The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence
Nobody at Sarah Lawrence thought it was peculiar for the president and his fiftieth-anniversary committee to choose a fiction writer to produce a history of the college. Just the opposite: the plan seemed like a typical stroke of Sarah Lawrence genius. Everyone agreed that a book was needed to sharpen the image of the college, which had undergone a certain blurring since the 60’s. Students were not applying, so the theory went, because nobody had a clear picture anymore of what Sarah Lawrence was. Other colleges had appropriated its terminology and ideas: individual education with small classes, no required courses, papers instead of exams, conferences with teachers, academic credit for theater, dance, painting, sculpture, writing, and ceramics, plus the “donning” system which Sarah Lawrence had invented for advising students. But Sarah Lawrence was still different; it was the authentic, the original, the only college that did what it promised: allowed the student to be in charge of her (and now his, too) “learning experience.” Sarah Lawrence was, so its third president Harold Taylor told me with what I came to recognize as typical Sarah Lawrence modesty, “the cutting edge of American education.”
All the school needed was publicity, two hundred readable pages. “Write whatever interests you,” then President Charles DeCarlo told me in 1979. A typical Sarah Lawrence assignment. Yet what the college really wanted was a miracle. Sarah Lawrence still has its major asset, a spectacular campus in Bronxville, N.Y., but otherwise in every sense it is failing. It has few scholarships, minimal science equipment, a tiny library, terrible athletic facilities, almost no endowment, a female/male ratio of four to one, dwindling applications. Though the college still passes as being academically sound and chock full of intellectual, creative, and beautiful (if also neurotic) students, these days most of the admissions committee’s hours are taken up with deciding which hopeless cases are to be admitted and which rejected. The acceptance rate is 90 percent. Tuition alone will be $9,280 next year; with rooom and board, a year at Sarah Lawrence costs $13,130, making it one of the most expensive colleges in the country and one practicing a new kind of radicalism: open admissions for the rich.
I was considered especially well qualified for working the book miracle because I had both graduated from Sarah Lawrence (in 1965) and been invited back there ten years later to teach a course in fiction writing. Having seen the place from both sides, I could, presumably, do it full justice. It is characteristic of Sarah Lawrence that no one ever doubted in the course of our talks that I shared in the otherwise unanimous rosy vision. Sarah Lawrence faculty expect to be misunderstood by Middle America, but not by anyone who has herself been touched by the miracle which the college believes itself to be.
To grasp the full force of this belief one must realize that Sarah Lawrence considers itself to be only accidentally located in America and only accidentally on earth; its real location is another, much better, planet. On that planet, bourgeois values are shunned; a student who wants to go to law school in order to get out and make a good living later on is looked upon as an educational failure even if he gets into Harvard. There used to be a saying on campus that the college takes the daughters of Republicans and turns them into Democrats, but this is only the beginning. Students are expected upon leaving to want neither money nor worldly success but only a chance to clean up the United States. (How this will be managed by people who cannot keep their own rooms or themselves clean is not specified.) Sarah Lawrence holds itself as aloof from the rest of the country as though it were an independent principality, a kind of intellectual Monaco, where the game is not gambling but deploring: course time, lunch time, after-school time are spent deploring the doings of Everywhere Else, USA. The college looks upon itself as a moral beacon in the dark American night, willing in moments of special crisis to share its light with other countries. After the Entebbe rescue mission, for example, a twenty-year veteran of the English department said to me, “Of course the question is whether or not the use of force is ever moral.” The attitude expressed here is typical of a place which also believes the Pentagon should be dismantled immediately, and its entire budget transferred to small educational institutions.
As a student at Sarah Lawrence in the early 60’s, I had been just as captivated by the atmosphere as everyone else. I loved the heady excitement of the place, the way Sarah Lawrence seemed to be in color, while the rest of the world was in black and white. Part of the drama entailed keeping certain things a secret. We were all in on the conspiracy to sell Sarah Lawrence. What tour guides we students were! I can still hear myself telling anyone who would listen how happy I was at the school, how interesting my teachers were, and how exciting my courses. And it was true, too. Why shouldn’t we have been having a wonderful time? Who wouldn’t? Sarah Lawrence was an extended vacation. I took three courses a year with no math, science, foreign language, or any English literature prior to the 19th century (including no Shakespeare). There were no exams, of course; why memorize when in Real Life you can always go to a library and look things up? Instead of that kind of academic drudgery, I listened to music, sunbathed, talked to classmates and teachers, wandered around Bronxville staring at mansions; never did I stay up late cramming or otherwise overexert myself. Though I did far less work than my sister who went to New York University, it was I who got all the praise. When I told people I went to Sarah Lawrence they were always so impressed that I sometimes wondered what I could do for an encore. What status in the future could equal the one I had already achieved as a nineteen-year-old Sarah Lawrence student?
The only trouble with all this was a slight sense of fraud. It was wonderful to be part of the aura surrounding Sarah Lawrence, but I always wondered what would happen if people actually knew what went on there. Always, there was the feeling that the real Sarah Lawrence had to be kept a secret from the outside world, which was too middle-class, too limited, too conventional, too puritanical to grasp what we were undertaking. But what exactly were we undertaking? Had I tried to come up with an answer, I would not have been able to.
It wasn’t just the disparity between inside and outside that puzzled me. I also wondered what the college’s secret method was for bringing together the divergent groups on campus: the debutantes from Bronxville and elsewhere who ironed their hair and spoke beautiful French or Italian but otherwise gave no indication of life above the eyebrows; the bright, radical Jewish students; the sad-eyed refugee teachers; the mainly Marxist faculty so overinvolved with students they seemed to have no other life. How did they all fit under one roof? My own parents, dyed-in-the-wool liberals, could not be shocked by any of the opinions I brought home from school, but what about the parents of the debutantes?
Constance Warren, the second president of Sarah Lawrence, had addressed this very point in her 1940 book, A New Design for Women’s Education. Warning parents that their daughters would come home from college changed, she reminded them tartly that this was precisely what college was intended to do. It would be a tragedy if their daughters stayed the same.
What I never quite succeeded in figuring out was what all this change was supposed to lead to. I knew enough not to raise my hand when our political-science teacher asked the class how many of us believed we should be allowed to inherit money; nevertheless, the sight of that teacher ordering those debutantes to give up their inheritances seemed wildly implausible. But then again everything at Sarah Lawrence was implausible: the girl down the hall who painted pictures of dead fetuses on her wall when she was depressed; her roommate, so casual about such matters that she even slept with her hairdresser once in return for a good blunt cut; my best friend, deeply involved in Sufi mysticism, who still spent every weekend at her parents’ posh country club; another friend with a “Reading Inhibition” (her psychiatrist’s diagnosis), who made it through brilliantly by taking mainly dance and creative writing.
Most implausible of all were the affairs between students and professors. Sarah Lawrence girls were so beautiful that when fashion magazines needed models they simply came up to Bronxville and plucked them off the campus. But to see these dazzling creatures teamed up with the homely middle-aged professors on our faculty was peculiarly unsettling: perhaps another example of Sarah Lawrence’s talent for unlikely combinations.
When I began teaching at the college in 1975 I was prepared for all the old anomalies. Indeed, the students still looked so familiar that I sometimes thought I recognized my old classmates, trapped in time and their Capezios. But I found that many new elements had been added in the ten years since I had been away. Everyone was now wearing jungle warfare spots, army fatigues, and wraparound sunglasses. So prevalent was this costume you might have thought Carlos the Jackal was running a training school for terrorists on this anti-militaristic campus in Bronxville. Between the guerrillas and the students dressed like cast members of The Three-penny Opera, it was harder than ever to keep one’s bearings. (Clothing at Sarah Lawrence has always been a form of symbolic utterance. A few years before, the students had been outraged when President DeCarlo hired, lawyers to defend a group of them arrested during a Pentagon sit-in; they especially hated the three-piece suits which made the lawyers look as out of place on the campus as if they had been dressed in armor.)
Along with dress, other attitudes too had been updated. Preparing for my first class, I had wondered what the students would be writing about, now that abortions were legal. I found out the answer at our very first session, when a male student got up to read a story about his first love affair with another man, complete with nude sunbathing scenes, sunburned penises, and unhappy childhood memories of having been dressed by his mother like a girl. It was soon obvious to me that this was the new subject on the agenda; and observing campus life over the next few months, I realized that Sarah Lawrence was once again in the advance guard. Other colleges too were in a state of sexual turmoil during this period, but Sarah Lawrence was surely the only one with its own gay film festival (one feature film: Dyketectics).
By the time I started writing my book about Sarah Lawrence, I was no longer a true believer. I remembered the gaps in my own education too clearly to share in the general admiration for the school’s doctrine of student autonomy, and I had observed too many mixed-up students by then to take quite so sanguine a view of the undergraduate population as my colleagues did. Nevertheless, I had by no means lost my affection or respect for Sarah Lawrence. I still thought of it as special and admired it for having the courage to go against the prevailing temper, regardless of consequences.
In one respect, at least, I was still at one with my colleagues. I never expected, in looking into Sarah Lawrence’s past, to find anything dishonorable, or at least anything more incriminating than, say, some quaintly outdated examples of early progressive thought. The last thing I expected to find was a file of documents that would make Sarah Lawrence sound like a branch of the DAR in its most benighted period.
This file, neatly labeled “Admissions Quotas Jewish Students,” comprised a detailed record of the college’s discriminatory quota system, as instituted in 1928-29 and adhered to (with modifications) at least until 1956, when the file ended. Illustrating each upward revision of the quota were neat lists of the Jewish students in every class, added up and converted into percentages so the admissions committee would know at a glance how many could be accepted for the following year. A typical 1939 file entry is titled, “Disposition of 46 Completed Applications from Jewish Candidates/Disposition of 256 Completed Applications from Gentile Candidates.” (In 1939, of the 46 Jews applying, 9 were accepted; of the 256 Gentiles, 101 were admitted.) So precise were the lists that half-Jews were actually designated as such alongside their names, though counted, interestingly enough, as full Jews in the final tally. Sarah Lawrence, notwithstanding its vaunted artistic temper, was clearly a model of rigor when it came to keeping track of its Jews.
Along with the lists themselves were letters, minutes of board meetings, and a variety of other documents recording the deliberations of the Sarah Lawrence community on what the documents frequently referred to as the “Jewish Question.” What was remarkable about these documents was their spirit of unanimity. There were letters from three Jews protesting the quota system, but otherwise not one of the worthies whose views were recorded in the file appears to have been troubled by doubts that the quota might be immoral or unethical or that it might fall into the category of one of those “prejudices” that Sarah Lawrence was always proclaiming itself so eager to combat. It was simply taken for granted by all concerned that Jews, because of what they were like, did not belong in the Sarah Lawrence community.
Here is how Henry Noble McCracken, the President of Vassar, described the Jewish character to his fellow President Constance Warren of Sarah Lawrence, in a 1933 letter whose tone is typical of much of the other correspondence in the file:
Experience showed a very large proportion of [Jews] so unstable nervously as to be a problem. Whenever [a] physician’s report showed any sign of that they were turned away. Also a very large proportion of disciplinary cases, especially stealing. New York University had given personality tests which threw out a great many.
In setting up the machinery to keep Jews out of Sarah Lawrence, the college’s trustees were fulfilling—so far as possible—the original vision of its founder, William Van Duzer Lawrence. Lawrence, a real-estate investor who bought up the land around Bronxville and developed it as a restricted community, had definitely intended the same restrictions to apply to the college. His unequivocal wishes in the matter were expressed in a letter which Lawrence’s son Dudley read to a meeting of fellow trustees in May 1933:
It is my belief that a small college, where girls and faculty are thrown more intimately together, is more effective than a larger one. For this reason, it is my wish that the Sarah Lawrence College be restricted to 250 resident students and 100 day students. Moreover these are to be selected from homes which are genuinely American, and are to be chosen with reference to their general promise, special aptitudes, and values of personality as well as with reference to their scholastic attainments. It is my wish that the group may be as homogeneous as possible, that parents may have the satisfaction of knowing with whom their daughters are associated during the most impressionable years of their lives. . . .
One of the questions in Sarah Lawrence’s original application form had been, “Has your daughter been brought up to strict Sunday observance?” Though the college eventually dropped the question from its form, the file offers copious documentation of the fact that in its heart of hearts, and whatever its political and ideological cast, it always sought to maintain itself as an institution for Christians. When Jews began to be admitted in greater and greater numbers—from a low of 2 percent in the early 30’s to 10 percent in the 40’s and finally to 50 percent in the 50’s—it was simply because there were not enough Gentile candidates qualified for admission. Far from indicating any change of heart toward Jews, every upward revision of the quota was greeted with alarm at the dread prospect that Sarah Lawrence might, in the words of Trustee Julia Titsworth, be “becoming a Jewish institution.”
This, in any case, was the way Julia Titsworth had heard it described, and she hastened to report the matter to the trustees at a meeting in May 1933. The trustees responded with renewed determination to set limits on “what proportion of Jews it was safe to have in the college” and “protested vigorously against allowing the question to take its natural course.”
If the trustees made no secret of their real feelings about Jews among themselves, their rationalization of the quota to the outside world was quite different. Here the stress was on its beneficial aspects, not just for Gentiles but for Jews also. The happiest environment for both these groups, it turned out, would be maintained by keeping Jewish representation to a minimum, among other reasons because Jews themselves supposedly did not want to be surrounded by Jews any more than Gentiles did. In the 30’s President Constance Warren repeatedly stressed this point in her letters on the subject, and twenty years later President Harold Taylor was making the same point:
In many cases an institution which becomes identified as a Jewish college is not attractive to the best-qualified Jewish, as well as non-Jewish, students. . . . A number of the Quaker schools, whose social philosophy is in consonance with ours, have met the same problem and have adopted a limitation. . . .
So prevalent, moreover, was the alleged dislike of Jews for being surrounded by their co-religionists that given the first chance to do so, they set up anti-Jewish restrictions themselves. In a 1936 letter to John Haynes Holmes, rector of the Community Church of New York, and in another letter three years later to the sociologist Robert S. Lynd, Miss Warren came up with numerous examples of this reputed practice:
I have talked to a number of headmasters who had had experience in running progressive schools which were financed and controlled largely by Jews, and in every instance they have told me that the Jews demanded a limited Jewish enrollment and a limit to the number of Jews on the faculty.
So it appears that the quota system, which started out as a way to eliminate obnoxious Jews, developed by this rationale into a system for insuring their protection and then ultimately into a Jewish practice.
Despite the ease with which the quota was thus justified, no one at Sarah Lawrence wanted it publicly known—so they simply lied. Replying to a query from a Mt. Vernon high-school guidance counselor, President Warren wrote on January 23, 1932: “We have had no quota, as yet, with regard to Jewish girls.” Similarly, twenty-four years later, when Carla Pekelis Seitz, a Jewish refugee from Italy who was on the Sarah Lawrence faculty, asked for an open discussion of the quota system, the request was refused. Alice Bovard, admissions director for the college, explained her reasons in a note to the trustees:
I see no good to be gained by a full discussion of this problem by the whole faculty, and I see a great deal of danger. The emotion engendered will be communicated to the students, and groups will be set off—in just the way that we want at every cost to avoid.
This incident took place in 1956, when the quota was set at 50 percent. The college had grown to 550 undergraduates by this time, but the majority of qualified applicants were Jews. In earlier days, even though the Jewish quota was far lower, President Warren could argue that no outstanding Jewish candidates were ever turned down in favor of less qualified Gentiles; by the 1950’s, however, no one was even bothering to assert this. By then it had become clear to everyone that what the quota system actually entailed was the rejection of good Jewish candidates and the acceptance of less qualified Gentile ones in their place. A 1956 memo from Charlotte Houtermans, a faculty member of the admissions committee, states:
It became apparent that the list of good, acceptable candidates came primarily from Jewish families. . . . The number of non-Jewish students with good academic promise on the contrary seems rather limited and for the sake of the religious balance we will have to include in our final selection between 20 and 30 students . . . who will probably have considerably lower ratings than some students [whom] we rejected in the beginning.
Esther Raushenbush, who served as dean of the college (and later, from 1964 to 1969, as its one Jewish president), complained in a letter to the admissions committee of the contempt in which Sarah Lawrence was held because of this practice, and urged recruitment from within the public schools. Other members of the committee urged new public-relations efforts directed toward non-Jews. William Rubin, currently director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and at the time a member of the Sarah Lawrence art-history department, wrote an especially eloquent plea for a policy of “discriminating in favor” of non-Jews, even “at the cost of purely academic values,” in order to save Sarah Lawrence from the fate of “factories like Hunter and Columbia” and as “the only way of holding in check a situation [i.e., a Jewish majority] which . . . can irreversibly ruin the situation of the school.” Only Mrs. Seitz, who had become a member of the admissions committee in 1954, proposed ending discrimination completely:
I think that discrimination is bad, no matter how well-meaning its motivation. I think that in an institution like ours, looked upon suspiciously by some on account of its allegedly shocking liberal views, it is absurd. I think that the student body thus acquired is only apparently well-balanced, for its Jewish and non-Jewish groups are not chosen with the same criteria.
I spoke with Mrs. Seitz, who said she was never actually informed of the quota system, but watched it operating. In the end, she told me, she resigned from the committee because she could not, as a refugee herself, be the one to reject a Jewish candidate for admission on the grounds that she was Jewish.
Alas, it was not difficult at Sarah Lawrence to find people willing to do that job. Many faculty members with whom I subsequently communicated, both Jews and non-Jews, had understood what was going on all along. Indeed, some of them were still arguing in favor of the quota. I had the distinct feeling that many of them wished for the good old days when they actually had enough qualified applicants to be able to drop some of the Jewish ones. One Jewish member of the admissions committee told me that at the end of the selection process every member of the committee was allowed to put his favorite candidate into the pool of admissions. This man, a longtime member of the English department, reported to me rather gleefully: “Each year I saved my favorite Jew to put in.”
There were three, however, who did complain. Apart from Mrs. Seitz’s letter of resignation, the file also contains letters of protest from the late 30’s from the anthropologist Franz Boas, and a correspondence in the late 50’s between Maurice Hexter, the college’s financial adviser, and President Harold Taylor on the subject of “geographical diversity in admissions,” which was Sarah. Lawrence’s public euphemism for its quota system.
Hexter’s letters were hesitant, even apologetic in tone. Taylor’s replies, by contrast, were classic Sarah Lawrence productions, full of high-minded outrage at the suggestion that Sarah Lawrence could possibly be discriminating against Jews “either by geographical quota or any other means.” Such a suggestion, Taylor said at one point, was actually “insulting to those of us who are trying for the sake of the quality of education to select a diverse and talented student body from everywhere in the country.” What was so remarkable about this display, with its almost reflexive implication that Jews fall so far outside the normal human categories (“diverse,” “talented”) as to be considered a breed apart, was that Taylor must have known he was in any case not telling the truth. A memo from his own admissions director Alice Bovard plainly stated that “the college was disquieted by the preponderance of Jewish applicants not only from around the college but from all over the United States.” Jews, it seems, remained Jews no matter where they came from.
What happened when I discovered the file and wanted to write about it is as instructive as the file itself. Sarah Lawrence believes deeply in uncovering other people’s secrets. If a poll were taken of the faculty and administration, it would reveal near-total agreement that every institution in the country from the Presidency on down should throw open its back files and if possible broadcast them on public television for the general edification of us all. Its own secrets, however, were a different matter. When I argued first that the Jewish file was an important piece of social history and second that Sarah Lawrence could redeem its own past by exposing it—how many colleges after all would have the courage to do such a thing?—the response was no different from what it would have been in the stuffiest, most hidebound of institutions. After reading my manuscript, President DeCarlo told me that for the good of the college and for my own good, this material had better be left alone. Of course I could proceed on my own, but I was a very good teacher, albeit without tenure, and he would hate for the college to lose me.