Paste number 12638: In Effort to Lift Their Rankings,Colleges Recruit Jewish Students

Paste number 12638: In Effort to Lift Their Rankings,Colleges Recruit Jewish Students
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In Effort to Lift Their Rankings,Colleges Recruit Jewish Students

By Daniel Golden, WALL STREET JOURNAL


As other exhibitors hawked prayer shawls and skullcaps at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations convention in Boston last December, Rabbi David Davis was selling something not generally associated with Judaism: Vanderbilt University. 

From a corner booth, Rabbi Davis handed out Vanderbilt brochures and buttons, spreading the message that the Nashville, Tenn., institution -- the only university represented at the conference -- was looking for Jewish students. "I was surprised," says Harvey Weiner, a Boston lawyer active in the reform Jewish movement, who pocketed a Vanderbilt pencil. "I never knew a Jewish student who went to Vanderbilt." 

Vanderbilt is far from the only U.S. university seeking to boost Jewish enrollment. In fact, competition for top Jewish students is prompting a flurry of new Jewish cultural centers and Judaic Studies programs at universities across the country. But at Vanderbilt and a few other universities, including some officially Christian campuses, the unabashed wooing of the Jewish community has struck some Jews and non-Jews alike as a questionable new form of ethnic profiling -- even though it's based on a seemingly positive stereotype. 

Although other ethnic and racial groups, notably blacks and Hispanics, have been targeted by many universities, that effort has largely been to promote diversity or to increase opportunity for the economically disadvantaged. Something else is driving the quest for more Jews -- about which Vanderbilt is unusually forthright. It wants them to raise its academic standing. 

"Yes, we're targeting Jewish students," Chancellor Gordon Gee told a March 17 board meeting of the Vanderbilt affiliate of Hillel, the nonprofit national Jewish campus organization. "There's nothing wrong with that. That's not affirmative action. That's smart thinking." 

Mr. Gee, who left the presidency of Brown University for Vanderbilt two years ago, says niche marketing to Jewish students is part of his "elite strategy" to lift Vanderbilt to Ivy League status. "Jewish students, by culture and by ability and by the very nature of their liveliness, make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life," he said in an interview. 

Some Jews welcome the efforts by Vanderbilt and others as a refreshing change from the days when Jewish enrollment was capped by quotas at many of the best U.S. colleges. But it leaves others unsettled. They say it perpetuates an unfounded perception -- of Jews as an intellectual elite -- that demeans other groups in comparison and has been used over the years to stir anti-Semitic resentments. Because Jews tend to perform well on college-entrance tests, administrators "may expect that Jews will bring a certain wit and cleverness and discernment," says Jacob Neusner, a professor at Bard College and noted Judaic Studies scholar. "But we may not be able to give them what they want." 

Scott Allen, Vanderbilt's Baptist chaplain, says the strategy of recruiting Jews to improve academic stature denigrates the Southern white Christians who dominate the school's student body. If he were told that Jews were better students than other groups, he says, "my first reaction would be, 'Wait a minute. I want to see factual research that would support this. Because I don't believe it.' " 

According to the nonprofit College Board, which administers the SAT college-entrance exam -- a major component of most college rankings and admissions decisions -- last year's college-bound Jewish seniors averaged 1161 out of a possible 1600. That was second only to Unitarians (who averaged 1209) among 35 religions. The national average was 1020. According to the College Board, some 27,120 students identified themselves as Jews; 2,354 said they were Unitarian. The board says it asks test-takers about their religious affiliations so it can sell their names to colleges seeking specific denominations. The board declined to identify colleges that buy Jewish names. 

At Ivy League schools, about 23% of students are Jewish, even though Jews comprise just 2% of the U.S. population, according to Hillel. These universities say they seek top students regardless of ethnicity. As a result of federal-court rulings against racial preferences in college admissions, it's considered dicey for a non-denominational college to recruit students of a particular faith. Specialists in affirmative-action law say that, while Vanderbilt as a private school has more leeway than public universities, it could be vulnerable to an anti-discrimination claim from an equally qualified Christian student turned down in favor of a Jew. 

Vanderbilt officials say they are simply trying to lure more Jewish applicants, not to use religion as a factor in admissions. They say that bringing more highly qualified Jews into the applicant pool will naturally yield more admissions of Jewish students. "We're about broadening the applicant pool, not about quotas," Mr. Gee says. He says Vanderbilt is also trying to increase enrollment of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Avid Pursuit 

Despite their names, schools such as Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University are also avidly pursuing Jews. TCU, affiliated with the Protestant denomination Disciples of Christ, hired its first Jewish Studies professor last year. It has also initiated merit scholarships specifically for Jewish students and a Jewish lecture series featuring Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and others. Admissions dean Ray Brown says the main goal is diversity, but an academic upgrade would be "one of the wonderful side-benefits." 

At SMU, the first Judaic Studies professor arrives this fall, and the first Hillel house opened in January. Like Vanderbilt, SMU acknowledges the academic aspirations underlying these overtures: "There appears to be a strong correlation between the quality of your student body and the size of your Jewish population," says Ellen Jackofsky, associate provost at SMU, which has 300 Jews out of 9,000 undergraduate and graduate students. 

Susquehanna University, a Lutheran school in Selinsgrove, Pa., a town without a synagogue, started a Jewish Studies program three years ago and now offers a minor in the field; a fledgling Hillel group has also been formed. Susquehanna, where Jews comprise just 2% of the 1,800-student body, also runs a Jewish cuisine class, offering bagels, matzo and gefilte fish. As of February, applications from Jewish students had more than doubled to 45. Chris Markle, director of admissions, says he has seen the College Board's data on Jewish test scores, and Susquehanna's outreach to Jews is part of "increasing the quality of our applicant pool." 

Vanderbilt, once a popular destination for Southern Jews, has seen Jewish enrollment dwindle to 2% to 4% today from 7% to 9% in the 1970s. That's the second lowest Jewish enrollment, based on Hillel data, among the nation's top 25 universities as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Of those, only the University of Notre Dame, a Jesuit institution, has a lower percentage of Jewish students. 

In the U.S. News rankings, Vanderbilt has lagged behind two of its main rivals, Emory University in Atlanta and Washington University in St. Louis, in part because of lower average SAT scores. Vanderbilt stands at No. 21 in the latest list, three spots behind Emory and seven behind Washington. At least 35% of Washington students and about 30% of Emory students are Jewish, according to Hillel and other sources. 

Washington's admissions director, Nanette Tarbouni, says Washington doesn't track applicants by religion, but it does recruit at private Jewish high schools in Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis and other cities. Emory, which also recruits at private Jewish high schools, says its application form contains an optional question about religious preference so campus religious groups can notify incoming freshmen about their programs. 

Vanderbilt's new recruitment strategy originated in an effort to broaden the university's reputation beyond its regional base. At first, Vanderbilt concentrated on drawing students from outside the South. Then, in 1996, Vanderbilt assigned Greg Perfetto, now assistant provost, to identify other ways that Vanderbilt could bolster its national standing. 

Mr. Perfetto discovered that Vanderbilt was competitive with Emory, Washington and other peers in every demographic sector but one: Jewish students. Jews were spurning Vanderbilt, the school's surveys showed, because students and parents were concerned about Vanderbilt's limited facilities for Jewish students, as well as Nashville's Bible-belt image. 

Mr. Perfetto soon had an ally in Ettore "Jim" Infante, a mathematician who arrived as dean of arts and sciences in 1997. Mr. Infante says he had learned as a faculty member at Brown University that Jews "are very good students who contribute to a campus's intellectual vitality." Adds Mr. Infante, who retired in 2000: "I was after the kind of intellectual ferment that frankly is characteristic of New York City." 

Like Mr. Perfetto, Mr. Infante scrutinized data on Jewish applicants. He also examined how Ivy League universities ramped up Jewish enrollment. For example, he says, Princeton in the 1980s cultivated ties with predominantly Jewish high schools by offering merit scholarships to their graduates. Princeton declined comment. Mr. Infante's conclusion: Vanderbilt needed a Hillel House to reassure Jewish parents. In October 1999, Vanderbilt agreed to lease a prime parcel across from the basketball gymnasium to Hillel at a nominal cost. 

The issue of stereotyping, Mr. Perfetto says, never crossed his mind. "It isn't that we were targeting Jewish students," says Mr. Perfetto, "If we were doing anything, we were targeting Vanderbilt. We were saying, 'How does Vanderbilt need to change to be attractive to this population?' " 

The arrival of Mr. Gee, who helped build a Hillel house at Ohio State University during a stint as president there, accelerated the pace. Mr. Gee, who sees affinities between his own Mormon faith and Jewish culture, decreed that contributors to the Hillel project would receive "donor credit" from the university as a whole, entitling them to various alumni benefits. Awarding such credit for gifts to outside groups is unusual. The Hillel facility is expected to open in May, and Vanderbilt is seeking donors to endow two chairs in its Jewish Studies program, once considered a pioneer in the field but long neglected. 

Mr. Gee also hired Rabbi Davis from a Nashville synagogue. The 65-year-old rabbi has a history of increasing the Jewish presence at unlikely places, having helped establish a Jewish Studies chair at the University of San Francisco, a Catholic school. Rabbi Davis, who says the university needs a "pro-Jewish message to counter the perception that Vanderbilt is not interested in Jewish students," has crisscrossed the country, pleading with fellow reform rabbis to promote the university to their congregations. 

The lone vocal dissenter has been Vanderbilt's dean of admissions, William M. Shain, who came to Vanderbilt in 1998. Mr. Shain, who describes himself as "technically" Jewish but wouldn't elaborate further, says Vanderbilt shouldn't aspire to be "another Penn." One-third of the University of Pennsylvania's student body is Jewish, according to Hillel. Mr. Shain also says a heavy-handed approach is likely to backfire. Several guidance counselors at predominantly Jewish high schools, he says, have told him they find any singling out of Jews for recruitment to be "self-serving and reprehensible" with "overtones of anti-Semitism just by virtue of the concept of targeting the group." 

Mr. Shain has resisted urgings from colleagues to restore an optional religious-preference question on the student application form for admission, which could help identify Jewish applicants. It was dropped by Mr. Shain's predecessor, who felt it might be perceived as a tool to weed out non-Christians. Mr. Perfetto says he would "love" to include the question. Mr. Shain says it is "useless" and "would alienate some people." 

Mr. Shain also rejected Rabbi Davis's request to accompany him on a recruiting foray to suburban Maryland high schools. The dean says the rabbi's presence "would be puzzling" to non-Jewish students and cut into time needed to give an overview of the entire university. In addition, Mr. Shain says, high-profile outreach of the sort Rabbi Davis favors may antagonize top Jewish students who want to be judged on their merits, and attract weaker ones hoping for an admissions break. Mr. Shain says he supports Jewish recruitment -- as long as it's "done with wires invisible." 

Some of Mr. Shain's reservations are shared by officials at Roslyn High School in Roslyn, N.Y., a heavily Jewish suburb. During the last two decades of the 20th century, no Roslyn High graduates enrolled at Vanderbilt; now three Roslyn graduates, all Jews, go there. The Roslyn officials say they weren't aware Vanderbilt was specifically targeting Jewish students for academic merit but would be deeply offended by such a notion. 

Spokesman Barry Edelson says Roslyn High students are taught that "a positive stereotype is just as pernicious as a negative one," through role-playing games in which a black or Hispanic student asks a Jewish classmate for homework help based on a stereotype of Jewish intelligence. "We have to attend to the individual needs of students and move society away from recruiting based on backgrounds," Mr. Edelson says. 

Now non-sectarian, Vanderbilt opened in 1875 as a Methodist school, the faith of its founder, steamship magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Its first Jewish student enrolled the following year, and more soon followed, primarily from Nashville itself -- such as the late singer and TV show host Dinah Shore, who graduated in 1938. 

Still, Jewish students were marginalized. The late Daniel May, a 1920 alumnus, once recalled that "everybody belonged to a fraternity except for the Jews," who had to start their own. Beginning in 1950, Mr. May occupied what he called the "Jewish chair" on the board of trustees. Today, two of Vanderbilt's 51 trustees are Jewish. 

After World War II, as Ivy League schools lifted quotas, Nashville's Jewish students left home. A Jewish sorority once headed by Ms. Shore closed in 1965. "Since I have been at Vanderbilt, there have been very few Jewish girls enrolled," its president wrote sadly. "I do not care to elaborate on possible reasons for this." 

In the ensuing decades, while other top colleges opened Hillel houses and kosher kitchens, Vanderbilt attracted an influx of evangelical Christians. One Jewish freshman in 1980 was proselytized so relentlessly by dorm-mates that she converted to Christianity. After talking to her parents, she soon recanted, transferred to a state university, and chronicled her Vanderbilt experience of being "fed the New Testament for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks" for a Jewish newspaper in Miami. 

Last year, 23.7% of Vanderbilt freshmen identified themselves as born-again Christians in a national survey, nearly twice the average proportion at elite private universities. " 'What do you mean you don't believe in Jesus?' is a question I get often," says Vanderbilt junior Daniel Bar-Nahum, 21, who belongs to Vanderbilt's only remaining Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi. Although most AEP chapters are overwhelmingly Jewish, Vanderbilt is so short of Jews that half of the pledges it admits there are Christians. 

The lead donor to Vanderbilt's new Hillel project, Ben Schulman, a businessman from Carlsbad, Calif., and 1938 Vanderbilt alumnus, says he and his wife once vowed never to contribute money to his alma mater. In the 1960s, Vanderbilt declined to admit their daughter, who enrolled at Stanford University instead; Mr. and Mrs. Schulman blamed anti-Semitism. "I wouldn't give this money if there wasn't this change in attitude," says Mr. Schulman, who last year pledged $1 million of the $2.2 million construction budget. 

Vanderbilt officials say they believe their recruitment efforts have already boosted Jewish applications. Freshman Brett Sklaw, a graduate of Roslyn High, says he chose Vanderbilt over Cornell and Colgate universities because it offered the most financial aid, and he was impressed by its resolve to increase Jewish enrollment. 

"I don't want Vanderbilt to get too Jewish, because then it would be too much like my hometown," says Mr. Sklaw, who scored 1410 on the SAT, 90 points above the average for last year's entering class. "A little more Jewish -- that wouldn't be so bad."

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