The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before Asian Americans sued Harvard, the school once tried restricting the number of Jews

Rowers paddle along the Charles River past the Harvard College campus in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

In the early 20th century, some of Harvard’s leaders were deeply upset. Jews — “Hebrews” as they were dubbed at the Cambridge campus — were on the rise. Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, was pushing for a cap. Fifteen percent seemed just the right amount to him. But to investigate the dilemma even further, Harvard decided to count the number of Jews enrolled between 1900 and 1922. The university wanted to see the exact rising slope of its Jewish demographic.

So, Harvard combed enrollment cards and other college records of students from the previous two decades, classifying each person into one of four categories: J1: a bona fide Jew. J2: more than likely a Jew; J3: “might be” a Jew; and, then “Other.”

The report’s conclusion: Just 7 percent of Harvard’s enrollment in 1900 was Jewish. By 1909, it was 10 percent. Six years later, it rose again to 15 percent. And in 1922, it was 21.5 percent, according to “The Chosen,” Jerome Karabel’s 2005 investigation into the history of Ivy League admissions.

To Lowell, the study confirmed his worst fears. “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also,” Lowell wrote in 1922 to a Harvard philosophy professor.

On Monday, Harvard goes on trial in a Boston federal court facing accusations for essentially doing the same thing to Asian Americans. For the last four years, a group of Asian American students who applied to Harvard and were rejected has been suing the university, arguing that they were the subject of discrimination and that Harvard has been setting unofficial quotas. At the end of last month, even the Justice Department weighed in on the federal case, saying that plaintiffs’ evidence proves that the school has been engaging in “racial balancing” to select its classes, possibly running afoul of the Supreme Court’s limits on affirmative action.

The department urged the judge to go forward with a trial, rather than dismiss it as Harvard has sought. In response, Harvard contended that it does not discriminate but that “colleges and universities must have the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse communities that are vital to the learning experience of every student.” The case might wind up at the Supreme Court as the next landmark battle in whether colleges can look at race in admissions.

But there was no doubt that back in the early 1900s, Harvard and Princeton employed racist and anti-Semitic practices in its admissions.

At one point during Woodrow Wilson’s tenure as Princeton’s president, not a single black student was enrolled, according to “The Chosen.” After Wilson got a letter from a black man from South Carolina inquiring about enrollment, Wilson responded that it would be “altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter,” according to Karabel’s book.

Since then, Princeton has struggled with its reputation. “This Side of Paradise,” by former student F. Scott Fitzgerald, chronicled the privileged life of Amory Blaine and his time at Princeton, which reinforced stereotypes about the campus as a country club for WASPs. (As Karabel notes in “The Chosen,” there’s only one Jew in Fitzgerald’s famous novel and he doesn’t have a name. He’s just known as “a Jewish youth.”) And just three years ago, Princeton undergraduates, many of them students of color, staged a sit-in at historic Nassau Hall, demanding that Wilson’s name be scrubbed from campus buildings. Princeton didn’t budge.

As for Harvard, Lowell continued fighting over the number of Jews on campus. He was alarmed not just by the increase in Jews but also by another data point the school gathered: Jewish students were outperforming gentiles by large margins.

“Were Harvard committed to raising the academic level of its student body, the proportion of Jews, the evidence suggested, should be increased rather than decreased,” Karabel wrote in his book.

By 1925, the percentage of Jews kept rising, all the way to more than 27 percent, according to Karabel. Lowell was undeterred and wrote a letter to a colleague on the school’s committee to limit the size of the freshman class, saying Harvard needed “[t]o prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews.”

Lowell served as president until the early 1930s, but he would ultimately lose his battle as the Cambridge school became more and more progressive. Despite his past, Harvard has preserved his legacy. The school’s biography of him on its website lists none of his anti-Jewish past. And one of the undergraduate residences is still called Lowell House — technically named after the entire family, according to Harvard, and most closely linked to another Lowell: John Lowell, who graduated in 1721 and became a local clergyman.

Read more Retropolis:

Helen Keller archive reveals little-known details about the advocate’s extraordinary life

Albert Einstein decried racism in America. His diaries reveal a xenophobic, misogynistic side

It’s the 50th anniversary of the day Trump left college and (briefly) faced the draft

Berkeley gave birth to the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Now, conservatives are demanding it include them.