejudicial attention was given to Sarah Lawrence.

We, like most of our peers, chose to go to the college because of an intellectual atmosphere which gave us the opportunity to study with professors who wrote definitive social histories (Robert and Helen Lynd) and did definitive work on religion and mythology (Joseph Campbell). Other scholars have become giants in their fields, like William Rubin who, as director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, developed the Picasso exhibition of recent years. Our dean, Esther Rauschenbush, conceived of the programs which laid the base for Continuing Education as we know it today.

The issue of discrimination is part of the history and guilt of all American institutions, and Sarah Lawrence shared some of the burden in its early years. But taking it out of historical context is both poor reporting and poor judgment. . . .

Nina Freedlander Gibans
Shaker Heights, Ohio

_____________

 

To the Editor:

It must have taken a great deal of courage for Louise Blecher Rose to write and for COMMENTARY to publish “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence.” Congratulations on an extraordinary piece of work.

For those in my generation, the article inevitably revived unhappy memories of the ordeal of seeking admission to colleges and graduate schools in America in the 20’s and 30’s. The “quotas” and “geographical-distribution” techniques for discrimination were rampant—and it hurt deeply for Jewish and other minority youngsters to know they were rejected while applicants with lower grades and poorer scores were accepted.

After the war, when I was in a position to do something about it, as a young staff lawyer, I vented my feelings to Charles D. Breitel, who was then chief counsel to Governor Dewey of New York. Breitel listened quietly. He understood the situation thoroughly. The governor listened too, and in a special message to the legislature . . . courageously proposed legislation to establish a commission to study the need for a state university. The word “courageously” is used in its proper sense. The idea of a state university was anathema to the private colleges and other powerful groups, including the New York Board of Regents.

The legislation to create the commission was introduced and enacted. . . . Two years of discussion and “studies” followed. After a tremendous effort by the Association of Private Colleges to derail the recommendations of the commission, a bill was enacted to prohibit discrimination in the selection of applicants for admission to colleges and universities. It was this antidiscrimination legislation which turned the tide. The new law, the first of its kind, prohibited inquiry into race and religion. Suddenly it became unlawful to demand photographs and to press seemingly innocuous questions—i.e., “Where were your parents born?” Within a short period of time, Columbia and other universities were handling admissions on a computerized basis reflecting objective criteria—grades, SAT scores, etc. . . .

But the struggle was not yet over. In the years ahead, the battle would rage over the appropriation of monies to create new four-year liberal-arts colleges and to take over and enlarge medical-school facilities in Brooklyn, Buffalo, and Syracuse.

Mrs. Rose has written an article on one of the darker sides of American academic history. Sarah Lawrence was not alone. Many other colleges were equally guilty—but Sarah Lawrence held itself out as a citadel of liberalism. John Sloan Dickey of Dartmouth, if I recall correctly, spoke of the need to maintain the traditional character of Dartmouth’s student body, and I believe that William Wallin, later chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, spoke at the 1938 New York State Constitutional Conventon on the “right” to be selective. The evil lay in the fact that decent people remained silent in the face of the hypocrisy and cant of institutions which were regarded as centers of learning and truth.

George M. Shapiro
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

From the perspective of my research on the history of Swarthmore College, the issue of the existence of a Jewish quota at Sarah Lawrence seems hardly surprising, much less shocking. Effectively all good, small, private colleges during the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and into the 50’s used various forms of “restrictive principles” to limit the numbers of Jews in their student bodies. At Swarthmore, this became an open issue, under student pressure to abandon the quota system, between 1947 and 1951.

In 1949, the student newspaper reported the then dean of men as saying that “approximately one-third of the applicants to this college are Jewish; that the percentage at present of Jewish students in the college is approximately 14, and that this figure has risen from a onetime 6.” The dean added that “these figures show the existence of a ‘restriction principle,’ but denied that there is any set quota governing the acceptance of Jewish applicants” (Swarthmore Phoenix, December 14, 1949).

Whether the intent of the differential application of admissions criteria to different cases was specifically to exclude Jews, or whether such exclusion was merely an artifact of an attempt to produce a heterogeneous campus community, was and is a matter of sharply divided opinion. However, the idea that the removal of religion as an admissions criterion would rapidly result in a predominantly Jewish student body was repeatedly put forth.

The controversy ended in 1951, when the administration announced to the Board of Managers its decision to discontinue asking the religious preference of applicants on the admissions-application form. (The question of membership in the Society of Friends was maintained.) At present, though it is impossible to say with certainty, it is commonly reported that about one-third of Swarthmore students come from Jewish families. Preference in admissions is still given to qualified Quakers and children of alumni.

Perhaps the acute embarrassment of the Sarah Lawrence administration over this issue stems from two facts: (1) that they continued the quota system up to at least 1956, several years after Swarthmore and other institutions had done away with its more blatant manifestations; and (2) that they never (apparently) took a formal policy stand against it.

By the way, my own alma mater, Antioch, had already ceased using religion as a criterion in admissions when it was still a hot issue at Swarthmore.

Regina Smith Oboler
Swarthmore Oral History Project
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

_____________

 

To the Editor:

“The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence,” sadly, is a shared secret. Wellesley has its own file of documents that testifies to a persistent pattern of discriminatory admissions that still keeps the proportion of Jewish students shockingly low.

Precise statistics were kept between 1936 and 1967. Before World War II, 9-11 percent of Wellesley students were Jewish. The college president conceded: “I presume there is a sense in which it is true that we have a quota. . . . We try to keep the number [of Jewish students] within approximately 10 percent of the number of students admitted.” In 1946, the college denied any “absolute quota of Jewish students,” but noted “a conscious effort on the part of the Board of Admissions to keep the percentage of Jewish students small enough so that segregation and prejudice will be at a minimum within the college.” Lest the logic of this position be elusive, amplification was provided: “Any group characterized by identifiable physical features” required reduction in size so that its members “become individual,” rather than targets of prejudice.

The largest spurt in Jewish admissions was during the 1950’s, when between 15 and 20 percent of Wellesley students were Jewish. By Massachusetts law—which the president of Wellesley opposed—it was no longer legal to request information about race or religion from applicants. After admission, however, “church preferences” were still tabulated. Asked for the figures, the college president claimed not to know “the exact percent of Jewish students,” despite the careful records that were maintained.

From 1960 to 1967 the percentage of Jewish students declined from 17 to 13 percent; according to current “guesstimates” it is now 10-12 percent. The attitude of Wellesley presidents also declined. One of them, contemplating a Jewish chaplain on campus, wondered about Jewish weddings in the college chapel (denominationally Protestant). The “canopy problem,” she observed, required “experience in merchandising so that we can get full value.” Even more compelling was “the ritual smashing of glassware.” “Will the floor of chapel have to be resurfaced,” she asked, “in order to provide the resistant surface on which such breakage can be achieved?”

By now, neither quotas nor principles of geographical distribution are necessary. Jewish high-school girls go elsewhere. The current low percentage of Jewish students at Wellesley probably reflects the applicant pool, which surely reflects the college’s history. Jewish freshmen, with their classmates, usually attend convocation, the first formal academic event of the year. It is always held in the college chapel. When I last inspected, the floor surface was very resistant.

Jerold S. Auerbach
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Massachusetts

_____________

 

To the Editor:

It is no secret that geographical quotas were adopted by prestigious colleges in the 1920’s in order to keep down the number of Jews (see Stephen Steinberg, “How Jewish Quotas Began,” COMMENTARY, September 1971). But it was quite surprising to learn that as recently as 1956 administrators at Sarah Lawrence College knew that their admissions quotas concerned Jews and not geography. If Sarah Lawrence knew what it was doing in 1956, did Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale? Do they today?

I find it strange that geographical balance is considered to be inherently desirable. Why should it be? Is a school any worse if New Yorkers—or Jews, for that matter—are overrepresented? After all, nobody cares whether there are disproportionate numbers of Orientals or New Englanders.

Private universities are quasi-public institutions. They are partially funded with government money and fulfill a recognized public function. A school that maintains policies established for anti-Semitic reasons must be considered suspect, even if the justifications for such practices are entirely innocent today. Colleges with geographical admissions quotas are the only institutions in the United States that officially preserve measures once designed to discriminate. It is illegal for them to receive public support.

George Jochnowitz
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Why did Sarah Lawrence attempt to suppress Louise Blecher Rose’s discovery of its old admissions quotas for Jewish students? Did Sarah Lawrence naively imagine that Mrs. Rose’s dismissal would assure the secrecy of its discriminatory policies?

In the past, the college’s former faculty and alumni have indeed gone to the press rather than keep their criticisms “in the family.” Sarah Lawrence’s pretensions provide an easy target for those eager to aim barbs at its hypocrisies, and it seems that those pretensions made the college inflexible in coping with Mrs. Rose’s discovery and unwilling to look frankly at its past.

Last year, an article in Harvard’s alumni magazine written on the occasion of the reopening of the university’s Semitic Museum included an account of the troubled decades in the relationship between the museum and Harvard (Janet Tassel, “The Semitic Museum Rises Again,” Harvard Magazine, March-April 1982). The Semitic Museum, founded in 1903, was neglected and almost destroyed between 1926 and 1970. It had been founded with donations from Jacob Henry Schiff who expressed the hope that it would help fight “anti-Semitism in Europe, social prejudice and ostracism in free America.” This unhappy chapter in the Semitic Museum’s history was correctly placed in the past and given perspective by the policy changes that have made it possible for the museum to function again.

Sarah Lawrence might well envy Harvard’s public-relations savoir-faire in dealing with a problem that is all too common.

Constance Lowenthal
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Louise Blecher Rose and I were classmates, so I can offer personal . . . testimony to her description of the Sarah Lawrence experience. As Mrs. Rose suggests, that experience relied heavily on the pleasure of deploring everything outside the campus boundaries—an activity which did indeed go on ceaselessly and without fear of real-world contradiction or collegial exasperation.

We deplored everything: from small things—like the petit-bourgeois values on TV sit-coms—to larger things—like haut-bourgeois posturing in the arts. And, of course, the 60’s were particularly heady: we deplored racism in the United States and genocide in Southeast Asia. We never doubted that we occupied the highest moral ground. We never doubted that our mission sprang from the purest imperative and signified at the most profound level.

Thus Louise Rose’s account of the deplorable-yet-undeplored Jewish quota is a thunderbolt. But not, I’m afraid, the kind of thunderbolt an innocent reader might think. The horrifying truth is that we all knew Sarah Lawrence had restrictive quotas. More horrifying was our response. No concern was voiced, no protests were made. Instead, we joked about the students who had eluded the quotas and the exactness of the quotas themselves—how droll and harmless, we thought.

Simply put, the quotas were not considered a serious issue. If anybody had posed the question in a serious way, we would have seriously answered that the quotas were necessary to maintain the heterogeneity of the student body. The mix, after all, was important; it lent a certain richness and sophisticated diversity to our deploring.

The fatal hubris was thinking that our preoccupation with all manner of moral shadings gave us license to be different. It wasn’t just one standard for the benighted world, another for the enlightened community of Sarah Lawrence. It was also the conceit that we could separate the deed from the thought: the act of restricting Jews to achieve a good purpose was—wasn’t it?—different from thinking that restricting Jews was its own good purpose.

The real thunderbolt, then, finds its mark with people like me: there is, after all, nothing droll about anti-Semitism. There is no joke in reading that the admissions committee worried about nervous instability and a tendency to steal displayed by Jews. There is, plain and simple, no such thing as enlightened anti-Semitism. And there is no such thing as “knowing better” but acting worse. To know better must be to act better.

I think Louise Rose threw her thunderbolt too gently.

Susan Lee
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Sarah Lawrence has always been a human institution, subject to the full array of errors to which every institution is prone—that anti-Semitism is among them is no surprise. But I am indeed sad to see that Sarah Lawrence has rejected the opportunity given it to come to terms with itself, to come to its own maturity. Sarah Lawrence gave its students a unique opportunity to take stock of themselves. It it with a sense of wonder that I learn that it cannot or will not now do as much for itself.

During the time I was at Sarah Lawrence, I was given all the free time I needed to stitch together the wounds of my youth. I rolled along with the myth of the college’s academic rigor, but I never thought I had found the Harvard of the Hudson Valley. And I was not alone. There were always teachers and students at Sarah Lawrence who would, at least among themselves, distinguish between the college’s reputation and its reality. It was one thing to benefit from the fruits of favorable public relations, it was quite another to be deceived oneself. My friend Louise Blecher Rose was among those who were not and would never permit themselves to be deceived.

I suppose it was inevitable that Sarah Lawrence would have to choose between appearance and reality, fact and fantasy. The choice it has made is disheartening, at best. A college which turns its back on self-knowledge and rejects an honest appraisal of itself has no place in the academic world.

Pamela Foa
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

_____________

 

To the Editor:

As a 1971 alumna of Sarah Lawrence College, I greatly admire Louise Blecher Rose’s courage in writing “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence.” The college certainly does try to discourage internal and external criticism, as I found when I sent a letter to the alumni magazine charging that the school was not intellectually demanding and failed to give its students direction. I was subsequently told by the alumni office to “write another letter” since my original had been “lost.”

. . . I too believe the college is not as committed to liberal values as it claims to be. For example, the “change-the-world” attitude inculcated by the college fits in very nicely with the sort of philanthropic activities expected of upper-middle-class women without serious career commitments. Even its purported leftism is not a serious commitment to discussing issues like (in my experience) the political and strategic reasons for being in Vietnam, but rather a “life-style” leftism of drugs, sex, and “do-your-own-thing.”

But the most telling proof of the college’s lack of commitment to liberal values lies in its refusal now to make a clean and open denunciation of its past quota system.

Susan Hendrickson
Bronx, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

As a 1982 graduate of Sarah Lawrence, I read with great interest the article by Louise Blecher Rose.

After much reading and rereading of this and other articles on the subject and consideration of my own experiences at the school, I am forced to conclude that the lady, though stern, is not unjust in her assessment.

While it is certainly true that Sarah Lawrence, as Mrs. Rose herself asserts, “still passes as being academically sound,” and the teachers I had there could not have been better, it is also true that “moralizing” and “deploring” go on in lieu of social and athletic activities known elsewhere.

For a group that perceives itself as divinely appointed dissenters from, and moral commentators on, the codes and behavior of the inhabitants of “Everywhere Else, USA” (as Mrs. Rose puts it), the community displays an astonishingly low tolerance for dissenters within its own ranks. But this is true of all theocracies.

A very few, saddled with an awkward puzzlement on any of a number of issues ranging from human sexuality to nuclear war, fail, due no doubt to shortcomings of character and mind, to cash in their clunky, unwelcome question mark for a sleek designer slogan. These may find themselves shunted into the Sarah Lawrence closet along with, if Mrs. Rose’s findings are a reliable sample, any number of skeletons so old that their stench reaches only the most sensitive nostrils. Or they may come out of that closet to face the ensuing salvo of threats and accusations, an alternative almost entirely unchosen, until now. Touché, Louise Rose.

Jane Harrison Maybank
New York City

_____________

 

Louise Blecher Rose writes:

My critics say I wrote about the Jewish file as a way of “getting back” at Sarah Lawrence College for denying me tenure last year. The correct chronology is this: I wrote about the Jewish file years before my tenure decision, and my original version was a lot angrier than the one I eventually submitted to COMMENTARY. I have not suddenly concocted opinions I never before held—as everyone at the college knows. The temptation is strong to argue back in kind—that most of my critics are so bound to Sarah Lawrence either economically or socially that they are hardly unbiased—but I will resist. Focusing on motives, and calling me a variety of names, as so many of these letters do, is simply a way of evading or camouflaging a very embarrassing subject: not only the existence of a quota at Sarah Lawrence but a cover-up of that quota which continued for at least thirty years, a silence unbroken until I first broke it in the original manuscript. Whatever my motives, they are irrelevant to the substantive issue of a restrictive quota which was neither publicly denounced nor publicly renounced at a college that has set itself up as a moral guide to the universe.

A second point made by my critics is that Sarah Lawrence, unlike other academic institutions, is “open, tolerant, and trusting.” In reality Sarah Lawrence proceeds now and—if the Jewish file is any indication—has always proceeded via secrecy and the suppression of criticism. It cannot bear even to look into the mirror.

My manuscript was not alone in suffering the fate it did. A movie about the college that was also commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary opened and closed in a single evening, although it had been intended for coast-to-coast promotional showings. The college now says the film was not what it wanted—virtually the same formula that was applied in rejecting my manuscript. In fact the movie horrified faculty and administration. It was a fair, funny picture of the college: theater students cavorting on the main lawn, teachers solemnly discussing the special art and craft of teaching at Sarah Lawrence, the usual bouncy enthusiasm (one of my students shouted into the camera, “I LOVE my don!”). The movie was the real live college, a place which faculty and administration would prefer not to see, and certainly not to show to the world.

This perennial reluctance to take a good look at itself was nowhere more evident than in the brouhaha over Anne Roiphe’s 1977 New York Times Magazine article, “The Trouble at Sarah Lawrence College,” which reported, among other things, a high incidence of lesbianism on campus. The commotion generated by my article is mild compared to the half-million-dollar lawsuit the college initiated against the Times to stop publication, the strategy sessions, the campus meetings, the attempt to change the article once the college discovered it could not have it suppressed. Greta Litchenstein’s fulminations are gentle compared with the storm that broke over Anne Roiphe’s head for daring to come to Sarah Lawrence and describing what she actually found there.

One wonders, indeed, upon what basis Sarah Lawrence lays claim to openness—upon the way it dishes out criticism (i.e., smears) of others? At the 1983 graduation ceremonies, the novelist E.L. Doctorow termed Ronald Reagan “the most foolish and insufficient President in our history,” and then said of neo-conservative intellectuals, “There is a strong presumption among them that if writers can’t say anything good about the country, they shouldn’t say anything at all. Worse, that our social critiques are not acts of love but acts of treason.” While this is the usual misrepresentation of what neoconservatives think, it is evidently an accurate description of how Sarah Lawrence feels about its critics.

In this connection, perhaps the most disturbing feature of these letters is their unanimity, that plague of conformist boosterism which is so characteristic of Sarah Lawrence. Several letters express outrage at the thought that I could actually have continued to teach at a place which I no longer believed to be the greatest educational institution on earth. How many intelligent adults feel entirely at one with any institution with which they are connected? Such a fervent demand for unquestioning identification strikes me as intellectually crippling, even if the institution in question were truly the mecca of the spirit my critics allege it to be.

Alas, it is not. At about the time I was commissioned to write the book, President DeCarlo was warning faculty against openly discussing the declining quality of students, lest word get around and hasten still further the downward trend. Faculty were encouraged to espouse a myth of self-selection—apparently the same wizards were applying as before, only fewer, which meant that undesirable scholars were saving the college the task of weeding them out by doing so themselves, in advance.

What Sarah Lawrence has to conceal, and why it has to surround itself with hype, can be gleaned from Fiske’s Selective Guide to Colleges, 1982-83. According to this guide, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of applicants accepted by Sarah Lawrence are on average about 100 points below those accepted at comparable schools like Barnard, Reed, Wesleyan, Wellesley, Middlebury, and Bryn Mawr. What is more, whereas these other institutions accept only about one-third to one-half of applicants, Sarah Lawrence takes about 80 percent. Fiske’s sums up most of the colleges it lists with a brief descriptive quotation, often from a member of the student body. Sarah Lawrence is described as “not for anyone dismayed by bohemia, gayness, sarcasm, foreigners, brilliance, fringe lunacy, or any form of mental illness.”

My critics make two further points about the quota system: first, that it is unfair to single out Sarah Lawrence, since most other private colleges also had quotas in this period, and secondly, that Sarah Lawrence was a leader in getting rid of its quotas. As to the first, I find it startling, to say the least, that spokesmen for a college that has always prided itself on being “different” should suddenly take refuge in conformity. This aside, however, I certainly agree that Sarah Lawrence was not alone, either in having a quota or in keeping silent about it. There are obviously many institutions that could be written about in this connection. I wrote about a case I knew, using documents I believed, and still believe, to be immensely illuminating.

I never found any evidence that the quota at Sarah Lawrence had been eliminated by any conscious decision (such as by vote or in open discussion). My own guess is that it withered away through inanition—and much later than Sarah Lawrence now claims. (On this point, the letter by Regina Smith Oboler, reporting on Swarthmore, offers an enlightening contrast.) That there are now lots of Jews at Sarah Lawrence means nothing more than what it always meant—they are occupying places nobody else is clamoring for.

As for Sarah Lawrence’s claims to leadership, these cannot be proved by the usual grandiose assertions. The college never openly acknowledged it had a quota, never acknowledged removing it, and never spoke out in principle against restrictive quotas in general. Some leadership.

Finally, I would like to thank all those who have written to corroborate the gist of my argument, even if only inadvertently (see Batya Bauman).

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.