Cloak of Meritocracy Harvard’s “New Plan” of Admissions and the “Jewish Problem"

Jacob Moscona-Skolnik

2013 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing


In 1909 Abbott Lowell replaced Charles Eliot as  of Harvard University. This event represented a major turning point in Harvard’s history not only because of the stark differences between the two men, but also because their differences magnified the omnipotence of the Office of the President in University life. Analyzing Lowell’s presidency, historian Elliott Perkins (Harvard College ’23) notes, “Harvard was still small enough, but only just, to be run as a one-man show. [Lowell] seemed to be everywhere, to know everything, to have his finger in every pie and, as far as the College was concerned, he was and he did” (qtd. in Bethell 46). Correspondence about the daily workings of the University passed through Lowell’s office; Harvard alumni and affiliates wrote Lowell directly with questions, suggestions, and complaints about Harvard and the culture of its community. Lowell utilized the unilateral power of his position to influence not only the direction of the University but also, he believed, to determine the composition of the future American elite. Indeed, the authority of the Presidential Office highlighted the sharp contrast between Lowell and Eliot, especially as Lowell’s vision for the University grew further and further from the path that Eliot had prescribed. Much ink has been spilled to showcase Lowell’s power and influence, linking each alteration of University policy and practice to Lowell’s grand design. However, Lowell was often just the most visible emblem of a much broader consensus. This was especially true as Harvard began instituting policies to exclude minority students. Lowell’s bigotry was not unique. Eliot, rather than Lowell, had been the outlier by keeping the dominant prejudice at bay.

The two Harvard presidents held widely divergent opinions of Jewish and other minority students and community members. Their differences were manifested in their approaches to both national politics and university policy. On the national scale, Lowell had participated in a campaign to prevent Louis Brandeis’ nomination to the Supreme Court. Eliot, conversely, supported then President Wilson’s appointment of Brandeis—a Jew—to a position of significant national authority (Pollak 113). Eliot (President 1869-1909) had campaigned on behalf of Jews throughout his tenure at Harvard; nearing the end of his presidency Eliot even asserted, “It would please me to be followed by a Jew” (Pollak 113). Lowell’s administration, however, after just a few years in office, sensed that Jewish students were becoming an unseemly large percentage of Harvard matriculants. Lowell not only proposed a quota system for Jewish applicants, but also initiated a policy to bar black students from freshman dormitories and dining halls. In the early 1920s, new admissions procedures were devised and, in 1923, executed for the first time.

Under the direction of Lowell, the Harvard Board of Overseers established a committee in 1922 with the purpose of altering admissions policies so that Harvard “will be properly representative of all groups in our national life” (Report). Far from establishing the quota-based system that Lowell proposed, the committee reported that it had devised a plan to make admissions more just for applicants from all walks of life. The opening of the report of the committee’s findings (named “Statistical Report of the Statisticians”), presented to the University board in April 1923, asserts that the committee did not attempt to alter the racial distribution of the Harvard student body, but rather to promote a “policy of equal opportunity regardless of race and religion” (Report). Based on its collection of statistical data about the student body, the committee suggested improved procedures to “accomplish a proper selection of individuals among the available candidates for admission to Harvard College” (Report). Put simply, qualitative factors like personality and background, rather than test scores, would now carry more weight—a democratizing “sifting” process. For the first time, students who had scored poorly, but who had less-tangible strengths to offer the Harvard Community, had a leg up in admissions. Sidestepping Lowell’s brazen condemnation of particular ethnic groups, his committee had ostensibly crafted a policy of inclusion. Despite this meritocratic rhetoric, however, personal correspondence among members of the Harvard community suggests that a primary goal of the changing policies was in fact to curb the admission of minority students, especially Jews. Moreover, the desire to exclude Jews from Harvard College was not limited to Lowell or select members of the Harvard administration, but rather a sentiment broadly shared by many faculty, students, and alumni.

The committee’s proposal was praised for its diversification of the attributes and origins of Harvard students and it implemented several changes to the admissions process. For the first time, applicants were made to note their race, religion, and the origin of both parents’ last names. Moreover, the committee report suggested a measure, later approved by Harvard’s Board, to admit students attending an “approved [high] school” if they received a personal recommendation from the school—these students would not have to take an entrance examination. The committee also advocated for admitting a higher number of individuals from the US West and South, decreasing the number of admits from (more ethnically diverse) metropolitan regions (especially New York City, see discussion below on Columbia University). A follow up study that evaluated different methods of admission further advocated “comprehensive entrance examinations” (undefined in the document) and evaluation of the “qualitative standard” of a given applicant rather than empirical comparison (Beatley 1).  Rather than use a standardized examination, Harvard would instead rely on these subjective standards left undefined by Lowell’s committee and by the Harvard administration. While the proposed policy lacked objectivity, it seemed—on its surface—to rebuke the quota system and other forms of direct discrimination proposed by President Lowell.

This essay argues that, despite the claims of Harvard administrators, the new admissions criteria—birthplace, race, athleticism, personality—grew from a desire to subjectively exclude rather than include particular individuals. The result was a plan with the same underlying motivation and similar impact as the quota system proposed by Lowell, veiled in a socially conscious, novel policy. In the absence of definite and specific qualifications for admission, the administration could easily justify not admitting students with the strongest academic performance using the new “qualitative” criteria. Previous research into this pivotal period in the development of higher education has found individual Harvard administrators guilty of prejudiced action, specifically identifying Lowell as the driving force behind Harvard’s exclusionary policy. I argue, however, that a broader movement within the Harvard community gave impetus to bigoted university policy and transformation. The limited opposition to Harvard’s changing policy emerged almost entirely from the Jewish community and, like subsequent research, vilified President Lowell rather than critiquing the new admissions procedure and the bigoted social climate that inspired it. Sadly, the Committee’s prejudice—cloaked in broadening the meritocracy—won public approval that endured for decades. This broad approval is illustrated by the personal correspondences—among President Lowell, individuals in his administration, and members of the larger Harvard community—that form the body of my evidence and research. The result of this extensive campaign of exclusion is unambiguous. With University President Charles Eliot out of the picture, Jews were left largely alone in their protest against the committee’s findings and decisions. These decisions were motivated and then praised not just by President Lowell, but also by broad swaths of the Harvard community.


Before understanding how Harvard’s new admissions policy veiled widespread prejudice in meritocracy, we must first get a better handle on the new plan itself. The plan provides bare-faced evidence that Lowell’s committee, and the broader Harvard administration, employed the euphemistic term “equal opportunity” as a cover for a pernicious program. University records illustrate that clear attempts to stigmatize and eliminate Jews from college life underlie the Lowell administration’s changes to the admissions procedure. The 100+ pages of “statistical data” on which Lowell’s committee relied all pertain to Jewish students and their activity (Statistical Report). The report’s exclusive focus on the Jewish community suggests deep flaws in the formulation of the report itself and leads to the conclusion that, rather than a comprehensive review of Harvard’s admitted students, the report was a launching pad for criticism of Jewish students. Moreover, the statistical report was kept secret so that “few people outside the committee on methods” ever saw it (Synnott, Half-Opened Door 105). The report addressed questions that range from Jewish student participation in social clubs and athletics to the percentage of Jewish students on financial aid as compared to “gentiles.” It concludes with a discussion of the professions that Jews occupy after graduation and the percentage of Jews that end up donating money to Harvard College as graduates (Statistical Report).

The introduction to the chapter documenting participation in social clubs affirms that “the percentage of Jews belonging to social clubs (including Jewish fraternities)…was 27.4%” while the percentage of “students other than Jews belonging to social clubs was 58.6” (Statistical Report). Subsequent pages provide numerical data of the number of Jews in 20 social clubs that include final clubs and fraternities, asking why Jews neglect to participate in the social life of the University and why those that do feel the need to participate in ethnicity-specific organizations (e.g. Jewish fraternities). A letter attached to the final version of the committee report remarked that “in morals, he [the Jew] seems to be more prone to dishonesty and sexual offenses” (Synnott, Half-Opened Door 105). Not only does the statistical report consistently find Jews less desirable than gentiles in non-academic spheres, but it also contains a lengthy discussion of methods for identifying Jewish students both for the purposes of the report and for the purposes of categorizing applicants. All the “potentially Jewish” students were divided into categories J1, J2, and J3 depending on the committee’s level of certainty of the student’s Jewish-ness.  For example, the report notes that while the student’s last name can be illustrative, it alone cannot be used to determine whether a student is Jewish (Statistical Report). Harvard’s administration and Lowell’s committee had more than “equal opportunity” on their minds.

The ulterior motive behind changing the policy for admission was not limited to Harvard’s administration, as it is clear that even students at the time were well aware of the propensity to discriminate against Jews. Students themselves believed that if any group of students were to be excluded from the college, it would be the Jews. In 1922, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics Richard C. Cabot asked the following of his students: “For the good of all persons concerned, is a college ever ethically justified in limiting to a certain percentage the number of any particular race who are admitted to the Freshman class?” (emphasis added) (Ham 225). This question was contemporaneous with a campus-wide debate about the merits of instating specific quotas for individual ethnic groups (Karabel 100). Important messages from the survey are twofold. First, a large plurality—41 out of 83—of the students responded that limitation of certain races is justified (several other students were “on the fence” neither opposing nor advocating for limiting particular races). Second and most important, all students assumed that the professor was referring to Jewish students even though no race was singled out in the prompt. Moreover Jewish students were especially critical of any race-based admissions policy: of the eight students “with Jewish names” that responded, one was “on the fence” while the rest rejected the idea of race-based exclusion. All of those in favor of exclusionary policies were “gentiles”—and these responses explicitly referred to Jews (Ham 225). One student asserted, “Imagine having an alumni so strongly Jewish that they could elect their own president and officers. God forbid!” (Ham 226). Another remarked, “The Jews tend to overrun the college, to spoil it for the native born Anglo-Saxon young persons for whom it was built and whom it really wants” (Ham 226).

Many alumni, in private correspondence, also assumed that the root cause of changing admissions policies was Jewish students. Writing to Lowell in January 1923 about his Committee’s suggestions, James P. Kohler stated, “I fully approve your views concerning the Jews and am in accord with your sentiment that it is up to him to remove the so-called prejudice of which he complains” (Kohler). Similar letters to Lowell and other members of the administration were common; while Lowell consistently responded that despite rumors to the contrary, he was not an anti-Semite,[1] these letters suggest that informed members of the Harvard community understood the driving force behind suggestions made by Lowell’s committee. Historian Oliver Pollak, in a study on anti-Semitism and “the roots of reverse discrimination” (113) at Harvard, accurately asserts, “Historical analysis reveals that the roots of the Harvard Plan [new admissions plan] were a mask for discrimination” (Pollack 120). Pollak also writes that “the most significant proponent of restricting Jewish admissions was Harvard’s President Lowell” (whom Pollak refers to as a “snobbish Massachusetts aristocrat”) (Pollak 113, 114). Lowell, however, was not the sole or even primary advocate for limiting Jewish matriculants, and Lowell, ultimately, was not the architect of the exclusionary New Plan. In his book The Chosen, a large-scale study of changing admissions policies at elite US universities, Jerome Karabel, like Pollack, contends that Lowell was primarily responsible for the discriminatory policy; he notes that in 1922 “Lowell moved decisively” to change admissions (Karabel 89). In Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Marcia Synnott recounts this moment in Harvard’s history as a chronicle of Lowell’s individual actions—she deems changes in admissions procedures to have been Lowell’s own “scheme of limitation” (106). However, placing responsibility for the changing policies and procedures on Lowell’s shoulders overlooks the crucial ways in which this decision in fact resulted from a broader internal campaign and was frequently met with approval by many students, alumni, and members of the Harvard community.



An examination of personal correspondence between members of Harvard’s community reveals that the New Plan grew from a pervasive desire and, ultimately, a campaign to preserve Harvard’s—and the country’s ruling elite’s—traditional racial and religious composition. The Plan, contrary to previous analysis, was not merely motivated by Lowell or a handful of bigoted individuals. An expansive campaign to redouble confrontation of the “Jewish problem” and to develop new mechanisms for “sifting” through applications developed during the first quarter of the 20th century at Harvard. Indeed, the amount of correspondence about Jews was so great that Lowell wrote “Jews” at the top of hundreds of sheets of correspondence and personal documents in order to categorize them. While it is possible that the inscriptions were not made by Lowell himself, they match his handwriting on other documents and the records provide no reason to believe that his personal correspondences were passed through a third party. Whether or not Lowell personally wrote “Jews,” however, is less relevant than the fact that a majority of Lowell’s papers related to admissions in general were categorized (and assumed by the administration) as being explicitly related to the ‘Jewish Problem.

Harvard graduate and attorney Morris Gray Jr. wrote Lowell in 1920 to first voice his approval of the way that Harvard was “dealing with the Negro” but also note that “the question of the Jew is, however, more difficult and, so far as Harvard is concerned, more serious” (Gray 1). Gray continued, “Somehow or other the enrollment of the Jewish students must be limited” (Gray 2). He asserted that a successful admissions policy would “eliminate a large number of the Jews and at the same time not eliminate many men we want…and we need not state we are aiming at the Jews” (Gray 2). Financial investor Hall Allen similarly wrote to Lowell in 1922 that his own experience with “adults of the [Jewish] race” in business led him to conclude “a rigid restriction…against the Jews is not only necessary but most desirable” (Allen 1).  Alumnus Albert Bardes wrote to Lowell the same year: “For many years I have been one of your ardent admirers. You deserve credit for your outspoken, but all too temperate view upon the Jew question” (Bardes 1). According to Bardes, Lowell had not pushed hard enough to bar Jewish entrants (Bardes 1). An anonymous letter in Lowell’s file addressed “To the Jewish Kehillah”[2] states that despite all the opportunities Jews have had to learn from various cultures and countries through which they have traveled, Jews “instead…have brought all [their] old vices and not a few of other Nations” (To the Jewish Kehillah 1). Therefore, according to the author, they should “heed the warning” and stop competing with gentiles for success in  “the American Nation” (To the Jewish Kehillah 1).

Alumni wrote to Lowell suggesting changes to the admissions criteria even before he established his Committee to serve that purpose. In 1920 alumnus Francis C. Woodman penned to Lowell, “Is it not important to adopt some system, other than the present, for determining whether or not a boy shall be given a trial in Harvard College?” (Woodman 1-2). Woodman notes the importance of several factors other than academic scores that later formed part of the Committee’s recommendations presented in 1923: “Should not other tests and considerations be brought to hear on each case—such as the ‘Army (mental) Test’; the statements of accredited schools; the recommendations of trusted individuals who have made a sympathetic study of the character [emphasis is mine] and qualifications of the candidate in question?” (Woodman 2-3). Woodman stresses the importance of “good character” throughout the letter (Woodman 4). Indeed, in the statistical report Jews were similarly criticized for being solely focused on academics and neglecting participation in activities like sports, social clubs, or the Harvard Union. These non-academic criteria that shape the “character” of an individual or institution are culturally informed markers of success that do not transcend ethnicity and, in fact, that can be used to bar particular groups. Importantly, this early suggestion for revised admissions procedures as well as more general criticism of the Jewish presence at Harvard did not emanate from President Lowell, as many scholars suggest, but may likely have emerged from an extensive protest against Jewish students.

While indeed in a powerful position, Lowell was not the driving force behind the masked bigotry of the new admissions plan, which even appeared to repudiate Lowell’s bent towards overt prejudice in choosing among applicants. It has perhaps been more palatable in previous scholarship to attribute the unseemly impulse to Lowell and thereby avoid addressing a widespread sentiment. However, evaluation of the original documents reveals that the responsibility was far broader. In a rare moment of collective decision-making, a communal effort gave impetus to a new admissions policy that, contrary to popular belief at the time, was designed to bar particular students rather than to diversify the student body.

Once it became apparent that Lowell intended to restrict many Jews from entering Harvard through the new application procedures, alumni rushed to congratulate and encourage him. Harvard affiliate Somers L. Myers wrote to Lowell, “Please accept my heartiest congratulations for your frank, real American stand upon the Jewish problem” (Myers 1-2). Myers’ statement conveys that many saw Jewish enrollment in prestigious universities not as an isolated problem on college campuses but as a national, “American” problem. As illustrated above, recognition of the “Jewish Problem” was also not unique to President Lowell. After a New York Times article in January of 1923 quoted a statement made by Lowell on the “Jewish student question,” journalist Jacob Benjamin wrote to Lowell, “As a Jew, this discussion is of vital importance to me and I have written several articles pointing out the causes that produce much of the anti-Semitic feeling, hoping to show my race their weakness” (Benjamin 1). This member of the Jewish community was eager to throw his support behind Lowell’s discriminatory sentiment. In the summer of 1922, Harvard alumnus James E. Turnbull penned to Lowell, “As one of the very least of Harvard’s sons, I wish to voice my hearty approval of any steps the governing powers of the University have taken, or plan to take, to exclude Jews from Harvard” (Turnbull 1). Harvard alumni and affiliates not only first recommended changing University policies toward Jews but also egged on attempts by the administration to take decisive action to exclude Jews from Harvard. Lowell’s omnipotence in campus life and notorious bigoted rhetoric has overshadowed the more subtle but pervasive drive to restrain the admission of Jewish students. Moreover, the newly devised admissions plan seemed to oppose Lowell’s open prejudice by broadening meritocracy. The formulation and consequence of the New Plan, however, suggest a vastly different motivation.

The “New Plan” grew not from President Lowell, or the bigoted views of a handful of individuals, but rather from the countless letters and recommendations that circulated in the Harvard community as a whole. Harvard did not refute but rather bolstered the national trend during the 1920s to exclude newer arrivals to the United States from American institutions. Fear of a perceived surge of Jews in institutions of higher education paralleled national trepidation in response to the influx of immigrants during the economically successful 1920s.  In her earlier study of evolving admissions policies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton 1900-1970, Synnott writes, “Once immigrants had sufficient political and economic leverage, they would be in a position, the native-born feared, to impose alien cultural norms” (Synnott 286). The realm of education, which many felt was a determining factor of success in the United States, thus became a battleground for disagreements about the ethnic composition of the United States and of its future leaders.

Exclusion from Harvard (and peer institutions) was thus not merely exclusion from education but rather viewed as exclusion from future leadership and decision-making power. In comparison to other minority groups, such as Catholics, Jews were “singled out,” according to Synnott, “because they…sought admission to such private institutions as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia”—they chose to compete with ethnic groups that had traditionally attended top universities and assumed leadership of the United States (Synnott 287). Karabel notes that the “Jewish problem” was perceived to be so great at Columbia that by 1921 “the sons of the protestant elite had abandoned Morningside Heights, never to return” (Karabel 87). Columbia’s dean as early as 1914 noticed the ‘problem,’ stating that Columbia had become “socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement”—Karabel, using a phrase common at the time, refers to this phenomenon as “WASP flight” (Karabel 87). One common “college song” from the 1910-20s proclaimed:

Oh Harvard’s run by millionaires,

And Yale is run by booze,

Cornell is run by farmers’ sons

Columbia’s run by Jews. (Karabel 86-7)

A step ahead of the national anti-immigrant trend, active members of the Harvard community preemptively acted to prevent Harvard’s Columbia-like fall. While practices that exclude minority groups—ranging from Native Americans to African Americans to Chinese Americans—had existed for centuries, a turning point in US policy came in 1924 with the signing of the Immigration Act of 1924 (also called Johnson-Reed Act). The law reduced immigration quotas and aimed especially to decrease immigration into the US from Eastern Europe (the origin of most Jewish immigrants), Southern Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia. In the same vein as Harvard’s new admissions policy, the Immigration Act was fundamentally designed “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity” (Office of the Historian, US Dept. of State). The passage of this Act, and its less radical predecessor, the Immigration Act of 1921, came after debates within Harvard about excluding immigrant groups based on national or ethnic origin.



Persuaded that curbing Jewish admission was in the best interest of the University—or genuinely convinced that the New Plan repudiated the anti-Semitism of Lowell and his administration—few criticized the revised policy. Jews themselves were left alone to wage an ultimately futile counter-campaign. Like present-day scholarship, early criticism of anti-Semitism at Harvard singled out Lowell as the primary supporter and enforcer of exclusionary practice. According to Oliver Pollak in “Anti-Semitism, the Harvard Plan, and the Roots of Reverse Discrimination,” while individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, spoke out against Lowell’s apparent anti-Semitism, “the report [made by Lowell’s Committee, mentioned above] appeared to rebuff Lowell’s blatant anti-Jewish plan” (Pollak 118). While the New Plan proposed in the committee report was indeed inspired by pervasive anti-Semitic sentiment (and was fully supported by Lowell himself), its rhetoric won over even those individuals who had accused Lowell of discrimination. “Editorialists praised the report,” continues Pollak, and “Rabbi Louis I. Newman … described the plan as moral victory” (Pollak 118).

The Committee report was not considered a logical extension of the anti-Semitic sentiment of Lowell and others, but rather as a repudiation of discrimination. A member of The Jewish Advocate Publishing Co. wrote a letter pressing Lowell to reveal his opinions about Jews “for the consumption of the Jewish people”; the letter concluded, however, by stating, “The view of the committee, to which you refer, is another matter. We are all waiting patiently for its decision” (Jewish Advocate 1). The “decision” of the committee—to push for more qualitative admissions procedures—was persistently disassociated from the bigoted views of those that motivated its formation.

While, unlike President Lowell, the committee report never overtly suggested the use of a quota, in practice its policy served the same purpose. Furthermore, it served as a model for admissions policies at other top colleges. In 1924, “Yale aimed at stabilizing its Jewish representation at around 10-12 percent [and] Princeton almost halved its number of successful Jewish candidates,” notes Synnott (Synnott 291). Beginning with the class of 1930, Harvard’s Jewish population was deliberately reduced to roughly 10 percent from 25 (Synnott 291).  The new application made Jews easy to identify. The fact that many last names are distinct to Jews led the Harvard administration to add a question to Harvard’s application for admission: “What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully)” (Application). The ‘New Plan’ application also asked the applicant his “race and color,” “religious preference,” and “maiden name of mother” (Application). Yet while Lowell and members of Harvard’s administration were criticized, the New Plan emerged unscathed. Indeed, disparagement of the Lowell administration was built on largely “latent anti-Harvard resentment,” according to Pollak, diverting attention from the bigotry within the Harvard community to instead focus on a more general perception of Harvard’s elitism (Pollak 115). Thus early forms of a “counter-campaign”—much like scholarly research on the subject—vilified individuals without acknowledging the widespread push within the Harvard community to comprehensively alter admissions policies to exclude particular racial and religious groups.

Broad-based approval of a policy of race-based exclusion meant that opposition to the New Plan and to its justification emerged primarily from within the Jewish community. In 1919 Judge Julian Mack, the first individual with whom Lowell consulted about his plan to “limit Jewish enrollments…contacted ex-president Charles Eliot, then 89 years of age, and enlisted his support against Lowell’s plan” (Pollak 116). Removed from the University, however, Eliot had little power to direct policy; only Jews themselves were left to question the New Plan. However, the public and, more importantly, the Harvard community were unconvinced by appeals from the Jewish community. A newspaper clipping in Lowell’s file from the Chicago Tribune recounts Rabbi Abram Hirschberg’s speech from the previous day in which he compared Harvard University’s “narrowness” to the Ku Klux Klan’s “bigotry” (Chicago Tribune). Hirschberg further noted, “The Jew recognizes the democracy of learning that every one ought to have an equal opportunity” (Chicago Tribune). The newspaper article was sent to Lowell by a Chicago-based Harvard affiliate who attached a note maintaining that while the Rabbi’s speech “is not very good propaganda” for Harvard, Hirschberg’s “hatred of Harvard University for the Jews is hardly what might be called fanatical” (Carpenter 1).  Unconvinced by the Rabbi’s appeal, the note’s writer concludes by proposing increased “newspaper propaganda showing our point of view” (Carpenter 1). Not only were many members of the Harvard community unimpressed by Hirschberg’s plea and others like it, but they responded by redoubling their campaign in support of the New Plan.

Jewish organizations often wrote to President Lowell or media outlets with criticisms of the New Plan; similar critiques from non-Jews are for the most part absent from Lowell’s records. Julian M. Drachman published a poem “You, Too?” in The American Hebrew that begins, “You, too John Harvard?...Will you add your name/ To the long, crimson chronicle of shame…” (You Too 1). The Union of Orthodox Rabbis wrote to Lowell on behalf of Jewish applicants when Harvard’s administration refused to administer examinations on any day other than Shabbat in 1923 (Orthodox Rabbis 1). Harry Starr, Harvard ’21 and leading Jewish advocate after graduating, wrote an article in 1922 for the Harvard undergraduate publication The Menorah Journal condemning the exclusion of Jewish students (Wolfson 1). Thus, Jews themselves became the primary critics of the New Plan; their protests, like their applications for admission, were met with disdain by many members of the Harvard Community.  The very immutability of the New Plan demonstrates the failure of the counter-campaign and the scale of indifference to exclusionary policy in the larger Harvard community.



The evolution and refinement of admissions policies is an ongoing process, but the “holistic” admissions approach has become widely accepted as ideal. While current admissions policies at Harvard are far removed from their origins in Lowell’s committee, and invoke genuine inclusion rather than disguised exclusion, the history reminds us that even well-intentioned policies may have unintended consequences. This story has not ended and its implications extend to the present day. The Lowell administration’s New Plan was the precursor to present-day holistic admissions policies and the history of Harvard’s transition to the New Plan provides a unique window into contemporary debates about admissions procedures and who “deserves” to attend the country’s most selective schools. As applicant pools become more diverse, increasingly international, and larger in numbers, questions about the process of selecting candidates for admission become more difficult and more essential. While the holistic admission process today is broadly considered a just system, and is accepted by most elite institutions in the U.S., its familiarity should not render it immutable or unquestionable. The story told by the research in this essay illustrates that the subjective criteria of holistic admissions can be used against the stated desires and objectives of educational institutions. A March 2013 article in the Harvard Gazette provides a summary of Harvard’s current admissions criteria: “holistic admissions “involves reviewing academic excellence as demonstrated by original writing and research, extracurricular activities, and community involvement.  Personal qualities and character are also fundamental to every decision” (Harvard Gazette). Indeed, subjective personal attributes—especially “character”—remain as essential and enshrined today as they were to Harvard alumni campaigning for modifying admissions policies during the 1920s. What defines good “character” or positive “personal qualities” in a candidate? These criteria—what admissions officers search for—are necessarily shaped by the social and societal context. During the 1920s, a more holistic process was used to satisfy societal demands that were influenced by prejudice toward a particular group. While today’s social climate is vastly different, can the holistic process remain just in the face of newly emerging biases, a rapidly evolving applicant pool, and a changing role for higher education? 

Today, although it is unlikely that any admissions officer is consciously motivated by prejudice, particular ethnic groups are still stereotyped in the context of higher education. The Lowell era teaches us that the impact of popular stereotypes and prejudices cannot be underestimated. Asians and Asian Americans, most notably, are still stigmatized as being overachievers, anti-social, too bookish, and over-represented at elite educational institutions (Lewin 1). While the colloquial term “Asian Invasion” (Hartlep 1) is most often used jokingly, it rings of historic resentment of successful immigrant groups. The dispute over admissions policies during the early 1920s was not a discrete event but rather one moment of tension in a continuous cycle of immigration and diversification (and, unfortunately, of intolerance) that defines the history of the United States.  In a 1922 letter to the Harvard Crimson, just a year after his graduation from Harvard College, Harry Starr wrote

We cannot have tolerance until we recognize the real issues involved, until we perceive why social and ethnic prejudices persist, why Jew and non-Jew cannot get together and have ‘plain talk and high thinking’ without being hampered by stultifying self-consciousness … For tolerance is not administered like castor oil, with eyes closed and jaws clenched. (Starr to Crimson 1)

The problem was not a handful of individuals—such as Lowell and his immediate advisors—but a cultural context shared by students, faculty, and alumni that fostered ethnic division and prejudice. Present-day qualitative admissions policies do not stigmatize particular groups by design; nonetheless, certain individuals benefit from admissions policies while others stand to lose.  If policies are not questioned by individuals participating in all facets of the admissions process, unspoken prejudice—against particular racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation groups—can slip through despite egalitarian intentions. While history infrequently repeats itself exactly, those who profit from one generation’s policies often shape and interpret the policy of the next generation. In the 1920s at Harvard, a broad consensus that Jews were over represented on campus led to a new admissions policy, and today’s holistic admissions procedure is fundamentally an iteration of that initial plan. Protests from the Jewish community were futile against this sweeping social dynamic. Yet even decades later, scholars compartmentalized this societal failure by blaming only a bigoted minority in Lowell’s administration.  The winners wrote history.


Works Cited

“Admissions, Beyond a Single Test.” The Harvard Gazette. 25 March 2013. Web

Application for Admission Under the ‘New Plan.’ UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Beatley, Bancroft. “The Relative Standing of Students in Secondary School, on Comprehensive Entrance Examinations, and in College.” UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Bethell, John T. Harvard Observed: An Illustrated History of the University in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Print

Daniels, Lee. A. “Henry Starr, Leader in Advocacy Groups for Jews, Dies at 92.” New York Times. 28 July 1992. Web

Drachman, Julian M. “You, Too?” attached to Letter to President Lowell. First appeared in American Hebrew. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Ham, William T. “Harvard Student Opinion on the Jewish Question.” The Nation. Vol. 115 No. 2983: 225-227. 6 Sept 1922. Print

Hartlep, Nicholas D. “The Model Minority Myth: What 50 Years of Research Does and Does Not Tell Us.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education. 29 April 2013. Web

Harvard University. Records of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider and Report to the Governing Boards Principles and Methods for More Effective Sifting of Candidates for Admission to the University. 11 April 1923. UAI 5.160.6. Harvard University Archives

Harvard University. Records of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Statistical Report of the Statisticians. UAI 5.160.6. Harvard University Archives

Karabel, Jerome. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print

“Ku Klux Klan, Bryan and Harvard, Hit in Rabbi’s Talk.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 2 Oct 1922. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to Harry Starr from H. A. Wolfson. HUD 922.4 Box 1998. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Albert Bardes. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Benjamin Carpenter. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Francis C. Woodman. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Hall Allen. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Jacob Benjamin. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from James E. Turnbull. Box #1056. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from James P. Kohler. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Morris Gray Jr. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Somers L. Myers. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from the Editor and Publisher of the Jewish Advocate. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to the Editor of the Harvard Crimson from Harry Starr. HUD 922.4 Box 1998. Harvard University Archives. Print

Lewin, Tamar.”Report Takes Aim at ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype of Asian-American Students.” The New York Times. 10 June 2008. Web

Office of the Historian. “Milestones 1921-1936: The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act).” US Department of State. Web

Pollak, Oliver B. “Antisemitism, the Harvard Plan, and the Roots of Reverse Discrimination.” Jewish Social Studies. Vol. 45 No. 2 (1983): 113-122. Print

Starr, Harry. Harvard A Place of Tradition, letter to the Harvard Crimson. HUD 921.82. Harvard University Archives. Print

Synnott, Marcia G. The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979. Print

Synnott, Marcia G. “The Admission and Assimilation of Minority Students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970.” History of Education Quarterly. Vol. 19 No. 3. (1979): 285-304. Print

To the Jewish Kehillah. UAI 5.160 Box #1056. Harvard University Archives. Print.


[1] See UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387, throughout.

[2] It is not entirely clear what is meant by “Kehillah” in this context.  The anonymous author (not Lowell himself) may have been addressing the local Jewish community (“Kehillah”) as a whole or a particular Jewish high school. In either case, the content of the letter reflects the opinion of this member of the Harvard community.