New England, old bigotry

February 20, 1998

A little unexpected history awaited when a student started digging through the dusty archives at Dartmouth College, part of America's elite Ivy League, in the picturesque town of Hanover, New Hampshire.

In correspondence between a prominent alumnus and the university's then-director of admissions, the student found proof that the prestigious school once limited the number of Jews it would accept.

"The campus seems more Jewish each time I arrive in Hanover," the alumnus complained in a letter in 1934. "And unfortunately, many of them seem to be the 'kike' type."

The then admissions director Robert C. Strong responded: "I am glad to have your comments on the Jewish problem." The university would seek to limit the proportion of Jews to 5 per cent, he said, and if that quota was exceeded, "I shall be grieved beyond words".

Other documents of the era referred to Jews - many of them immigrants from eastern Europe at the time - as "ghetto types" with oily hair and hooked noses. In the 1940s, Dartmouth's president proclaimed he would continue a restriction on admitting Jewish freshmen, saying that the purpose of the university was the "Christianisation of its students".

The undergraduate who found these documents proceeded to write her thesis on the topic. What followed had another unexpected twist: the current president of Dartmouth read some of the documents aloud at this winter's dedication of a new campus centre for Jewish students.

"We must confront the ghosts of the past and recognise that we have a history that's not commendable in this respect," the president, James O. Freedman, told a stunned audience. "It's not just Dartmouth. It was the same at Harvard and Yale."

No one was overly surprised by the disclosures, said Rabbi Philip Posner, Dartmouth's Jewish chaplain. "I don't think that it seems relevant to Jewish students today. And there was a general knowledge that in those days Ivy League colleges had quotas."

Things have changed. Mr Freedman himself is Jewish, as are the presidents of Princeton and Yale. So are about 10 per cent of Dartmouth's 5,123 students. There is an active campus Jewish group that runs sabbath meals and lectures.

Mr Freedman's comments came at the inauguration of a new $4 million Center for Jewish Life named after a Jewish New York real estate developer who was a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1962.

"This was a remarkable project of healing the wounds," said Rabbi Daniel Siegel, who chaired the building campaign. "Everybody knows that all the other Ivies have changed.

"On a certain level, Dartmouth brought up the rear. But that's just the way Dartmouth does things - a little more slowly and thoughtfully," he said.

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