As the U. S. Supreme Court puts an end to racially-based, affirmative action—a case involving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—we might recall the time when universities intended admission preferences not as a tool of inclusion but rather exclusion. African Americans were denied admission by law to white campuses while Jews confronted quotas that limited their enrollment.
The numeru s clausus (Latin, closed number), a Jewish quota, was common in European universities, but by the 1920s, elite northern colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia began responding to what Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell called the “Jewish problem.” After the mass migration of over two million Jews from the 1880s to 1920s, the second generation began applying to northern colleges in disproportionate numbers, at some urban northern schools rising to 20 or even 40 percent of enrollment. Rather than impose outright anti-Jewish quotas, Yale and Harvard limited Jewish enrollment by other means, introducing geographical or “character” considerations that would exclude Jews without a specifically religious disqualification. In their private correspondence university deans and presidents spoke their prejudices. A Yale dean wrote, “Never admit more than five Jews, and take no blacks at all.” Admissions would be skewered to limit the Jews on their campuses. Statistics demonstrate their success.
Northern Jews turned to southern campuses where quotas were not so blatantly felt, especially in states without large Jewish populations. Admission standards were also regarded as easier and more liberal. State universities like Alabama saw their out-of-state Jewish enrollment spike. No school was more attractive than Chapel Hill under liberal chancellor Frank Porter Graham which had by then a reputation for progressivism. In 1936 15 percent of UNC’s entering class was Jewish although Jews comprised less than one percent of the state’s population. It became the school of choice for the state’s Jewish males (while women turned to Woman’s College—now UNC-Greensboro). Statistics at Duke University in the 1930s suggest a quota was in effect there: over a seven year period Duke’s Jewish enrollment remained consistently below 3 percent although the medical school maintained a more liberal 15 percent quota.
The quota question in North Carolina reached its climax in 1933 when a northern Jewish student married to a Durham woman complained to UNC President Graham that he had been denied admission to UNC’s two-year medical school by a quota. Graham called in Dean Isaac Manning who admitted that he kept a 10 percent Jewish quota—only four Jewish students—but exempting in-state Jews. The dean argued that he could not place Jewish students in four-year medical schools because of the quota system. Graham ordered Manning to admit the Jewish student, but, supported by all but one of his faculty as well as by alumni groups, Manning stood his ground. He claimed that he was defending academic freedom. The case drew national headlines at a time when anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda was rampant in the United States. Graham ordered the student admitted which led Dean Manning to resign. Jews across the country hailed Graham as a hero. Always a friend of the Jewish people, Graham was instrumental in bringing Hillel to campus and was an outspoken advocate of European Jewish immigration in the Nazi era as well as a prominent Christian Zionist.
Jewish enrollment at Duke would remain consistently at about 5 percent. With racial integration in the 1960s Duke stopped asking a religious preference question on its application and Jewish enrollment rose to as high as 20 percent. Today affirmative action is intended not as an instrument of exclusion but of inclusion. If Jewish enrollment as a percentage of student bodies is declining, that owes more to changing demographics, the rise of Asian-American population as well as the advent of students of Latinx and African descent.
For more on the celebrated UNC medical school case of 1933, see Edward Halperin, “Frank Porter Graham, Isaac Hall Manning, and the Jewish Quota at University of North Carolina Medical School,” North Carolina Historical Review 67,4(Oct 1990), 385-410.