As Good as It Gets

The leafy tranquillity of Princeton University received a rude jolt last week, when the campus newspaper disclosed something that administrators had been whispering about for years: Jewish enrollment at the prestigious Ivy League college is in free fall.

The numbers are unmistakable. This year’s freshman class was just under 10 percent Jewish, down from a high of about 18 percent in the early 1980s. In an undergraduate population totaling some 4,500, that translates to a drop from about 800 Jewish students in 1982 to about 450 today.

Everyone has theories as to why. Administrators say fewer Jews are applying, perhaps reflecting nationwide Jewish demographic shifts. Members of the campus Jewish community — Hillel leaders, sympathetic professors — point to changes in admissions policy, which may have unintentionally reduced Jewish acceptances. They also say the administration has been slow in addressing the problem.

“What is clear is that a campus Jewish community has to be of a certain size, or it doesn’t work,” says history Professor Anthony Grafton, who has discussed the issue at length with administrators. “If the numbers continue on a downward trend, it may reach the point where it can’t recover, and that would be a real shame.”

The administration acknowledges the policy changes that triggered the decline, but isn’t sure there’s a problem that needs addressing.

“The last thing we need here is any kind of a quota system based on religion,” university President Harold Shapiro told the Daily Princetonian, the campus paper.

The decline was documented last week in a splashy, four-part series in the Daily Princetonian, which sparked a quiet uproar on the bucolic New Jersey campus. The administration is hunkered down, avoiding reporters, reportedly fearing a revival of the school’s one-time reputation for anti-Semitism. Up to the late 1950s, Princeton was known as a bastion of WASP exclusivism, leading to nationwide censure.

Campus Jewish leaders aren’t too happy about the decline itself.

“Nothing good can come of this,” says one prominent Jewish figure. “If I were Hispanic or black, I would say, ‘Hey, we’re not there in big numbers either — why are they upset?’ And the truth is, the decline in Jewish numbers is bad for Jews, but it may not be bad for Princeton.”

Some fear that the publicity could worsen the decline. “I’m worried about the fallout,” says classics scholar Froma Zeitlin, head of the school’s Jewish studies program. “What I don’t want is for qualified Jewish students to say, ‘I’ve heard Princeton isn’t taking Jewish students.'” Zeitlin says Princeton should be “more in line with our peer institutions,” such as Harvard, where Jews number an estimated 21 percent, or Yale, with 29 percent.

Many observers believe that the Jewish decline results from policy shifts overseen by admissions Dean Fred Hargadon, a nationally renowned veteran who came to Princeton in 1988. He’s worked hard to make Princeton’s student body more national in character, reducing admissions from the Northeast. He’s also re-emphasized athletics.

Both steps have cut deeply into Jewish enrollment. Guidance counselors at New York-area Jewish day schools, which, for years, enjoyed special relationships with Princeton, say they’ve all but given up trying to get their students in. “I tell them it’s a wasted application,” said one.

Ironically, Princeton has been making extraordinary efforts to nurture Jewish life on campus, even while making it harder for Jews to get there. “This school’s support for Jewish life is exemplary,” says Rabbi James Diamond, Princeton Hillel director. “It’s as good as it gets on a campus.”

The university financed the $4.5 million construction of the state-of-the-art Center for Jewish Life, which opened in 1993 and is operated jointly by the university and Hillel. In 1995, the university launched a well-regarded Jewish studies program, with what insiders say is a considerable financial commitment to hire top scholars.

The result is one of America’s most active campus Jewish communities. “A higher proportion of Jews here are active in Jewish life than on almost any other campus,” says senior Todd Rich, president of the Center for Jewish Life. “At last year’s Chanukah party, about 250 people showed up, out of about 450 Jews on campus. That doesn’t happen on many campuses.”

The prospect of losing that seems to be one of the main reasons Jews are upset. “If the Jewish population at Princeton declines, then it becomes a less significant Jewish experience for the Jews that are there,” said Richard Joel, national director of Hillel, who has raised the issue with the university several times.

The most immediate danger, it appears, is to the Orthodox community, which helps set the tone for campus Jewish life. “The Orthodox community is in danger right now of not fulfilling the requirement for a minyan,” says student leader Rich. “There is only one Orthodox male in the freshman class. Once that number goes down, we might not ever have an Orthodox community again, and that’s something I think the entire university community should be concerned with.”

Rich wants the university to recruit Jews in a deliberate way, targeting Jewish day schools and combing admissions questionnaires for signs of Jewish interest. He’s met with Hargadon to discuss his ideas, and says Hargadon was “interested.” “I want them to provide us with the same help they give other minorities,” he says.

His ideas have some Princetonians up in arms. “If there’s anything we should have learned from Princeton’s less than proud history of anti-Semitism, it’s that singling out people based on faith leads to problems,” says senior Nina Kohn of Vermont. “To see the Jewish community asking Princeton to recruit people based on the very basis they fought against years ago — well, it troubles me.”

A more promising solution is in the works: increasing the student body from 4,500 to 5,000. The increase would open up more spaces for students who are not athletes, Midwesterners or children of alumni, but simply talented. The recommendation came from a faculty study panel appointed by Shapiro last year, after professors complained that the school’s intellectual environment was suffering from Hargadon’s recruitment policies. The board of trustees is said to favor the idea.

Whether it can stem the Jewish decline in the long run is unclear, though. Princeton’s Jewish renaissance may be a historical fluke, a result of the university’s efforts in the 1970s to atone for its anti-Semitic past by aggressively seeking out Jews and Judaism. That couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.