jewish student quotas -- 10/9/15

Today's selection -- from Model Woman by Robert Lacey. Young Eileen Ford, nee Ottensoser, who was later to be the founder and CEO of the trailblazing and spectacularly successful Ford Modeling Agency of New York, wanted to attend Barnard College in the 1940s. The problem, however, was that Barnard had a so-called Jewish Quota, which limited the number of Jewish applicants who would be accepted. The solution was simple -- she changed her last name:

"Loretta Ottensoser had no doubt. She wanted her only daughter, Eileen, to attend a truly top-class college for women, and in her estimation, that was Barnard, whose magnificent Greek columns dominated the western sidewalk of Upper Broadway. Barnard College (founded in 1889) rivaled Vassar for leadership of the famed 'Seven Sisters' group of elite female liberal arts colleges, which were located close to some of the finest Ivy League universities for men and shared academic activities with them to varying degrees. Barnard's 'brother' college was Columbia, even more glorious than its sister, with its green campus and Greek -- and Roman -- columned buildings, its gates only a few yards away from Barnard, immediately opposite, on the other side of Broadway.

"The problem for Eileen Ottensoser was that, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and all the Ivy League schools in the 1930s, Columbia and Barnard imposed the so-called Jewish Quota. The colleges felt they had too many Jewish students, and systematically sought to cut down that number. In 1935, for example, in his final year at high school, the future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman won the New York University Math Championship by a huge margin that shocked the judges. Yet he was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, and though his high school grades were perfect or near perfect in math and science, he was not accepted when he applied to Columbia. (He went to MIT instead.)

"Many American academics in the 1920s were quite open about their implementation of the quota, which they regarded as a matter of racial fairness, not prejudice. 'Never admit more than five Jews; take only two Italian Catholics; and take no blacks at all,' was the maxim of the Yale School of Medicine, according to David Oshinsky, the biographer of Jonas Salk, inventor of the Salk polio vaccine, who ended up at New York University (alma mater of Nat Ottensoser) rather than at any Ivy League school. In 1935, Yale accepted just five out of two hundred Jewish applicants.

"The dilemma facing the Ivy League was comparable to that faced today by educators in cities such as New York, where Asian students, less than 10 percent of the city's student population, routinely win more than 50 percent of the top high school places on merit. Until 1924, entry to U.S. colleges and universities was decided on the basis of an essay written in English, and Jewish students worked hard, often with special tutors, to practice and perfect their essay writing technique -- as compared, say, with relatively untutored farm boys and girls from rural schools in the Midwest.

"The introduction that year of the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) was deliberately designed to counter this advantage by offering all intelligent pupils the equality of boxes to tick, and from 1924 the proportion of Jewish students in U.S. higher education started to fall, through dilution. The arrival of increasing numbers of strapping young men and women from the Farm Belt also did no harm to the record of the East Coast's varsity sports teams.

"Yet 'the quota' remained.

" 'We limit the number of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state,' said the dean of Cornell's medical college as late as 1940, citing a policy that was dignified with the name numerus clausus. At the Yale School of Medicine, applications by Jewish students were marked with an H, for 'Hebrew,' while Harvard requested passport-size photos to help identify Semitic facial features. Using questions about religious affiliation and giving priority to the sons of alumni (the so-called legacy preference), the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons was able to reduce its proportion of Jewish students from 47 percent in 1920 to some 6 percent twenty years later -- to the delight of alumni who deplored Jewish students as 'damned curve-raisers' for working too hard and decreasing the value of the leisurely 'gentleman's C.'

"Barnard, to its credit, tried to stand apart from such prejudice. The taboo-breaking college was largely the creation of Annie Nathan Meyer, a self-educated Sephardic Jew who had the clever idea of naming her all-female project in honor of a man, Frederick Barnard, the open-minded president of Columbia in 1889. Virginia Gildersleeve, the college's dean from 1911 until 1946, disdained religious and racial exclusivity, encouraging the admission of young African American women to the school and paying to support at least one through to graduation from her own personal funds.

"Yet, in the interest of diversity, Gildersleeve did seek to dilute the 40 percent preponderance of Jewish students at Barnard in the 1920s, supplementing the traditional admission essay with psychological tests, interviews, and letters of recommendation, so that by the late 1930s only 20 percent of Barnard women were Jews. This did not totally eliminate Eileen Ottensoser's chances of gaining entry to Columbia's prestigious sister school, but by her own admission, she had scarcely been a serious high school student and she had a far better chance of securing one of Barnard's 80 percent of non-Jewish places.


Robert Lacey


Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty


Harper an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2015 by Robert Lacey


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