It still is. Today, however, it has a different target: Asian Americans. Like Jews in the 1960s, they hold just 1 percent of higher-education presidencies. Dartmouth's Jim Yong Kim is the only Asian American who has ever led an Ivy League institution. And President Obama recently nominated him to head the World Bank.
But Asian Americans also continue to face a form of discrimination in university admissions. And until we change that, we probably won't get more Asian American college leaders, either.
According to Princeton sociologist Thomas J. Espenshade, Asian Americans have to score about 140 points higher than whites on the SAT, all other things being equal, to get into elite colleges. Everyone knows that blacks and Hispanics get a leg up in the admissions sweepstakes. But how many realize that whites enjoy affirmative action when they go head-to-head with Asians?
That just doesn't make any sense. African Americans and Hispanics have suffered discrimination across our history; whites haven't. But if we make whites compete on a level playing field with Asians, some argue, our colleges and universities will become, well, too Asian.
That's exactly what American university leaders said about Jews in the early 20th century, when elite institutions decided to limit Jewish admissions. But first they had to figure out who was Jewish. So Harvard asked applicants to provide their mother's maiden names. It even inquired, "What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father?" And most colleges started to require the submission of photographs, which would allegedly reveal what a Dartmouth official called "Hebrew physiognomy."
The student quotas started to be lifted in the late 1950s and early '60s, as did similar limits on Jewish faculty. Restrictions against Jewish college presidents lasted a little longer, as the 1966 report confirmed. But the following year, the University of Chicago appointed Edward H. Levi, the son of a rabbi, as its president. By 1971, Penn and Dartmouth both had Jewish presidents. Today, all but one of the eight Ivy League schools has been led by a Jew.
Meanwhile, other underrepresented groups have also gained entry into the halls of university power. By 2009, 5.9 percent of university presidents were African American and 4.6 percent were Hispanic. But you can still count the number of Asian American presidents of four-year colleges on two hands. Here in the Delaware Valley, Ursinus' Bobby Fong is the only one.
You can't explain that without thinking about admissions. Almost every elite institution is trying to recruit more blacks and Hispanics, so hiring a president from one of those groups makes sense. But an Asian American president might stamp the institution as "too" Asian, which is what universities are trying to avoid.
We need to ask why. After California forbade state universities from considering race in admissions, the Asian American share of the student body at the University of California, Berkeley, jumped from 20 percent to 40 percent. At the California Institute of Technology, which doesn't consider race either, about a third of the students are now Asian.
Both institutions have benefited from an infusion of talented students, many of whom would not get into other elite universities simply because of their race. The people who lose out are less-qualified whites, who would fare better in a system that limits Asian admissions.
And maybe that's the real story here: Beneath all the rhetoric, we're simply afraid of a minority that has done too well. That's why Jews were so threatening for so many years, and why Asians are now. Shame on us for making the same mistake twice.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).