For God, For Country, and For Yale: How top colleges figured out how to turn away Jews


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I’m Jewish, and I was told this by my father in an off-handed manner when I was applying to colleges ten years ago. I’ll admit, I occasionally wondered at how true it was, because it felt really blatant. Now I’m irritated at having ever doubted.


When my father was denied entrance to a particular liberal arts college (which will remain un-named) his principal couldn’t believe it. He was such a good student he should have been a shoo-in. When his principal called the college to find out what happened he was informed that the Jewish quota was already filled. (Coincidentally, I ended up attend that very same school 27 years later.)


Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this for the New Yorker some years ago. Well worth the read, in my opinion.


In academic math, there are famous examples of this from Moscow State University. Unwanted applicants would be presented with extremely difficult problems that had obscure but elementary solutions. Here’s a paper giving some of the problem . It describes them as having a simple solution that is difficult to find. This gave cover to the examiners, who could point to an easily understood answer. (The preprint linked above is titled Jewish Problems although the paper was published under the title Killer Problems.)

(Edited to correct quote: a simple solution…)


Kind of like those literacy tests to vote in the south.


One of my children applied to UChicago, which is known as the #1 college for crazy essay questions. She did, indeed, have to answer the classic “if you were a hotdog condiment, which would you be and why?” It was a great essay, actually.

UChicago accepted women and Jews from the start. And it’s over 100 years old, so “tradition” isn’t much of an excuse at other long-standing colleges.

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There’s actually good reason to believe that they do. Consider these experiments with job applications, in which changing one’s name to an apparently “white” name made an enormous difference in whether one got an interview.

Man Takes Fake “White” Name To Test Job Discrimination

Employers’ Replies to Racial Names

This can be countered by strong affirmative action policies – which were banned in California a few years ago. First affirmative action was banned in admissions to the University of California, then that was used as a model for a state-wide ban a year later.


They had a chapter in Freakonomics about how ethnic sounding names could be a detriment to getting call backs from just sending in a resume. (Though the point of a the chapter was that a name doesn’t decide ones’ fate.)

But they also pointed out, if they didn’t want to call you in for an interview because you are black, even with a name like John Smith they are going to discriminate against you when you come in for an interview.

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Yes. Which brings us back to the implicit point of the original article.

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Richard Feynman actually wanted to go to Columbia University as an undergrad but was turned away despite his excellent record because of the Jewish cap on enrollments. He ended up going to a minor technical school in Cambridge, MA instead. (Okay, MIT was beginning to become famous when he went, but nowhere near as famous as it is today).


They don’t mention the type of positions they were applying to, but I suspect some sort of white-collar type. It would be interesting to try a similar study with Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, and Arabic names, as well as African-American and WASPy names. I think some groups are considered “smarter”, such as Jews and Asians, and might actually do better in some fields. I would suspect one would find more anti-semitism, and more discrimination in general for blue-collar positions, but who knows? Perhaps some groups would be perceived as willing to work for less money? It would be interesting to see how Muslim-sounding names would fare in the current climate.
Your point of discrimination being alive and well in the workplace is well-taken. But what about in universities? Many complain that minorities are given a leg up over white applicants. I wonder how this really plays out in practice. Surely someone has studied this?

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Of course, if she picked ketchup, she’d be immediately rejected, because you don’t put that on hot dogs in Chicago.


There are a lot of studies, of course.

At UC Berkeley, at least, where I was present before and after the elimination of affirmative action, there was a significant drop in admissions of black and Latino students. See this document, California: A Case Study in the Loss of Affirmative Action:

This paper briefly reviews the various efforts undertaken by the University of California to maintain diversity in the institution, and especially at its highly competitive flagship campuses, UCLA and Berkeley, in the face of the loss of affirmative action during the mid-1990s. It demonstrates the continuing decline in representation of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in spite of these efforts, even as URMs have become the majority of all students in the state. Although applications to the flagship campuses have doubled since 1995, and all groups have seen reductions in the percent of applicants offered admission, African American and Latino admittees have been reduced by 70 to 75 percent at UCLA and UC Berkeley, compared to just 35 and 40 percent for Asian and white applicants. This disproportionate decline reflects the inequalities in the California educational system that fails to prepare African American, Native American and Latino students for highly competitive selection processes irrespective of their intellectual ability or likelihood of succeeding in their studies. The consequences of continuing down the same path will likely result in the solidification of educational inequality and economic dislocations for the state.

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It should be pointed out that all of those criteria are still in place, they still are used for exactly the same purpose. It’s simply that now they are used to discriminate against people of asian descent rather than Jews, because Jews are white now. If this were not the case, you would see a proportion of students of asian descent in all of the top universities similar to that in Cal Tech, which doesn’t implement an unofficial cap like this, eg ~40%.


Which is why when it came time for grad school, his professors at MIT insisted that he leave. They didn’t want to hold him back.

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That’s not just him. The MIT physics dept won’t accept any of their undergrads to their graduate program, period.

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I like you already!

I’ve always wondered how my adopted son will be treated if he comes up against that system. Maybe they’ll put him down as ‘honorary white’.

I’ve heard that the Bar Associations encouraged universities to curtail evening law schools because “too many” blacks and Jews were getting law degrees.

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