Affirmative Action at Stanford, Then and Now

Stanford University has just apologized for its past discrimination … against Jews.

As summarized in Stanford Magazine, a presidential task force made up of faculty, students, staff (including a rabbi), an alumnus, and a university trustee released a 75-page report in September, “A Matter Requiring the Utmost Discretion”, whose research was thorough and conclusion unsparing. Their “extensive investigation uncovered two key findings. First, … evidence of actions taken to suppress the number of Jewish students admitted to Stanford during the early 1950s. Second, … that members of the Stanford administration regularly misled parents and friends of applicants, alumni, outside investigators, and trustees who raised concerns about those actions throughout the 1950s and 1960s.” Misled is a euphemism; they lied.

Stanford today is regarded as, in effect, an Ivy League school in a warm climate (graduates often refer to Harvard as “the Stanford of the East”), but that was far from true in the 1950s. Until 1952, admission was not selective; virtually all males who applied were accepted. That changed in 1953, when Stanford first turned to selective admissions—this, not by coincidence, is when it began restricting the number of Jewish students. However, unlike the Ivy League’s restriction of Jewish admissions in the 1920s, Stanford administrators in 1953 had no clear picture of the ideal “Stanford man,” but they knew that too many Jews would distort it.

Unlike the Ivy League, Stanford was always co-ed, but a cap on the number of women had been imposed by Jane Stanford. The task force found no evidence of discrimination against Jewish women applicants (which, of course, does not mean it did not exist, especially since Stanford ceased recruiting from some high schools in Los Angeles with heavily Jewish populations).

The Policy and Its Defense

Early in 1953, Stanford Director of Admissions Rixford Snyder brought his concern about too many Jewish men to Frederic Glover, assistant to President Wallace Sterling. Glover relayed those concerns and his own views in a February 4 “Dear Wally” memo (Appendix A of the report). Here is an excerpt:

Rix is concerned that more than one quarter of the applications from men are from Jewish boys. …

Rix said that he thought that you should know about this problem, since it has very touchy implications. He pointed out that the University of Virginia has become largely a Jewish institution, and that Cornell also has a very heavy Jewish enrollment. Harvard and Yale stick strictly to a quota system. Rix has been following a policy of picking the outstanding Jewish boys while endeavoring to keep a normal balance of Jewish men and women in the class. …

Rix feels that this problem is loaded with dynamite and he wanted you to know about it, as he says that the situation forces him to disregard our stated policy of paying no attention to the race or religion of applicants. I told him that I thought his current policy made sense, that it was a matter requiring the utmost discretion, and that I would relay these highlights of our conversation to you and let Rix know if you had different views.

“Wally” clearly did not have different views, and Stanford implemented the restrictive policy, although not so much with “utmost discretion” as with dissembling, misrepresentation, obfuscation, and outright lying. What were routinely dismissed as “rumors” about Stanford’s new policy spread quickly, and the report quotes several replies over the following years to complaining parents and others from President Sterling, Glover, and Snyder, all denying that Stanford had a “quota.” In one example, an alumna

posed the question to President Sterling directly, “Is there now or has there ever been in the past a quota on the number of Jewish or Catholic students Stanford will accept?” Sterling sharply denied the accusation, writing “Stanford has no quotas of any kind, racial, religious or geographic. It follows, therefore, that there are no quotas for Catholics or Jews. Statements or rumors to the contrary are wholly false.”

In another typical reply, Glover asserted that “each applicant is considered individually.” He went on to explain, according to the report, “that the university’s admissions procedures do not ask about religion, race, or ‘social background,’ so ‘if anyone has statistics on the proportion of Jewish students entering Stanford, the figures are not Stanford’s.’ He added, ‘If we had such information, we could defend ourselves better against charges of discrimination, but if we maintained it, we would be open to charges that we kept the data to establish quotas.’”

[Related: “The President Has No Clothes”]

“These Actions Were Wrong”

Responding to the report, on October 12 Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne issued an apology:

On behalf of Stanford University I wish to apologize to the Jewish community, and to our entire university community, both for the actions documented in this report to suppress the admission of Jewish students in the 1950s and for the university’s denials of those actions in the period that followed. These actions were wrong. They were damaging. And they were unacknowledged for too long.

President Tessier-Lavigne is certainly correct, but his confident assertion that those actions were wrong raises a number of new questions, unaddressed in the report. Before addressing some of them, however, I should acknowledge that I have a personal interest other than my longstanding interest in discrimination: I entered Stanford as a sophomore transfer student in the fall of 1962. Perhaps by then Stanford’s restrictive policy had lapsed—there is no clear evidence of a cut-off date—or perhaps Rixford Snyder, who was still head of admissions, didn’t believe an applicant from a small town in Alabama could be Jewish enough to matter.

I had been a freshman at a small, selective college in the South. In an application interview with the long-serving dean of admissions there, I had asked directly, if perhaps naively, whether the college had a quota on Jews. Unlike Stanford’s reply to many similar questions, the dean answered without any “discretion,” hesitation, or discomfort. “Of course we do,” he told me. “If we didn’t, within one four-year cycle our student body would be heavily Jewish from within about 150 miles of New York City, and we’re simply not that kind of school.” (The restrictions meant, as they always do, that the Jews who were admitted tended to do well. A fraternity brother of mine that year graduated number one in the class and went on to win a Nobel Prize in medicine.)

Since the college had never admitted blacks or women, the restriction on Jews did not raise any issues for my old college dean. Stanford, by contrast, as stated in Glover’s 1953 memo to Sterling, had a “stated policy of paying no attention to the race or religion of applicants.” One need not believe that Sterling, Glover, and Snyder were personally committed to the principle of treating applicants without regard to race—indeed, their actions reveal they were not—but they knew that many of those on whose good will Stanford depended would regard violating that principle as wrong.

Which brings us back to current president Tessier-Lavigne. Someone should ask him why he believes the policy of restricting the number of Jews was wrong. Does he really believe in the principle that administrators in the 1950s violated, that all applicants should be treated “paying no attention” to race, ethnicity, or religion? That, of course, would seem to be impossible, since Stanford has long practiced affirmative action, i.e., raising and lowering the standard of admissions by race and ethnicity in order to promote diversity, not unlike the “balance” President Sterling and Rixford Snyder sought in the 1950s.

Stanford’s current undergraduate student body is 25% Asian and only 28% white (the most “underrepresented” group there). The California Institute of Technology, by contrast, which is said to have no admissions preferences, is 44% Asian and 45% white (but also 7% black, the same as Stanford). Stanford is on record again and again defending preferential treatment in admissions (its brief in the Harvard/University of North Carolina case now before the Supreme Court is here), and it appears to practice what it preaches by taking race and ethnicity into account. Again, if it is fine to deny admission to some Asian and white applicants who would have been admitted had Stanford “paid no attention” to their race or ethnicity, what exactly was “wrong” with Stanford’s old practice of restricting the number of Jews? What principle did it violate that is not also violated by today’s practice?

[Related: “The Chronicle Airbrushes Affirmative Action]

Affirmative Action at Stanford Then …

The recent Stanford report is impressive, but it is not without blind spots. The most glaring is its failure to acknowledge that its policy of restricting Jews is more than similar to the racially and ethnically discriminatory policies of Stanford and similar institutions today; it is virtually identical. The old descriptions and defenses—creating “balance,” judging each candidate individually, denying quotas—are still very much in use. In fact, Rixford Snyder, Frederic Glover, and Wallace Sterling should be recognized as creating Stanford’s first affirmative action program—preferential treatment for non-Jewish applicants.

… And Now

Of course, affirmative action today is quite different from affirmative action in the 1950s and 1960s, and even as late as 2019. Consider, for example, Stanford’s August 2019 “Equal Employment Opportunity Statement,” signed by President Tessier-Lavigne, which still embraced the principle of color-blind non-discrimination. “To encourage . . . diversity,” it stated, “we prohibit discrimination and harassment and provide equal opportunity for all employees and applicants . . . regardless of race, religion, color, national origin. [emphasis added] … The University does not sacrifice job related standards when it engages in affirmative action. The best qualified person . . . must always be hired; that is the essence of equal opportunity. Affirmative action simply asks us to cast our net more widely to broaden the competition.”

You will notice that I did not provide a link to that statement. That’s because I could not find it. (I had quoted it here, in a summer 2021 article predicting that President Biden’s emphasis on “equity” was likely to displace older notions of affirmative action.) It is not surprising that the statement has been dropped, since I doubt that President Tessier-Lavigne would be willing to publicly affirm it today. If he did, he would be denounced as a white supremacist, or would at least be committing what the University of California, Berkeley defined as the “microaggressions” of advocating color blindness and claiming that “the most qualified person should get the job.”

Apparently that older statement has been replaced by this Diversity Statement, which speaks a far different language. It lists as a top priority “Increasing the diversity of the faculty, especially faculty from underrepresented backgrounds including racial and ethnic minorities and women in STEM.” Simply casting a wider net has been thrown overboard.

Stanford’s administrators defended its first affirmative action plan by denying, duplicitously, that they collected the sort of data that would make quotas possible. That denial has been abandoned in favor of a proud affirmation that the university now seeks such data: “Stanford is asking that [sic] you to self-identify your race and ethnicity information so that we can evaluate our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.”

Similarly, the Diversity and Access Office provides reports that

include Stanford’s workforce summaries by school and unit, providing detailed demographic information. Furthermore, analysis of each job group is conducted to identify where Stanford is underrepresented with regard to women, minorities, veterans, and individuals with disabilities. This determines the affirmative action goals and the action-oriented plans to be implemented for the following year.

Again, President Tessier-Lavigne, what exactly was wrong with Stanford’s then-stated policy of “paying no attention” to such things as race or religion and your predecessor Wallace Sterling’s violation of it? His violation, in fact, reveals his recognition of the power of colorblind non-discrimination; he did not want Stanford to be seen violating it. Today’s Stanford and its peers, however, not only violate that principle in practice but have rejected the principle as well.

Image: Adobe Stock

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

10 thoughts on “Affirmative Action at Stanford, Then and Now

  1. Goldberg’s article calls to mind an online discussion of race preferences among my Amherst College ’61 classmates in November 2010. It was initiated by a Jewish classmate, Bruce, a successful medical doctor, who died a few years ago. Bruce recounted his 1957 interview, as a 16-year old applicant, with Amherst College dean of admissions, Bill Willson. Bruce’s account and my own lengthy 2010 response to it are given verbatim below.     

    From:  BRUCE 

    I have debated long and hard about sharing this recollection of Dean Wilson with the class.  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would show how drastically things have changed over fifty years. I came from a public High school in NYC where my interaction with a college advisor was  limited to a few minutes.  I was two years younger than most of my classmates and at 16, didn’t drive.  When I choose the schools to which I wanted to apply,  Amherst was among them.  When it was time to interview, my Dad had to drive me to all of them.
     When I arrived at Amherst, somehow I knew this was “the place”.  My interview with Dean Wilson was arranged and my Dad and I wandered up to his office.  Dean Wilson asked my Dad to please stay in the room during the interview because, as he said, “you are paying for it.” The Dean behind his desk, I sat in a chair immediately in front of him. He placed my Dad right behind me, close enough to know that he was there, but nowhere where I could see him.  After some casual conversation, the Dean announced that he had some serious reservations about my applying for admission.  In a quote I will never forget he said:  “You should seriously reconsider your application here.  You have three strikes against you from the start.  You are from New York City,   you are interested in Medicine, and you are Jewish!  I could fill my entire freshman class with guys who look exactly like you.” The tension was palpable and I could feel my Dad slowly rising from his chair.  With the best of what I had learned in theatre, I relaxed, smiled and with all the energy I could muster, I replied: “If those were the only things which described me, you would be right.  But that is not who I am!” He asked me once more before we left if I wished to reconsider my application.  I reached into my pocket and handed it to him and thanked him for his time.  We left. A short time thereafter I received my acceptance notice. I will never forget Dean Wilson. Bruce
    Like others I was fascinated by the account of your “adventure” in Dean Wilson’s office in 1957, but I’d put a somewhat different spin on it. It seems to encapsulate what was, probably, a very good policy, especially by today’s standards. Dean Wilson should be given credit for his refreshing honesty in admitting to it in a face-to-face encounter and doing so without euphemism or soft-pedaling! 
    By God, the production lines for that model stopped running long ago!
    Such honesty is unlikely to be found in Amherst’s current admissions office or, indeed, in the admissions office of any other college or university in the country.
    A parallel world: Up until 1996, when we passed the California Civil Rights Initiative, admissions officers in the UC system were looking at certain applications  and thinking, “This guy is talented but he’s from the Bay Area, he wants to go into engineering, and he’s Chinese. Too bad we already have our quota of those.” Unlike Wilson, those UC admissions officers didn’t have the courage to be upfront with those rejected on the basis of their Chineseness.
    Dean Wilson was implementing what later would be labeled the “diversity” and “affirmative action” criteria for selection, hiring, admissions, awarding of contracts, etc. throughout America’s public and private sectors. In the 1978 University of California vs. Bakke case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even fairly high degrees of preference or discrimination were constitutional if the goal was to increase “diversity.” I wonder if Dean Wilson filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of the UC system?!
    That Supreme Court decision gave full license to diversiticrats for unhindered experiments in utopian social engineering. For another almost twenty years, the weight given to race and ethnicity  in particular grew from the “thumb on the scale” apparently practiced by Dean Wilson to the “fist on the scale” practiced by Amherst’s and other schools admissions offices in recent times.
    Consider the most recent issue (Fall 2010) of “Amherst”. In it Editor Boutilier and President Marx boast about “expanding access to Amherst” as evidenced by the fact that “students of color now make up 42 percent of the first-year class.”   Even non-rocket scientists will understand that “42 percent” figure is prima facie evidence that the chances of admission to Amherst for a bright and white Jewish high school student in NYC with ambitions in medicine are lower now than they were under Dean Wilson.
    My guess is that this is not what you meant, Bruce, when you suggested your vignette might “show how drastically things have changed over fifty years!” What think ye?
    Would Dean Wilson have used misleading euphemisms like “expanding access”? Would he have ever used the bogus and divisive rubric of “students of color”? Those would seem very out of character for a man who was willing to tell you to  your face, Bruce, that you were close to being sacrificed on the Altar of Diversity in part because of your Jewishness!
    It seems to me that private institutions like Amherst should have great latitude in the weight they give to various non-academic factors like race, ethnicity, religion, region of residence, etc. in admitting students or hiring of faculty. [I would now replace “great latitude” with “a little latitude”]  The major disappointment is that they have been , post-Wilson, so lacking in the courage of their convictions that they hide what they are actually doing behind a facade of vague, euphemistic and divisive rhetoric. More Dean Wilson-speak would be refreshing if courageous admissions deans were still available.
    For public, taxpayer-funded institutions it is a different matter, and most Americans seem to agree.  Most Americans in the 1950s and 1960s I imagine had no problem with “affirmative action” of the “thumb on the scale” variety then practiced at Amherst.
    But by the 1990s they had a big problem in the public sector with “fist on the scale” affirmative action that had resulted from “mission creep.” The University of California and the University of Michigan were the first battlegrounds in academia. In 1996 racial preferences in all activities of state and local governments were outlawed in California by a ballot initiative that won with 56 percent of the vote. Washington, Nebraska, Colorado, and, as of this month, Arizona have followed suit, passing essentially identical initiatives.  Attempts to gather signatures in these and other states for such initiatives are often hindered by a fair bit of physical intimidation and thuggery by groups from the radical left. But we are persevering.
    In California, where all student bodies would be highly “diverse” even in the complete absence of racial preferences, various subterfuges and under-the-table mechanisms have been developed to continue implementing them.
    In 2003, President Weber of my own university boasted in a newsletter to the SDSU community that between 1997 and 2002 “35.5 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty hires were persons of color – more than double the percentage of applicants of color available nationwide.” No one knew exactly what he was trying to tell us. Perhaps that he, having started his presidency in 1996, was a great guy? That, the California Civil Rights Initiative notwithstanding, he and his compliant minions had been able to find under-the-table means of implementing racial preferences in hiring? That during this period an unusually high proportion of “colorless” applicants had mediocre qualifications? Who knows.
    Those “colorless” academics already with a job at SDSU certainly weren’t going to risk challenging the president and his deans about undisclosed procedures and criteria. And the “colorless” applicants who might have been given the short end of the stick certainly weren’t sent a copy of that newsletter. So politically correct calm prevailed, and nothing better warms the cockles of a university administrator’s heart.
    What do you suppose our English 1 instructors would have thought about phrases like “students of color” and “faculty members of color”? Used by a student, I suspect they would have elicited even more caustic comments than those a few have recalled in our recent chats as having been red-inked on their own essays.[Reference is to the freshman writing course formerly required at Amherst.]
    Presidents Marx and Weber are just following the PC herd in discovering the utility of the phrase “of color.” It is cynically used to obscure the continuing underrepresentation of blacks, hispanics and native Americans in academia relative to their numbers in the general population. By lumping those groups with “over-represented” groups such as East Asians, it makes things seem rosier than they are. Another contribution to politically correct calm, perhaps.

  2. In the 1970’s Harvard was ~ 70% white men. Today it is approximately 9% white men. White men have been by far the most heavily “discriminated” minority throughout the many phases of gender, race and ethnic discrimination. It is a constant.

  3. If every identifiable ethnic or racial group that scores less well than whites (e.g. Blacks and Hispanics) is considered to be victim of discrimination and entitled to a quota that equates their admissions to their percentage of the population, then gentiles (non-Jewish whites) will be obligated to complete only against groups (Jews and Asians) who score better than them, leaving white gentiles as the most under-represented identity group at our universities.

  4. Stanford has been completely overrun by the DEI intelligentsia. The campus today is a strange collection of black and Hispanic race hustlers, LGBTQ activists, wokester snowflakes, jocks, legacies and a large contingent of career minded Asian nerds. In the past it was known as an elite school that emphasized admission of Olympic athletes, pro tennis players and golfers, today that image is slowly ebbing as whites now make up only 1/3 of the student population, and in the last 2 years are below Asian in enrollment.

    The campus housing is a mess and continues to segregate students with race based “houses” – black, Hispanics and Asians all have separate houses if they decide not to live in the desegregated dorms, but the German house was recently defunded. The frats throw all the parties but are under increasing pressure from students to dismantle. The biggest complaint in recent weeks is “Stanford hates fun”, after the school put in much stricter alcohol and drug policies in response to a lawsuit from parents of a student who overdosed in a frat. Asian nerds and equity obsessed wokesters are cramping the style of the partying jocks and legacies.

    The WSJ reported that the school has 15k+ administrators to support 16k students. The problem starts right there. Fire half of those administrators, many are in DEI, and the school will return to functioning smoothly again.

  5. Cornell engineering seems to have a 50/50 male/female student ratio. This means that some of the women there would better served had they attended RPI, RIT or Clarkson. The head of the School of Chemical Engineering is a woman whose statement in the current Olin Hall News contains the following regarding two new faculty hires: “These two additions make good on our commitment last year to increase the diversity of our faculty and to make progress towards gender parity in the School.” (My bias, in noting that one of these two women is Asian, is that I’m heartened that the gender bias might have been offset by a preference in favor of her selection as a truly qualified candidate.)

    The other women is “Cornell Engineering’s First Discipline-Based Education Research Professor to Join (the) Faculty”. I have no idea what this title means and MY bias is that it has little to do with engineering.

    A new female athletic director was appointed in November 2022 at Cornell. Quoting from the Cornell Chronicle: ” Moore said diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) will be high on her list of priorities, along side…”. One could facetiously assume this means working toward a more competitive football program and a more mediocre hockey team. I’m actually hoping it’s simply an empty promise, but I’m afraid that’s naive.

    Working toward “equity” quotas will dilute the Ivies and similar IHE’s to a degree. As an alum I’m embarrassed to hope that they’ll reap what they sow. I wish the school success while hoping the administration and faculty who foster DEI just the opposite – I’m hoping for the impossible.

  6. what acrappy place to get an education with pr4ofessors devoid of competence.character,morality or common sense

  7. “Of course we do,” he told me. “If we didn’t, within one four-year cycle our student body would be heavily Jewish from within about 150 miles of New York City, and we’re simply not that kind of school.”[emphasis added]

    The question I have to ask is where were the Christian New Yorkers going to college at the time — and hence if the concern was more about the “from within about 150 miles of New York City.”

    If, hypothetically, the Christians in the “tri-state area” were going to other IHEs, then I’m reminded of what Edmund Burke wrote about the rational basis of prejudice — if the ONLY folks from that region who were applying were Jewish, it is rational to presume that all the people there are Jewish. Wrong, but still a mistake one could rationally make.

    If it still existed, and if they’d let you see it, it would be interesting to see what said small college wrote in the recommendation. If they liked you, they may have (intentionally) neglected to mention that you were Jewish. They may even have hinted that you weren’t.

    I also wonder how selective admissions to the other Ivy institutions were in 1950.

    It would be 1964 before children born in 1946 (the real start of the baby boom) turned 18, and admissions standards everywhere had dropped dramatically during the Depression as IHEs desperately tried to keep seats filled with students able to pay.

    But I do think it is necessary to evaluate the extent to which there was a prejudice against New York.

  8. ” It lists as a top priority “Increasing the diversity of the faculty, especially faculty from underrepresented backgrounds including racial and ethnic minorities and women in STEM.”

    Affirmative action programs are designed to hire those who would never be considered otherwise for employment. Way back when I was hired engineering faculty applicants for tenure-track positions were selected based on teaching experience, prior publication record and record of attracting research funding. Now skin color and sex are a factor. If you are the most qualified based on teaching, publication and research then there is no need to consider skin color or sex; you’re already the most qualified.

    But now, you get extra points for being a POC or female which puts that 3rd or 4th ranked candidate in the top spot. Over the years I’ve served on a number of faculty search committees. It has been my experience that the difference between the 1st and 2nd ranked applicant is not very much; either one would be acceptable. But thereafter the differences become very significant. Significant to the point if the 3rd ranked applicant is your best applicant, there is talk about extending the search.

    Who benefits from hiring lesser qualified applicants? Certainly the lesser qualified applicant. But the university loses because any serious research funding from such individuals is unlikely. The students also lose out. They are paying for a quality education. They deserve the best professors the university can hire.

    1. “But the university loses because any serious research funding from such individuals is unlikely.”

      I’d like to see some current research verifying that assumption because I doubt that it is still true.

      Remember where most of the research funding is coming from — the Federal Government and “woke” foundations/corporations — both of which firmly believe in affirmative retribution and the DIE agenda.

      Now as to it being “serious research”, that’s another story — but I would be very surprised if a lesser scholar in all the right categories was less able to get funding.

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