Déjà Vu All Over Again at Harvard

Its discrimination against Asians mirrors its treatment of Jews, but for different reasons

On January 24th, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University, which not only has profound implications for the future of affirmative action in college admissions but also recalls an ignoble part of Harvard’s history with Jewish applicants in the early 20th century.

At issue in the case is the accusation that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admission process—that if Asian students were judged on academic achievement and test scores alone, they would be admitted in far greater numbers than they currently are. Rather than using historic, reliable metrics to admit qualified students, Harvard (as well as many other universities) uses what it describes as a “holistic” approach, assigning a vague “personal rating” to applicants that includes non-academic factors.

So, for instance, a black applicant from a low socio-economic background will receive positive “tips” toward admission, while an Asian student’s purported lack of certain qualities, outlined in a case brief as “integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness, fortitude, empathy, self-confidence, leadership ability, maturity, and grit,” will result in a negative “tip.”

This discriminatory practice is eerily similar to the perverse formula used by Harvard in the early 20th century during the presidency of the anti-Semitic A. Lawrence Lowell, who was alarmed at the increasing number of Jews at Harvard as a result of their academic excellence. Indeed, a 2021 brief filed in SFFA v. Harvard by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation commented that “Just as Harvard used methods in the 1920s and 1930s to identify applicants of sufficient ‘character and fitness’ as a pretext to discriminate against Jews, Harvard’s current use of the ‘personal rating’ to pursue student-body diversity is a pretext to discriminate against Asian Americans.”

Despite this similarity, Harvard’s motivations in its treatment of Asians and Jews were significantly different. Asian applicants are disfavored in the admission process primarily because, on race-obsessed campuses where admissions officers relentlessly pursue minority applicants to achieve racial balance and “equity,” academic standards for minority students have been lowered while “holistic” aspects have been added to make these minorities competitive with high-achieving Asian applicants—applicants who, curiously, are not considered to be part of a minority group.

When Harvard was fixated on its “Jewish problem,” however, the desire to exclude Jews from matriculating had an even more pernicious aspect to it. Yes, Jews were academically over-achieving compared to their Gentile peers, so that, based on grades alone, Jewish applicants were a threat to the children of the Protestant elite, just as Asians are now a threat to minority applicants with lower scores and grades.

[Related: “Race Wars Come to the Court”]

Harvard’s darker and more compelling motivation for restricting the number of Jews, however, was, as then-President Lowell wrote to a Harvard professor, his belief that “the presence of Jews in large numbers tends to drive gentiles elsewhere” and that “a few years ago many of us thought the proportion of Jews in Harvard college was reaching a dangerous point.” As meticulously chronicled in Jerome Karabel’s seminal book about bigotry in the Ivy League, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Harvard’s “reputation of having so many Jews,” it was assumed, was hurting its ability to “attract applicants from western cities and the great preparatory schools.”

Lowell’s belief that “a very large proportion of the less desirable . . . are at the present time the Jews” was apparently shared by Harvard alums as well. Karabel recounts, for example, how “[Harvard alum Jerome D.] Green wrote to Lowell, expressing his view that the ‘Jewish problem’ resided less in any deficiencies among Harvard’s Jewish students than in the response of their non Jewish classmates to their very presence on campus . . .” Green supported an admissions process that “would undoubtedly . . . reduce materially the number of those Jews who are of objectionable personality and manners.”

The SFFA v. Harvard case materials also include a letter from another Harvard alum, W.F. Williams ’01, to President Lowell, “castigating the school for being overrun by Jewish students.”  Williams did not even attempt to mask his obvious anti-Semitism, writing to Lowell that, “Naturally, after twenty-five years, one expects to find many changes but to find that one’s University had become so Hebrewized [sic] was a fearful shock. There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me, in fact they were so obviously everywhere that instead of leaving the Yard with pleasant memories of the past I left with a feeling of utter disgust of the present and grave doubts about the future of my Alma Mater . . . .”

Williams further urged Lowell to concoct a system for filtering out Jews so that Harvard could remain a school for the Gentile elite, free of a “Jewish problem.” “Are the Overseers so lacking in genius,” he asked Lowell, revealing a trace of the racial anti-Semitism popular at the time, “that they can’t devise a way to bring Harvard back to the position it always held as a ‘white man’s’ college?”

So, while Harvard seems to deny Asians entrance because they would occupy slots saved for preferred minority applicants, it excluded Jews to actually cleanse the campus of an undesirable race, a group that had caused Lowell, for one, to have “had foreseen the peril of having too large of a number of an alien race and had tried to prevent it.” In today’s parlance, Jews would diminish the brand image of Harvard, and the University’s key target group—the white Gentile children of America’s elite—might be driven away by the perception that Harvard was too Jewish. As a result, Harvard devised the “holistic” admissions process. “The centerpiece of the new policy would be ‘character,’” Karabel noted, “a quality thought to be in short supply among Jews but present in abundance among high-status Protestants.”

It seems clear that Harvard discriminates against Asian applicants, not because it believes them to be undesirable in the same way it thought Jews to be—and therefore set up quotas for each group—but because it has been forced to reduce the raw number of qualified Asian applicants to accommodate slots that it wishes to fill with black and other minority students, under-represented students with significantly lower academic achievement than their Asian peers.

[Related: “Harvard, UNC Cases Give SCOTUS Chance to End Racial Preferences for Good”]

In response to the lawsuit, Harvard did not even try to disguise the fact that minority applicants benefit from different, lower admissions criteria, and, as the court documents revealed, “Harvard concedes that admission officers can and do often intentionally discriminate based on race by granting ‘tips’ to favor African Americans and Hispanics in the overall rating . . . [and that] Harvard ‘intends’ that race be factored in this rating.”

It is very unlikely that white students are not applying to Harvard because of the university’s high proportion of Asian students, nor is there evidence that white students, or even black or Hispanic students, would ever turn down an admission offer to Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Chicago, or other elite institutions because of the number of Asian students.

It is possible, of course, that some students, especially those currently benefiting from racial preferences in admissions, could harbor resentment at Asians’ academic excellence. But the notion that students would avoid schools precisely because of an over-representation of Asians—as it was feared that upper-crust Gentiles would do precisely because of an over-representation of Jews—is improbable at best.

In a brief filed in a similar 2013 case addressing discrimination in admissions, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the “holistic approach” used to assess an applicant’s fitness for admission was again critiqued, precisely because it “shrouds admissions decisions in a veil of secrecy. Indeed, it was originally created specifically to hide discrimination against Jews and to allow the colleges to admit or reject anyone they wanted and for any reason. Even today, it is used to hide not only illegal racial balancing but also out and-out corruption . . . [and] gives the universities a license to cheat (which, as history has demonstrated, they have a propensity to do).”

When Harvard denied Jews the chance to matriculate a century ago, it was wrong; and it is wrong again when it compromises meritocratic admissions by denying Asians the educational prizes they deserve.


Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Richard L. Cravatts

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of "Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews."

8 thoughts on “Déjà Vu All Over Again at Harvard

  1. When I was involved with advising Harvard freshmen in the early 1970’s, it was common knowledge among the admissions people that Harvard tried to keep the percentage of Jewish students at or below 40%. One of the admissions officers told me “We could fill the entire freshman class with Jewish applicants from New York City and raise the average grades and board scores.”
    But it was common knowledge that a Black kid from Montana with good grades and board scores was more likely to be admitted than a kid named Cohen from Brooklyn with great grades and board scores. The university valued racial diversity, regional diversity, legacies, and athletics more than straight academic merit.

  2. In the American of a century ago, you addressed your associates as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’, and your friends by their first names– there was a formal separation between the public and the personal. Along with this, there was a common value that your friends came from your own ethnicity and religion. This value was embodied in religious and fraternal organizations and to a lesser extent in colleges.

    A century ago, the Ivy Leagues were as much finishing schools as educational institutions. To the upper classes, college was as much about forming a social group as it was about learning. We have no doubt that some who objected to Jewish matriculation at Harvard were flat out racists, but others might be more fairly seen as social separatists.

    Social separatism– at least as a stated value– has gone the way of ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ In the 1920s the conflict at Harvard admissions was between values of meritocracy and social separatism. Today, the conflict is between meritocracy and diversity.

  3. What is said above is categorically false.
    The recommendation by Pres Lowell never got beyond that.
    “When Harvard denied the right to graduate to Jews” is false, similar to how BLM plays the game.

  4. In 1922 Harvard’s president Lawrence Lowell proposed a 10% quota on incoming Jewish students. It was based upon behavior, not race or religion, a conclusion that earlier German Jewish immigrants agreed with. The quota triggered an immediate, strong objection across the board…from Louis Brandeis, the newspapers, the Overseers and others. In 1923 Harvard’s governing boards rewrote their admissions policies, away from
    the Boston-area schools which had aided Jewish as well as “the protestant elite”, to a national focus and exam. Jewish enrollment declined, but then by 1930 increased. Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the 1920s were difficult, probably from some of their Stalinist experiences.
    As to the fate of the 1920s Jewish students in general, no immigrant group was more ideally suited to the opportunities of this republic and they were most successful in academia, business and the professions, more so than any other immigrant group perhaps, until the Asian Americans.
    Madison’s civil rights do not require factions to like each other, only that they compete: “multiplicity of factions, sects and interests, the greater the multiplicity, the greater the security” (FP 51).

  5. I’m not sure that the motivation to discriminate against Asians is entirely to favor the low-performing minorities. I suspect that there is a certain amount of distaste for Asians. Not as much as there was against Jews, as Mr. Cravatts painfully highlights, but some nonetheless. I’ve seen this myself, in seeing how Asian students and prospective faculty are regarded. This may be abating, but rather slowly.

    1. The other wild card is the perception that the CCP is engaged in piracy — and this is not completely without cause.

  6. I would think that, when examined historically, this “wholistic” approach might have eliminated some 50-90% of all the so-called geeks, nerds and painfully un-cool who have managed to thrive within academia over this past century and more.
    Indeed, academia was often their only refuge from a harsh world that otherwise would punish them for the serious lack of social charms that pursue them through life.
    If academic standards are no longer the means of measurement applied to gain traction up that long climb toward admission success, then why bother at all? And having learned how to not bother along the way, why suddenly change one’s tack, once arrived safely with the hallowed halls?

    To borrow a sporting metaphor:
    In hockey, and especially in baseball, there are high minor leagues whose pay scale can pay something upward of what a successful fast food franchised managership might provide. Which is a pittance compared to actually making it to the major leagues.
    Should this particular cream fail to show up as anticipated, replaced by politically howling under-performers who would see some kind of justice done, what would happen then?
    The fans would depart entirely. And take with them the revenues that make the enterprise work. Just so.
    Which is a sportified way of pointing out that certain hierarchal structures are set in place for a reason. We pretend that rigorous excellence has no more usefulness in academic outcomes, and for society at large, than to fuel double-incomed high-octane household consumption.

    We forget that standards must be maintained, for our own good.
    To press that point just a little bit – if one had a lazy half-hour to spare, and a good thick pad of foolscap, they might list quickly several dozens of hundreds of industries, services, sectors, manufactures, and a blizzard of things we have come to depend upon whose standards of design, application and maintenance are far too important to us to leave up to mere chance.
    Reflect for a moment how remarkably stable, dependable and reliable are these things we depend upon.
    If these be the products of “whiteness”, or even some form of elitism, well then take those things away.
    And see what happens.
    Is much of what I have described above provided by people of color?
    You betcha. High-achieving people. And so it comes back to that.
    What short-cut, exactly, cuts though this? Biting the hand that feeds quickly transforms a benign thing into a most cruel weapon.

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