Nearly a Century Ago, Columbia’s Jewish Applicants Were Sent to Brooklyn

Claudia Gohn

Columbia Spectator

Mon Apr 15 2019

In the 1920s and 1930s, it looks like Columbia found a loophole. Sifting through old newspaper articles and University records from this time, I come across dozens of permits and permit applications, all to allow the University to obtain alcohol during prohibition by sending it to a college within the University—a college called Seth Low Junior College. With further research, I find that the college had a premedical program—this explained the alcohol, since science classrooms would need alcohol to clean lab equipment. The true loophole took further digging—while the college was not created to obtain illicit liquor during prohibition, it did prevent Jewish students from attending Columbia College.

SLJC, a community college attached to Columbia through a shared administration, was established in 1928 in Brooklyn Heights by the board of trustees and then President Nicholas Butler as fundamentally a place where Columbia would send Jewish applicants. While the University has changed within the past century—Columbia today has a vibrant Jewish life on campus—the anti-Semitism that led to the establishment of Seth Low Junior College persisted past the college’s closing, but its memory hasn’t.

By the 1920s, Columbia College experienced some significant changes: The Core Curriculum had just been introduced, Baker Field Stadium finalized its construction, and Columbia’s academic life expanded from Manhattan to the greater state of New York, accumulating schools such as Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson under the University umbrella. Located in the same building as Brooklyn College, Seth Low Junior College was ostensibly a preprofessional school for students hoping to attend law or medical school. According to Leeza Hirt, a former writer for The Current, a Jewish publication at Columbia, and a member of Columbia College’s class of 2018, students weren’t offered a degree because the idea was that they would go on to earn a degree at a professional school. Historical evidence today, based on research by Barnard history professor and Columbia historian Robert McCaughey and documentation from the early 20th century, suggests that SLJC was created with the explicit goal of reducing the amount of Jewish students on the Morningside campus. In Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University, McCaughey notes that enrollment of Jewish students at Columbia College after Seth Low Junior College’s opening dropped from 40 to 25 percent.....

Nearly a Century Ago, Columbia’s Jewish Applicants Were Sent to Brooklyn