Emory Confronts a Legacy of Bias Against Jews

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Early in the summer of 1952, after his first year of dental school at Emory University in Atlanta, Perry Brickman received a letter from the dean. It informed him that he had flunked out.

Mr. Brickman was mystified. He had been a B-plus student in biology as an Emory undergraduate and had earned early admission to dental school. He had never failed a course in his life.

Over the next few weeks of that summer, Mr. Brickman found out that three of his classmates had also been failed. All of them happened to be Jewish. Yet instead of fighting back, Mr. Brickman and his friends searched for other dental schools and swallowed a shame that lasted decades.

"Your parents said, 'Why didn't you work harder?' " Mr. Brickman, 80, recalled recently. "My mother said, 'What have you done to me?' It was almost like being a rape victim. No one believed us. It couldn't be this one-sided story. Emory was a great university, right? So we went off with the tail between our legs."

Sixty years later, Mr. Brickman has helped to see belated justice done. In large part because of his personal research into the anti-Semitic record of Emory's dental school, the university has invited many Jewish former students to a private meeting on Wednesday with its president, James W. Wagner, and that same night it will host the premiere of a documentary film about the scandal.

The evidence of bias against Jewish students in Emory's dental school under the reign of its dean, John E. Buhler, from 1948 to 1961 has been known for decades. Until now, however, the university had neither admitted the bias nor apologized for it.

"We need to be fearless in confronting our past as individuals and an institution," said Gary S. Hauk, Emory's vice president. "There are often things we regret about our past, but there is the possibility of making amends and of building on the acknowledgment of those things. Part of our vision of Emory is being ethically engaged, and that means wrestling about what it means to have these warts."

Emory's event this week is part of a larger inquiry and atonement for anti-Semitic practices at elite universities for much of the 20th century. Two major books, "The Chosen" by Jerome Karabel and "Joining The Club" by Dan Oren, exposed the details of anti-Jewish quotas on admission at Ivy League schools. James O. Freedman, while serving as president of Dartmouth College in the 1990s, publicly spoke of its history of discrimination.

Like the Ivies, Emory has become a drastically different place since the 1960s. Its student body is roughly 20 percent Jewish, according to Mr. Hauk, and its faculty includes prominent Jewish scholars like the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt. In fact, it was an exhibit by one of her academic colleagues, Eric Goldstein, that set Mr. Brickman on his quest.

As part of commemorating the 30th anniversary of Emory's Jewish studies program in 2006, Professor Goldstein assembled a display on the Jewish experience at the school. It included news articles about a 1962 book on American anti-Semitism written by two staff members of the Anti-Defamation League, which had a chapter about Emory's dental school.

During Mr. Buhler's years as dean, the book showed, 65 percent of Jewish students were either flunked out or forced to repeat entire years of classes. Jewish enrollment at the dental school plummeted, and it adopted an application designating prospective students as "Caucasian, Jew or Other."

While Mr. Buhler resigned after the Anti-Defamation League brought that application form to the attention of Emory leaders, the university denied that there was any connection between the two events. The dental school's practices, never acknowledged by Emory, were simply dropped, and the affair faded from collective memory over passing generations. (Mr. Buhler, who later became dean of the dental school at the University of South Carolina, died in 1976.)

Viewing the Goldstein exhibit, however, Mr. Brickman felt stirred to action. "It was the first time I'd seen those figures of how many people had flunked," he said. "I had no idea how many there were. It was obvious that it was a systemic problem."

So he tracked down dozens of the Jewish students who had been affected, most of them still holding a complicated mix of anger and embarrassment. Mr. Brickman taped interviews with many of them, and that video became the foundation of the coming documentary, "From Silence to Recognition" by David Hughes Duke.

"Can you imagine trying to study," one former student recalls in the film, "knowing that whatever you did was not acceptable to a dean who was committed to flunking you out?"

Another recounts being told by Mr. Buhler: "Why do you Jews want to go into dentistry? You don't have it in the hands."

As for Mr. Brickman, he eventually went to dental school at the University of Tennessee and graduated fourth in his class.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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