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"James Freedman and Dartmouth's Past"A Speech by Provost Barry Scherr

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs
Posted 10/24/06 • (603) 646-3661

"James Freedman and Dartmouth's Past," a speech by Provost Barry Scherr

In his book, Idealism and Liberal Education, James Freedman includes a chapter called "Insiders and Outsiders."  There he focuses on the careers of Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, two of the five Jews who served as justices on the United States Supreme Court during the period from 1916 into the 1960s.  His point in the article is that Brandeis and Frankfurter were both the one and the other simultaneously.  They were insiders, simply because those serving on the Supreme Court have attained the pinnacle of the legal profession in the United States and exert vast influence on the legal and social climate of the entire country.  But they never quite shed the trait of outsider; each remained aware of his identity as a Jew, of not quite fully being in the mainstream of the America in which he grew up. 

In this piece Freedman goes on to draw other parallels between the two men.  For instance neither was particularly religious.  In the case of Brandeis, who was born in Louisville, Kentucky, his family was largely assimilated into American life and the practice of Judaism does not appear to have played a major role in his upbringing.  Frankfurter, in contrast, was part of a highly observant family, which had immigrated to the United States in 1894, when he was 12.  As a quiet young man, however, he suddenly came to find religious observance superfluous.  But if neither man strongly identified with his Judaism religiously, each did so ethnically.  Both in fact became ardent Zionists.  This turn was especially surprising for Brandeis, who was of German Jewish origin, for Zionism generally appealed much more to the newer immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Yet Brandeis played a prominent role in the movement even after he was on the Supreme Court.  Frankfurter, not insignificantly for today's topic, spoke out against quotas on the admissions of Jews to Harvard (where, like Brandeis, he had attended law school) - and as we shall see he expressed a similar concern about Dartmouth.  Freedman also speculates about specific Supreme Court cases in which each may well have felt the tension between outsider and insider, where their past and their ongoing links to Judaism may have affected their attitudes.  And in particular he  notes that Frankfurter, who had every expectation of becoming an insider on the Court, instead, for all the brilliance of his career, remained something of an outsider, indeed almost a strikingly isolated figure among the other justices.

I bring up this article because, to engage in a similar kind of speculation, I want to suggest that the quality of being both an insider and an outsider may well have inspired some of James Freedman's explorations of Dartmouth's past and specifically of the school's uncomfortable relationship from the 1920s until after World War II with what could be termed the specter of Judaism.  In the opening essay of Idealism and Liberal Education Freedman provides a brief spiritual autobiography, ranging from his growing-up years in Manchester, New Hampshire and an account of his father, a high-school English teacher who instilled in the son an undying love of literature, to his time as president of Dartmouth, where he defined his mission as, and I quote, "to strengthen the college academically, to make it a place of greater intellectual seriousness, and to help it shed certain of the stereotypes that clung to it."  He cites his own inaugural speech at Dartmouth, where he famously referred to "mak[ing] Dartmouth a hospitable environment for students who march 'to a different drummer'-for those creative loners and daring dreamers whose commitment to the intellectual life is so compelling that they appreciate, as Prospero reminded Shakespeare's audiences, that for certain persons a library is 'dukedom large enough'."  At some level he seems to have wanted to ensure a Dartmouth that would have provided a "hospitable environment" to students whose love of books matched that of himself or his father, or who, like Justice Frankfurter, took on the role of "creative loner" and remained something of an outsider in their environment.

In this essay, completed while he was still president of Dartmouth, the view of the school, and for that matter of nearly all his experiences, is essentially positive.  He brushes by the controversy that his remarks initially aroused - and continue to arouse, for he was challenging the school to become something more than it had been.  Nor does he engage with Dartmouth's past; he instead describes the various joys and pressures of a college presidency, without referring to any role played by his own sense of identity. 

A very different picture, however, emerges in an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of years after he stepped down from his position at Dartmouth.  Entitled "Ghosts of the Past: Anti-Semitism at Elite Colleges," the article fulfilled an old request from the Chronicle to comment on his decision, at the 1997 dedication of the Roth Center for Jewish Life, to speak out against Dartmouth's history of anti-Semitism.  In the article, he in part offers a deeply personal account of his reasons for making the speech, but he also provides a broader context for anti-Semitism in American higher education, referring to barriers placed at one time on the acceptance of Jewish students or the hiring of Jewish faculty at Harvard, Yale and Columbia as well.  Indeed, the president of Harvard during the 1910s and 1920s, A. Lawrence Lowell, opposed the appointment of Brandeis to the Supreme Court, and many thought that at least part of his antagonism stemmed from the fact that Brandeis was Jewish. 

But Freedman's attention was drawn particularly to Dartmouth and to its effect on himself.  He recalls in this article the assumption among many of lingering anti-Semitism at the institution.  Friends told him they wondered why a Jew would choose to be president of Dartmouth, and parents would tell him they would not want their Jewish children to attend the school.  Possibly even more troubling to him was the manner in which press accounts at times seemed to keep alive this notion of anti-Semitism at Dartmouth.  Thus Freedman was particularly sensitive to the way in which news stories would mention his religious background but not that of other Jewish college presidents - as if it were somehow more special for Dartmouth to have a Jewish president than would be the case at, say, Yale or Princeton, or any of the other schools whose history in accepting Jewish students and faculty was hardly any better than Dartmouth's, and in some cases arguably worse.

And just what was that background?  In looking into Dartmouth's past, Freedman's starting point was a 1992 honors thesis by Alexandra Shepard, called "Seeking a Sense of Place: Jewish Students in the Dartmouth Community, 1920-1940."  If the second half of her thesis is devoted to the actual experiences of Jewish students on  campus, the first half looked at the issue of admissions, the area in which anti-Semitism was often most clearly expressed during the decades covered by her thesis.  Strikingly, she found that Jewish students at Dartmouth, while running up against many of the same prejudices and suspicions that could be found widely in American society at the time, on the whole did not fare badly on campus, especially when compared with their peer institutions.  Shepard quotes in her conclusion a 1924 letter to President Ernest Martin Hopkins from a Jewish student, who stated that "Dartmouth gives the Jew a chance to be taken almost at face value."  This may sound like faint praise, but in fact it signaled a campus that was relatively accepting.  To be sure, there was social stratification, with several exclusively Jewish fraternities that existed for varying lengths of time and most other fraternities not admitting Jews at all (or admitting only tiny numbers of Jews because of their social prominence or athletic prowess).  However, Jewish students took full part in extracurricular activities, including publications such as The Dartmouth and The Jack O'Lantern, and organizations such as The Players and the Forensic Union.  Jewish athletes were prominent on several intercollegiate teams, most notably football. Again, while the campus was far from uniformly welcoming, the Jews who did attend Dartmouth on the whole found many doors open and others at least ajar.

The real issue, though, centered on admissions.  Until the end of World War I admission to even the most elite institutions of higher learning in the United States was hardly selective, with prospective students generally showing up on campus a day or two before classes started in the fall, taking a set of admissions exams, and if both the results and their parents' bank accounts appeared respectable, they would quickly matriculate.  All of this changed rapidly during the 1910s and 1920s, when higher education became much more of a necessity for those wishing to move ahead in American society, and schools no longer found first-come first-served a reasonable way to fill their classes.  At the same time, both the numbers and the background of would-be Jewish students had changed dramatically. Through much of the nineteenth century Jews made up a tiny fraction of the U. S. population, and nearly all were of Germanic origin.  Many had lived in the United States for generations, and several of the families had become quite prominent socially.  But from the 1880s through the 1910s several million Jews immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, and by the early 1920s they were contributing significantly to the increased demand for spaces on campuses.  If the handful of Jewish students at a school such as Dartmouth in previous decades shared the elite status of their Christian peers, then many of those who sought admission during the 1920s and 1930s were from poorer families, less genteel in their upbringing, and at times politically radical in their outlook.

Both trends appeared to Dartmouth a little later than at some other schools, but they did come.  Dartmouth instituted selective admissions in 1922; Shepard notes that this was quite a new notion for the school and quotes the comment of a trustee who stated, "Well, now I guess this is all right and I'll probably vote for it, but, by God, I've got to have a little time on it after forty years of watching Dartmouth grab and hogtie every prospect that wandered inadvertently into town  with the hazy idea of sometime going to college somewhere." Shepard goes on to detail the history of subsequent Jewish enrollments at Dartmouth. In 1918-19 Dartmouth had all of 38 Jewish students in a student body of 1173.  And if anything the percentage of Jewish students in the entering classes actually declined through the first half of the 1920s, with only 13 Jewish students out of the 638, or about 2%, admitted for the class of 1929. 

Meanwhile, selective admissions were already being used to limit the number of Jewish students at Dartmouth's peers.  For instance, about 20% of Harvard's student body was Jewish by the beginning of the 1920s; President Lowell openly sought to impose limits and eventually succeeded in cutting the Jewish enrollment to about 10%.  Conversely, during this period, specifically in 1922, Dartmouth's President Hopkins responded to a letter from his friend Felix Frankfurter, then not yet a Supreme Court Justice, in order to deny that Dartmouth's new selective process was in any way aimed against the school's Jewish applicants.  Internal correspondence from that period seems to support this assertion; Jewish applicants were not yet a major concern at Dartmouth. 

Beginning with the fall of 1926, however, the percentage of Jewish students on campus began to rise steadily, and then both Hopkins and his Dean of Admissions (a new position, created in 1921) tried to control their numbers.   A kind of panic set in by the fall of 1931, when, with the regular Dean of Admissions (who was also a Mathematics professor) on sabbatical, his one-year replacement apparently paid less attention to this matter, resulting in a class that self-identified as nearly 11% Jewish, but which both Hopkins and the alumni from that era whom Shepard interviewed recall as actually being closer to 15 or 20%.

In his talk at the dedication of the Roth Center Freedman picked up on just a few details from the Shepard thesis, noting that attitudes at Dartmouth during the 1930s were similar to those at Harvard and Yale.  He read from one letter by a Dartmouth alumnus, a member of the Class of 1925, who in 1934 complained that the campus "seems more Jewish each time I arrive in Hanover" and he went on to remark that "unfortunately ... many of them seem to be of the 'kike' type."  Freedman went on to quote the reply from the then new Dean of Admissions, who reassured the alumnus that the number of Jews in the incoming class would almost certainly not go beyond 5 or 6%.  And Freedman referenced the notorious statement by President Hopkins, made as late as 1945, in which he openly defended the practice of maintaining a quota for Jewish students and stated that "Dartmouth is a Christian college founded for the Christianization of its students."

The New York Times account of the Roth Center dedication, published a few days later, was headlined "Dartmouth Reveals Anti-Semitic Past" and stated that "many in the audience ... were stunned by some of the language in the letters read by Mr. Freedman."  As one of those in attendance that day, I was a little less stunned, in part because he had shown me those very same letters some months before in his office.  He had obviously taken the trouble not just to read Alexandra Shepard's thesis but to obtain copies of the full letters for himself, and indeed in his talk he quoted passages that are not in her study.  He had also done some broader research on the topic, and thus his remarks discussed  as well anti-Semitism at Yale and at Harvard.  The New York Times headline and article focused only on Dartmouth, perhaps to Freedman's chagrin, given his concern about the way in which the press helped perpetuate certain stereotypes about Dartmouth. 

In his relatively brief remarks he did not have the time to elaborate on a few points about Dartmouth that must have struck him.  For instance, the person who wrote the 1934 letter complaining about the number of Jews on campus was a very prominent alum who served as class president and who, in 1967, received the Dartmouth Alumni Award, the Alumni Council's highest honor.  Equally noteworthy are the parallels between President Hopkins of Dartmouth and President Lowell of Harvard.  Products of the same general era, the two served long presidential terms that overlapped by some 17 years. The legacies of both men remain tarnished by statements about Jews that seem disturbing from today's vantage point.  And yet Alexandra Shepard, in an interview with The Dartmouth shortly after Freedman's speech, noted that after doing the research for the thesis her own feelings about Hopkins were ambivalent.  On the one hand it was hard to reconcile his comments with her prior image of an eminent figure, but on the other she saw his motives as at least in part stemming from a genuine belief that too large a Jewish presence would lead to resentment and strong prejudice.

A complicating factor during the 1920s and 1930s was the distinction that many saw between what, roughly speaking, were two kinds of Jews:  the at least partially assimilated and "socially correct" German Jews, and what the 1934 letter referred to as the "kike type," the Eastern European immigrants and children of those immigrants who represented an entirely new social presence. As Shepard points out, some Jewish students and alumni who fell into the first category were among the more vociferous objectors to the new social presence at Dartmouth, wanting to preserve, it would seem, the bastion of gentility that they had striven to enter.

Interestingly, Hopkins himself talked of wanting "diversity" at Dartmouth, but what he appears to have had in mind was primarily geographical diversity, along with a modest broadening in the socioeconomic circumstances of the students.  Hopkins could, in a prequel to Freedman's call for a more intellectual campus, describe the desire for an "aristocracy of brains" during his 1922 convocation address, but always in the back of his mind there was the notion that this was, in fact, an aristocracy, one to which he did not dream of admitting many of those who would now comprise a truly diverse campus.  And, always, the proper look was important.  In the 1930s Dartmouth's first Dean of Admissions stated that "One boy was admitted because he had such lovely light hair and blue eyes and was about six feet two in height.  Our Phi Beta Kappa societies are getting so swarthy that it is well to lighten things up a bit."

While James Freedman did not touch directly on these last points in his talk, they nonetheless seem to have been present in his thinking.  It could be said that his research into Dartmouth's past was essentially about belonging, about finding a way in which he could identify with the Dartmouth of the present by helping it to exorcise the ghosts of its exclusive past, even if that past was in certain regards less appalling than at many of its peers. However, neither in his talk at the Roth Center dedication nor in his subsequent writing on this topic did he try to make fine distinctions among the Ivy League schools, to wonder whether things might have been better in one regard at some school and in another regard at a second.  The point for him was simply that restrictions on Jews and at times almost unthinking anti-Semitism were a part of its past, and for Dartmouth to recognize its place in today's world, to accept what it had in fact already become, it needed to acknowledge that past - in his words, "to undertake a process of moral reckoning and accountability."

He certainly knew that he had come to Dartmouth as an outsider, the first president in over a century and a half not to have been either a student or a faculty member at the school.  Like Brandeis and Frankfurter, he had reached the very top of his profession and yet found that in some ways his background kept him from feeling a true insider.  He finally needed to bring Dartmouth face-to-face with its own identity, and in so doing to acknowledge what it meant for him to be the Jewish president  of a school with such a past.

Thus for him the talk at the Roth dedication was of dual significance.  In the Chronicle article he remarked that he had "come to believe that acknowledging the past would work a redemption both institutionally and personally."  After the speech, when he heard the applause, he "felt cleansed and unburdened, as if a psychological boil had been lanced."  By speaking out about the past -ultimately not just Dartmouth's past, but the whole history of Ivy League reluctance to accept Jewish students and faculty - he had openly confronted at last a demon that had haunted him for some time. He professed special delight in the picture that the New York Times published of him and his wife, along with two rabbis, reading from the Torah in the newly dedicated Roth Center.  If for Brandeis and Frankfurter their religion was always to remain separate from their main calling, quietly acknowledged but still generally isolated from their lives on the Court, James Freedman at the end of his career had the opportunity and the courage to embrace his heritage fully, to declare that the past - even as it had to be recognized -was surely in the past, that both he and Dartmouth had reached a milestone, where the school no longer failed to embrace people because of their origins and background, and those who had once been excluded or marginalized now felt that they truly belonged.  Both he and Dartmouth had found their home in the present.

Many of the quotations and most of the factual information are taken from Jim Freedman's book on Idealism and Liberal Education, from his article in the Chronicle titled "Ghosts of the Past: Anti-Semitism at Elite Colleges," and from Alexandra Shepard's thesis, "Seeking a Sense of Place: Jewish Students in the Dartmouth Community, 1920-1940."

< Back to Politics of Memory - A Conference in Honor of James O. Freedman

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