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The History of Jews at the U-M: Exclusion and Inclusion in American Higher Education

Karla Goldman

In celebrating its bicentennial, the University of Michigan is by no means sticking to a recitation of Great Achievements. Uncomfortable parts of our history are on view as well. The year led off with an exhibit at the Hatcher Graduate Library, The Leaders and the Rest: Boundaries and Belonging at the University of Michigan, chronicling, among other controversies, monitoring of “secret societies;” a graph showing tuition increases with the headline, “Who Bears the Cost?” and an account of the expulsion of four Jewish “radicals” in the 1940s. Karla Goldman, Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work, has been on the trail of stories like that last one long before the bicentennial.

Goldman teaches The History of Jews at the University of Michigan: Exclusion and Inclusion in American Higher Education, which includes MSW candidates from our Jewish Communal Leadership Program (JCLP). She created the course in 2013 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of U-M’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. In our bicentennial year, the course is relevant again, in ways that are unsettling. The day Ongoing sat down with Goldman was the day a series of racist and anti-Semitic emails went out from a hacked account at the U-M School of Engineering. Since then, the country has seen threats made to Jewish community centers and Jewish cemeteries vandalized. These incidents remind us that, however far we have come, the battle continues. Goldman traces the history of that battle for Jewish students, a tale she had recently shared in a Bicentennial lecture at Hatcher entitled, “‘But Not the Loud, Offensive Type’: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Michigan during the Era of Jewish Admissions Quotas, 1925-1939.”

In the 1920s, as the children of recent Jewish immigrants to the United States headed to college, elite private universities in the northeast imposed quotas on Jewish admissions. Among the justifications: Jews’ political beliefs, their lack of “character” (an elitist WASP abstraction essentially created to exclude Jews and others deemed outsiders) and other alleged offenses that ironically included a supposed tendency to over-study. Given the Ivy League’s quotas, U-M and other public universities became attractive to children of east coast Jewish immigrant families. U-M became a center for creating and shaping ethnic aspiration, the process of Americanization, the development of American Jewish culture, and ultimately, of course, the study of all these in the context of young adult identity formation.

Quotas also led to the creation, in the 1920s, of the modern college application. Schools that had previously required only entrance exams suddenly wanted to know parents’ names, birthplaces, religion, and any name changes—and face-to-face interviews. Michigan’s application form was not as detailed or as intrusive as some. “This may reflect what U-M represented as a public institution,” Goldman said. “Anti-Semitism was there, but it was perhaps not as virulent.” Nonetheless, our application was created during the brief U-M presidency (1925-1929) of Clarence Cook Little, the Harvard-educated cancer and genetics researcher who was a great believer in eugenics (and whose name still adorns a science building at the northeast corner of the Diag).

Ironically, though, those intrusive applications, where preserved in archival collections, are treasure troves for researchers. Cinda Nofziger, assistant archivist for academic programs and outreach at the Bentley Historical Library, has been helping Goldman’s students. She observes that, “finding an actual application is very helpful. It will have tons of information. But they never asked directly about religion. They circled around, asking about name changes and parents’ places of birth.”

“Jews are a settled part of the academic landscape now,” Goldman points out, “so you feel a sort of vertigo reading about efforts to keep them out. But we must see the University for what it is and for what it was then. A university maintains privilege, so affirmative action and other diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives of today must be seen as shifts from previous, active attempts to exclude.”

Goldman teaches her students not just the Jewish history of the University, but how to use research tools. Helped by a faculty seminar at the Bentley focused on engaging students in research with primary sources, Karla’s students are fleshing out an important campus narrative. “A lot of material is surfacing from the Bentley through my students’ efforts,” she said. The students also spoke to older relatives about their experiences in higher education. Many had not heard these stories before, and many had never before created or presented new knowledge. “I felt like I myself was a student again,” Goldman said, “putting the story together. I wanted this group to know they could help build this narrative.”

Nofziger points out that archives, arranged not by subject but by collection creator (admissions, provost’s office, etc.), pose challenges for students trying to nail specific evidence. It may take hours of detective work. Nonetheless, the students “worked hard and were on the trail,” Nofziger said.

“Uncovering history is a time-consuming process.” Jacob Ehrlich, a JCLP student and MSW ’18 candidate in Goldman’s class, said, “The exposure to primary sources is exciting. I’ve become enthralled by the process of combing through and taking notes. It’s cool to think we are making a significant contribution, even if we’re just scratching the surface. It’s a surface that hasn’t been scratched too much. I want to go to rabbinic school and maybe work as a campus rabbi, so it’s interesting to dig back and see that some Jewish student concerns—social life versus spiritual life, for example—are perennial.”

The persistence of all these issues was more than apparent when the students of Judaic Studies 441 presented their research to the public at the Frankel Center on April 20, adding to the narrative of the history of the University of Michigan and sharing their contributions with an engaged audience of fellow students, faculty, and community members. All are now prepared to watch as the University begins a third century of balancing the concerns of the leaders…and the rest.

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