Enrollment of Jews at Princeton Drops by 40 Percent in 15 Years

It’s been years since there were so few Jews in paradise.

Jewish enrollment at Princeton University–site of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise –has dropped by 40 percent in the last 15 years. According to The Daily Princetonian , the campus newspaper, Jewish students now make up about 10 percent of the freshmen class. That is the same as the number that Harvard University president Abbott Lawrence Lowell tried to impose–he wanted to establish a 10 percent quota of Jews at Harvard–in 1922. In 1985, that number was 16 percent, according to The Princetonian .

A Princeton spokesman faxed The Observer results from an independent study conducted by the American Council on Education and the University of California at Los Angeles. It confirmed The Princetonian ‘s numbers, but also presented them next to the national average for private universities, for which the decline in Jewish enrollment mirrored that of Princeton.

At the end of April, The Princetonian ran a four-part series addressing the decline, describing it as “Princeton’s best-kept open secret.” The reports depicted a campus grasping for theories as to why Princeton, long dogged by a reputation for anti-Semitism, has such a low number of Jewish students, while the enrollment of Jews at its Ivy League rivals, Harvard and Yale, remains high: 21 percent at Harvard, 29 percent at Yale, according to Hillel, the foundation for Jewish campus life.

In the interim, professors, students and administrators have stepped up with explanations: The admissions department has emphasized geographical diversity, moving away from a heavy reliance on the Northeast region; there are too many slots reserved for athletes; Jews have been displaced by Asian-Americans; the percentage of college applicants who are Jewish is down nationwide (from 4 percent in 1978 to 1.6 percent now, according to one study cited in The Princetonian ).

And there are others: The admissions department emphasizes suburban high schools over urban high schools; the conservative and elitist social atmosphere, or at least the reputation of one, scares Jewish students–and their guidance counselors–away. The antiquated eating club culture centered around Prospect Street, with its “bicker” rituals and selective memberships, continues to set the social tone at Princeton, which has long combined the social mores of a small Southern college with Northeastern intellectual ones–the home of both Cottage Club and Albert Einstein.

There has even been the theory forwarded that the subsiding of Jewish enrollment has come from the fact that it’s hard for Jews to get a date at the university; they end up going to Philadelphia to find their mates at the University of Pennsylvania, where Jews make up 28 percent of the student body: The Princetonian said that many students have been heard to say of the school, “It’s great academically and it’s a lot of fun here, and we’re so close to Penn!”

Whatever its cause, the declining Jewish enrollment is an especially sensitive topic for Princeton, not only because it’s, well, Princeton , but because it once had a pretty serious reputation for being less tolerant of Jews than some of its Ivy League brethren. Obsolete as this reputation may be now, even the appearance of intolerance taints the school, and makes its already difficult task of attracting Jews even more difficult.

And the series in The Princetonian has turned into a public relations headache for Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon, who has come under fire from several faculty members for being inattentive to their concerns.

Speaking for Mr. Hargadon, Justin Harmon, Princeton’s director of communications, said: “There appears to be such strong feeling on the part of some members of the faculty that they decided that this matter ought to be raised in a fairly vituperative manner in the student newspaper. And I guess some of us are concerned about the consequences of that choice for the very students for whom they’re expressing concern.

“In other words, how does it make a prospective student feel if she reads the newspaper and she’s Jewish and she’s trying to consider where to send her application and she sees a story, however benign it may be, about declining enrollments at Princeton? How does she decide to apply to Princeton as opposed to Harvard? Or if you put a less benign interpretation on it: The work of the institution over the last however many years to create a welcoming environment for Jewish students is effectively undone.”

Last year, the administration convened a study group of faculty members to review the admissions process, in response to their concern that “Jewish enrollment was dropping, intellectual quality was dropping, and that there were too many jocks,” Mr. Harmon said. Their main recommendation was to increase the class size by as much as 25 percent, and the board of trustees is expected to consider it.

“Why some of these same faculty then turn around and decide that they need to pursue this particular diatribe I don’t know. But unfortunately a lot of it has the flavor of a personal invective against the current Dean of Admissions,” said Mr. Harmon. “They’re hurting their cause. If their cause is truly looking for greater control over the admissions process, they’re being utterly disingenuous. It’s not clear to me why individuals who held as their highest goal increasing Jewish enrollment would give interviews to the newspaper accusing the administration of inattention to concern about Jewish enrollment. Either you’d be an idiot if you failed to understand the consequences of a story of that nature appearing or you’re being disingenuous. And these aren’t idiots.”

No. they’re not. They must be aware that any controversy over Princeton’s Jewish enrollment is bound to sting. It’s never been the same kind of magnet for Jewish urbanites that Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Penn have. The school has a slightly Southern air, and it has long been considered more socially conservative than its fellow Ivy League colleges. The stain of the old quota system, under which the universities in the Ivy League tacitly agreed to keep their Jewish enrollment below a certain percentage (they justified it by saying they were limiting the numbers to prevent anti-Semitism), hung around a little longer at Princeton than at Harvard and Yale.

But it’s long gone. The school has done much to improve Jewish life on campus. In 1993, it built a Center for Jewish Life, and it has been aggressive in building a program in Jewish studies and attracting star faculty.

“For me the tragedy would be if, because 50 years ago this was an anti-Semitic place, people assume it still is,” Mr. Harmon said. “That’s very much not the case.”

Froma Zeitlin, director of the Program in Jewish Studies at Princeton, told The Observer that she and her colleagues have raised the issue with the administration, but she said, “This is not a place where you make waves.”