Choosing the chosen people
Graphs usually help clarify confusing data. There is one graph, though, that raises more questions than answers, and it’s clamped in a three-ring binder in the office of Rabbi Julie Roth, the executive director of the Center for Jewish Life (CJL). For the past five years, Roth has been working to change a puzzling statistic: Thirteen percent of Princeton’s undergraduate student body is Jewish, the lowest percentage of any Ivy League university besides Dartmouth, which comes in at 11 percent.
Jewish students at Harvard, Brown, Columbia and Penn make up 25 percent of their respective undergraduate populations, and at Yale and Cornell, the number is 22 percent, according to data provided by Hillel, a leading international Jewish campus organization.
This data corresponds closely with data collected by the CJL, though both organizations depend on students voluntarily identifying their religious preference. The 13 percent figure suggests that Princeton’s population of Jewish students has only increased slightly since an Office of Religious Life survey 10 years ago showed that 10 percent of undergraduates were Jewish.
At the time, this statistic represented a significant decline from a peak of roughly 18 percent in 1980. This drop elicited widespread concern: In April 1999, The Daily Princetonian ran four front-page articles on the issue, prompting The New York Times to write a piece in June of that year titled “The Princeton Puzzle” about the decline of the Jewish population on campus.
Gradually, a campus-wide debate emerged over what the statistic meant for the University.
Explanations for the admission gap varied. Some said that the University’s initiative to attract students from outside the Northeast lowered the number of Jewish students in the pursuit of geographical diversity. Others said they thought that an increasing number of Asian-American applicants were “beating out” Jewish ones, or that the University’s emphasis on recruiting athletes sacrificed spots normally taken by Jewish students.
Today, Roth said, there is no reason to believe that Jewish students have more trouble getting into Princeton than into peer institutions. Rather, she explained, the challenge is getting them to come — or to apply in the first place.
“We have to combat inaccurate impressions about Princeton,” she said, noting that some prospective students might base their opinion of the school on outdated memories like that of the 1958 Dirty Bicker, when the eating clubs rejected the bids of nearly two dozen Jewish students.
Wilson School professor and former CJL board president Stan Katz said the University’s biggest step in changing this impression came with the establishment of the CJL.
“It was a powerful statement that Princeton really cared about Jewish students,” he said, noting that the University maintains the building and runs the kosher dining hall. “Very few universities have that level of commitment,” he added.
Roth echoed Katz’ sentiment, saying that parents of prospective students who visit the CJL have described the Jewish community as the University’s “best-kept secret.”
Though Roth said she would love to see more Jewish students at the University, she noted that, “from a diversity perspective”, 13 percent “is really incredible.” Jews make up roughly 2 percent of the nation’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
She added that, in her experience, if applicants were deterred from coming, it was usually because they wanted to be part of a larger Jewish community like that at Yale, which has roughly 1,200 Jewish undergraduates, and Cornell, with 3,000 Jewish students, compared to Princeton’s community of roughly 650 Jewish undergraduates.
This raises the possibility of a self-perpetuating cycle — Princeton’s relatively small number of Jewish students might be deterring more from coming.
In 1998, a University Admissions Study Group addressed this possibility in a report that recommended increasing the size of entering classes by between 120 and 150 students. The University is currently in the process of increasing its undergraduate body by roughly 500 students, but the percentage of Jewish students has not substantially increased.
“[The statistics] mainly reflect that we are a remote campus, and it is not very surprising to me that more Jewish students apply to more urban campuses,” Katz said, adding that “as much as anything else these days, it is the geographical location.”
Though Roth agreed that location “may be a factor,” she didn’t think it was the primary reason. “Cornell is more isolated [than Princeton],” she noted.
But if the statistics haven’t improved, the relationship between the CJL and the Office of Admission certainly has.
In the 1999 ‘Prince’ articles, former CJL director Rabbi James Diamond said he thought then-Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon was not responsive enough to the issue and that Hargadon’s control of the admission process discouraged outside input. “There has to be a gatekeeper for anything, but I wish it weren’t so damn autocratic,” Diamond said.
Since Hargadon’s departure in 2003, the CJL’s relations with the admission office have changed dramatically, Roth said. When Roth arrived at Princeton in 2005, she immediately began meeting with Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye to discuss the admission of Jewish students, and they continue to meet twice a year “to learn from our successes,” Roth said. The admission office has also assigned a liaison to the CJL, and all the admission officers visit the CJL “so they can spread the word” about Princeton’s Jewish life in other quarters.
“[Rapelye] has been working strategically with us to get the word out and encourage more [students] to come,” Roth said, adding, “I found a very willing partner.”
Together, they have devised a “multi-year and multi-pronged” recruitment strategy. Among other steps, Roth has traveled to Jewish day schools to promote the University, and Princeton alumni attend Jewish college fairs and donate money to the CJL specifically for recruitment purposes, Roth explained. She also noted that the CJL has updated its recruitment materials and put “more energy” into its Princeton Preview activities.
“When people come to campus and see for themselves what it’s like to be Jewish here, they apply,” she said.
A smaller Jewish community can also have its advantages, Roth said, explaining that the distinct groups of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews interact more because of the small size of the community.
Still, she said, she hopes the Jewish community will increase in the future.
“I would love 20 percent,” she said. “The reality is that you cannot have a benchmark, and that is mark of advancement of our country … There is a lot more work to be done, but we’re on the right track.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that roughly 18 Jewish students attended the University in 1980. In fact, 18 percent of students identified themselves as Jewish.