How 1920s anti-Semitism inspired the modern-day admission system

The University, along with many of its peers at the time, adopted certain admission practices still in use today — including holistic assessment of applicants and alumni interviews — in part from a desire in the early 20th century to keep Jewish students out of Brown.

In archived admission files and Herald articles, the University’s presidents, deans of admission and former Herald staff exhibit signs of covertly promoting anti-Semitic discrimination.

In the 1920s, Brown and other private universities sought to shed their reputations as country clubs for adolescents and to become better known for their devotion to academics and commitment to liberal arts education. Undergraduates and deans of admission alike, Herald archives indicate, called for a more selective admission process to create a student body enthusiastic about bettering both Brown’s social and academic culture.

Members of the Brown community, like those at many elite institutions, believed the best candidates for such a student body were white, Protestant males from top prep schools. Of the applicants Brown attracted, Jewish candidates faced the most frequent rejection. 

As European immigration surged in the early 20th century, elite universities became a vehicle through which wealthy Protestants controlled their social surroundings by creating environments that excluded Jews and recent immigrants, a trend sociologist Jerome Karabel notes with regard to Harvard, Yale and Princeton in his book “The Chosen.”

The universities that did not preserve a predominantly white, Protestant social environment became ridiculed as the domains of undesirables. In her public policy honors thesis, Amy Sohn ’95 wrote that City College of New York, where Jewish students constituted 80 percent of the study body in 1918, became known as “the Jewish University of America.”

Brown, though perhaps less discriminatory than some of its peers, did develop a culture that favored old, Protestant families, said Ted Widmer, assistant to special projects to President Christina Paxson, who is writing a book about Brown’s history.

By the end of the 19th century, universities automatically admitted students who passed their entrance exams, a practice that limited their power to choose students. Students who attended choice secondary schools could completely bypass the entrance exams, Sohn found.

In 1902, Brown helped found the New England College Entrance Certificate Board, which, Sohn wrote, “approved secondary schools from which students could enter by certificate.” Harvard joined in 1904, Yale in 1909 and Princeton in 1910. Exam standards and certificates would self-select a freshman class of wealthy Protestant men from choice prep schools until the Jewish children of immigrants at urban public schools began to score high enough on the examinations and gained admission in increasing numbers to elite institutions. 

Brown students recognized the expanding presence of Jewish students on campus, and Brown’s deans of admission, like their peers, began to note “a Jewish problem” — phrasing Sohn found in Brown admissions memos circulating in 1940.

On the undergraduate level, a Nov. 5, 1925 Herald editorial articulated concerns over whom Brown enrolled and how those admits colored the student body. 

“There seems each year to be an increase of the undesirable type of ‘grind,’” the editors wrote. “Men who have neither the ability nor the inclination to add to the sum of the total of the university’s achievements, and who are a perpetual drain on the morale of the college.”

Though never explicitly identified by religion or ethnicity, the students — dubbed “carpet-baggers” — appeared in cartoons published in the Brown Jug, possessing features associated with contemporary Jewish stereotypes. In February 1921, for instance, five cartoons showed a “carpet-bagger” with a large, angular nose and dark hair, wearing glasses and walking while either reading or carrying books.

The term “carpet-bagger” stemmed from the satchels the men brought to campus as they walked up the hill from their local Providence homes, Sohn writes. These commuter students, she deducted, were likely the college-aged children of the Jewish immigrants Sohn claimed arrived in Providence between 1885 and 1906. 

Meanwhile, President William Faunce and Dean Otis Randall grappled covertly with both the increase in students deemed undesirable and how to craft new admission policies that could reconfigure the undergraduate population. Sohn, who reviewed hundreds of admission files, discovered hidden implementations of students’ ideas to promote greater selectivity.

For instance, a Herald questionnaire published in October 1925 polled students on whether athletic ability, personality and geographic diversity should be considered over scholarship or whether the University should continue to use the existing certificate system for admission, which admitted academically mediocre but wealthy students as well as the academically superior “carpet-baggers.”

If each applicant “must pass the critical judgment of an alumnus,” the editors asked, “Is it any wonder then that Dartmouth has successfully eliminated the carpetbagger?”

In turn, the Committee on Admissions adopted this more holistic application in the fall of 1928.

The University had moved to find “desirable members for the class, a process requiring discrimination and discretion, together with broadmindedness,” an article from the October 1928 Brown Alumni Monthly reported. Each applicant would now receive an evaluation from an alum or qualified alternative and would be asked to provide detailed information on personality, goals for college, parents’ educational backgrounds and accounts of any prior work experience, as well as contact information for past employers. 

Defying their traditional secrecy, the admission committee disclosed the questions they asked interviewers to answer, Brown Alumni Monthly reported. Those included inquiries as to whether applicants were “applicant attractive and well-bred in appearance and deportment,” “the kind of a man whom you yourself would welcome as a classmate in college” and someone who could “prove an asset to Brown University.”

The extent of the committee’s discrimination against Jewish students remained unclear throughout the decade, and any direct references remained equally ambiguous. Sohn’s thesis includes admission files coding students as “X” and their unwanted presence as an “X problem.” But as notes through the 1930s reveal, Sohn wrote in a 2006 article for the Jewish Daily Forward, admission officers and references continued to explicitly allude to applicants’ Jewish status in assessing whether they would fit in at Brown.

Informal quotas, multiple scholars have determined, existed for several decades, despite admission deans’ gradual move toward inclusion in the 1960s.