Ari Kelman jolted awake. It was 3 a.m., and he’d suddenly realized that the advisory task force on the history of Jewish admissions and experience at Stanford, which he chaired, would need to understand the full picture of undergraduate admissions in 1953. “Who gets in?” he remembers wondering. “What was the process? What did the applications look like?”
So Kelman, an associate professor of education, emailed his research assistants. (By then, it was already 3:30 a.m.)
The researchers learned that it had only just become necessary for Stanford to choose among the qualified men who applied, rather than accepting them all. (Women had been subject to selective admissions for decades because of the enrollment cap imposed by Jane Stanford.) The university’s second director (and later its first dean) of admissions, Rixford Snyder, ’30, MA ’34, PhD ’40, asserted broad latitude in developing its selection policies. “He fiercely defended the admission of athletes, the allotment of legacy admissions, and his power to admit students who were wealthy and connected,” the task force wrote in its report.
Snyder “was making it up as he went along,” Kelman says. “In the ’20s, when Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Columbia were putting limitations on Jewish enrollment, they were very clear about who a Harvard man was and who a Yalie was, and they were trying to protect a certain kind of person. Stanford didn’t have that in the ’50s.” Snyder, the task force found, “emphasized the significance of ‘motivation, attitudes, character, and future potential as citizens’ in the creation of ‘strong alumni for the future,’ ” and the admissions committee based up to one-third of its evaluation on whether a prospective student would “fit in” at the residential university.
‘Rix feels that this problem is loaded with dynamite and he wanted you to know about it.’
The task force was created after an August 2021 blog post by historian Charles Petersen unveiled a document he had found in Stanford’s archives. The February 1953 memo to Stanford president J.E. Wallace Sterling, PhD ’38, from the assistant to the president, Fred Glover, ’33, indicates that Snyder had stopped by to convey his concerns about a high number of Jewish male applicants. “Rix has been following a policy of picking the outstanding Jewish boys while endeavoring to keep a normal balance of Jewish men and women in the class,” Glover wrote, noting that admitting even a couple of students from heavily Jewish high schools in Los Angeles—“Beverly Hills and Fairfax are examples”—resulted in “a flood of Jewish applicants” the following year. “Rix feels that this problem is loaded with dynamite and he wanted you to know about it,” Glover wrote, “as he says that the situation forces him to disregard our stated policy of paying no attention to the race or religion of applicants.”
Indeed, the task force found, the director of admissions had begun to pay attention. The number of students who enrolled from Beverly Hills High School dropped from 67 in 1949–52 to 13 in 1952–55; for Fairfax, it dropped from 20 to 1. No other public high schools experienced such a drop. Moreover, in 1953, Snyder’s office stopped making recruiting trips to those two high schools.
“One thing I didn’t look into is how enrollments changed,” says Petersen, a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell. The task force, he says, “really documented that.”
Suppressing the admission of students from two high schools was a “blunt instrument,” Kelman says, but it was effective. Stanford was just beginning its rise to national prominence; its Jewish applicants were concentrated in Los Angeles. And although Snyder had come to embrace practices that would increase the diversity of the student body by the time he stepped down in 1969, rumors that Stanford limited the number of Jewish students persisted in the Los Angeles area for decades, Kelman says, dissuading some from applying. When questioned, campus leaders of the 1950s and ’60s relied on a technical definition of the term quota to deny the practice.
‘Today, we must work to do better, not only to atone for the wrongs of the past, but to ensure the supportive and bias-free experience for members of our Jewish community that we seek for all members of our Stanford community.’
On October 12, Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne apologized on behalf of the university. “These actions were wrong. They were damaging. And they were unacknowledged for too long,” he wrote in a message to the Stanford community. “Today, we must work to do better, not only to atone for the wrongs of the past, but to ensure the supportive and bias-free experience for members of our Jewish community that we seek for all members of our Stanford community.” The university will act on the task force’s recommendations for enhancing Jewish life on campus today, including incorporating antisemitism into anti-bias training, clarifying Stanford’s relationship to Hillel, and improving accommodations for religious and cultural differences in housing and dining.
Kelman says the apology was “incredibly powerful” for Jewish alumni who both love Stanford and had previously heard rumors of suppressed admissions. His inbox is also full of people saying, “This is my story. This is my dad’s story. This is my uncle’s story.
“What allowed antisemitism to exist in the administration in the 1950s was silence and secrecy,” Kelman says. “And our job is to daylight that—to do everything we can to have a frank conversation now, to integrate it into conversations about diversity, to make Jewish students feel at home on this campus.” After all, he says, universities’ investigations into their pasts reflect their core mission of scholarship and teaching. “Hard questions can be asked and hard issues can be faced, and we can, in fact, not just apologize and move on, but make those regular inquiries part of the ways in which the university does its work,” he says. “Hopefully ours has made a small nudge forward on that.”
Read the task force’s report and recommendations for enhancing Jewish life on campus (PDF).
Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.