The Ivy Coach Daily

June 20, 2024

On Harvard University’s Antisemitic Legacy

The former Harvard University president A. Lawrence Lowell is featured in a black university robe.
This despicable former Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell flexed his power to exclude Jewish students.

Previously Published on July 5, 2020:

Unfortunately, the antisemitic tensions that have recently reached a boiling point at Harvard University did not arise out of nowhere. Harvard has an antisemitic legacy that has stretched back for generations, punctuated at times by explicit discrimination on the part of the administration. We at Ivy Coach have a saying: where Harvard goes, the rest of higher education tends to follow! Starting with President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s infamous admissions quotas for Jewish students in the 1920s, a culture of abashed antisemitism began to spread from the Ivy League to other elite universities. Let’s take a look at this troubled history that seems to be repeating itself.

A Brief History of Antisemitism at Harvard University

For the first half of its 400 year history, Harvard almost exclusively serviced the sons of wealthy white Christian families from the Northeastern United States. However, in the early twentieth century, an influx of Jewish immigrants to the east coast produced a new generation of academically-ambitious students with their sights set on Harvard. By 1921, one in five Harvard undergraduates were Jewish. 

To address the changing demographics of the student body, President Lowell (whose name still graces the undergraduate dormitory Lowell House) convened the Committee on Methods for Sifting Candidates for Admission. Through extensive surveillance of enrolled students and antisemitic rhetoric, the Committee attempted to predict the likelihood that an applicant was Jewish, with the ultimate goal of suppressing the number of Jewish students admitted to campus.

The legacy admissions preference was introduced at Harvard in the 1930s to tacitly codify anti-Jewish discrimination. The practice spread like wildfire across the Ivy League, dramatically decreasing the proportion of Jewish students able to receive an elite education in the middle third of the twentieth century. These policies paralleled and often went further than U.S. immigration quotas bent upon maintaining the white Protestant character of the nation. It would not be until the 1960s that explicit Jewish quotas would be phased out at Harvard and other Ivy League schools. 

How the Vestiges of Antisemitism Have Stayed on Harvard’s Campus

Despite its antisemitic origins, the legacy preference has stayed in place at Harvard. Even though it’s no longer touted as an insidious way to suppress the number of Jewish applicants, we at Ivy Coach have long called for an end to the troubled practice, which only serves to give the most privileged applicants an unfair advantage. But that’s not the only way Harvard’s legacy of antisemitism has reared its ugly head in the twenty-first century.

Former President Claudine Gay’s horrific testimony to Congress on Harvard’s climate of antisemitism was not the cause as much as the symptom of a greater problem that has been plaguing college campuses across the nation in the last few years. To make matters worse, student encampments touting antisemitic rhetoric and appealing to many of the same tactics of vilification that President Lowell employed one century ago are threatening Jewish students across the U.S. President Gay was rightfully ousted for her questionable rhetoric (along with allegations of plagiarism), but her successor President Alan Garber’s administration has unfortunately been plagued by insufficient action against a threat that has no place in the twenty-first century at Harvard.

Harvard Can and Must Do Better

President Garber should take cues from Dartmouth President Sian Beilock, who has demonstrated how an Ivy League leader proactively addresses antisemitism while maintaining institutional dignity. It’s high time that the Ivy League transgresses the pecking order dictating that Harvard lead the charge and its counterparts follow. History has taught us, and is continuing to teach us, that Harvard simply can not be a leader when it comes to the eradication of campus antisemitism. 

This issue is not just an ideological struggle, it has major consequences for institutional longevity. Major donors have pulled funding or threatened to pull funding as a result of Harvard’s failure to protect its Jewish students at this critical juncture. Until the institution takes a stand against blatant displays of antisemitism that are quickly becoming normalized on campus, donors are well within their right to use their leverage to demand that Harvard does better!

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