.Rewriting Wrongs: Stanford admits to antisemitic admission practices in the 1950s

It was well-known throughout the Jewish community in the 1950s that Stanford University discriminated against Jewish applicants, despite the university routinely denying biased admissions practices.

Seventy years later, the university is finally admitting that it purposefully limited the admission of Jewish students after uncovering documents and data proving explicit antisemitic policies at Stanford at the time. The university’s current leadership is apologizing for its past, and pledges to improve Jewish life on campus, including changing the academic calendar so the start of fall semester no longer conflicts with the Jewish High Holy Days.

“These actions were wrong, they were damaging, and they were unacknowledged for too long,” Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne said in a message to students and staff last week about the 1950s’ policies. “Today, we must work to do better, not only to atone for the wrongs of the past, but to ensure the supportive and bias-free experience for members of our Jewish community that we seek for all members of our Stanford community.” 

Tessier-Lavigne’s message followed the release of a report from a task force of faculty, staff, trustees, alumni and students charged with investigating allegations of antisemitic admissions practices. Religious studies professor Ari Kelman, who led the task force, said in a webinar last week that the investigation comes at a time when American colleges, universities and other institutions are “investigating their own histories.” Much has been reported on Ivy League colleges’ quotas limiting the number of Jewish students starting in the 1920s and lasting decades later.

Institutions are “beginning to reckon seriously with past misdeeds, including their systematic involvement in practices of exclusion and exploitation at both the individual and institutional levels,” Kelman said. “The work of the task force follows other efforts at Stanford that preceded it, which is part of a larger effort to better understand the legacies of our university and people, ideas and actions that shape it.”

That task force was formed in response to an August 2021 blog post by historian Charles Petersen revealing a 1953 memo to Wallace Sterling, Stanford’s then-president, from his assistant, Frederic Glover. The memo said that the university’s director of admissions, Rixford Snyder, wanted to “disregard” the university’s policy of not paying attention to the race or religion of applicants so he could limit the number of Jewish applicants—a move that Glover supported. 

Snyder said he was concerned about two Los Angeles high schools—Beverly Hills and Fairfax—that had mostly Jewish student bodies. He told Glover that if the university accepted a few Jewish applicants from those schools, “the following year we’ll get a flood of Jewish applicants.”

The task force determined that in the years following the memo, the admission of Jewish students from Fairfax and Beverly Hills high schools dropped significantly. The task force looked into enrollment data from those schools, broken up into three-year increments. The data showed that between 1949 and 1952, Beverly Hills high enrolled 67 students at Stanford and Fairfax enrolled 20. Those numbers then continued to drop throughout the ’50s, and between 1952 and 1956, Stanford only accepted two students from Fairfax. Beverly Hills High showed a similar decline.

While the antisemitic practices of Ivy League colleges were well documented—sometimes even in formalized quota policies—Stanford University had no documentation of such practices or formal discriminatory admission policies until the 1953 memo was discovered.

“This memo is the most explicit statement of the desire of anyone in the university to exclude Jewish applicants,” Kelman said.

The memo had a checkbox for Stanford’s top administrators to designate if they had read it or not. Though several had signed off on it, Sterling himself had not. Kelman said that means there is no proof that Sterling read it or agreed with it. Still, the fact that this memo was created in the first place and shared among administrators goes to show that “this is not an example of one bad actor acting independently,” Kelman said.

This hostile environment to Jewish applicants was no secret within the Jewish community, Kelman said, but when confronted by members of the public or the media about it, Snyder and other administrators denied it.

While historians say American antisemitism sharply declined following World War II, many American Jews still experienced discrimination. Jewish people secured middle-class jobs and began moving to suburban communities, but antisemitic rhetoric began becoming intertwined with anti-communist rhetoric, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer said in a 2018 Atlantic article. 

Kelman said the university was able to hide the practices on a “technicality.” At the time, the Anti-Defamation League and others had launched campaigns to end the well-known quotas limiting Jewish students at Ivy League schools and other colleges. Stanford officials consistently said they didn’t have quotas for Jewish students—which they didn’t—but made no mention of the efforts by Snyder and others to reduce the number of Jewish students.

The report included interviews conducted for the Stanford Historical Society with former students and staff. They corroborated the “widespread impression” that Stanford limited the number of Jewish students. One alumnus, who graduated from Fairfax High School, explained that he was denied by the university despite his accomplishments in high school, and was only accepted after “the extraordinary efforts of his mother to lobby for a transfer admission.” Another said that she didn’t apply to Stanford because it was “common knowledge” among her Jewish friends in Los Angeles that Stanford didn’t accept many Jewish applicants.

“One of the real ways Snyder’s actions were able to be carried out was that he wasn’t just empowered to act within a system that gave him a great deal of latitude, but that it was covered up,” Kelman said. “It flourished in the silence and in the denial and inability or unwillingness of members of the administration to talk honestly about it.”

To rectify the wrongs of the past administration, the task force is calling on current leaders to conduct a comprehensive study of current Jewish life at Stanford, hold anti-bias trainings and programs at the university and formally recognize antisemitism on campus. It also wants the university to better accommodate students’ religious and cultural needs regarding housing and kosher food, and clarify the university’s relationship with Stanford Hillel—the largest independent organization serving Jewish students on campus. 

One of the most frequent complaints among Jewish students is that the opening of fall semester classes often conflicts with Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Stanford officials now say they are working to change the academic calendars to avoid that in the future.

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