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Vanderbilt University Courts Jewish Students - 2003-06-28

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is raising eyebrows with a recruiting drive aimed at increasing the number of Jewish students at the 130-year-old, highly selective private university.

Vanderbilt calls it a marketing strategy aimed at staying competitive with other prestigious southern colleges. But others wonder whether the campaign, in spite of its benign motives, might just be another form of plain-old ethnic stereotyping.

Other than courting potential athletes, Vanderbilt University usually does not have to do much recruiting. This year more than 11,000 men and women applied for 1,500 spots in the Vanderbilt freshman class. But according to Vice Chancellor Michael Schoenfeld, the university was concerned that the ethnic and racial mix at the traditionally white, Christian school in the conservative South might be discouraging minority applicants, notably, Jews.

"Students who apply to Vanderbilt will oftentimes apply to Emory University [in Atlanta, Georgia], to Duke University [in North Carolina], to Washington University in Saint Louis [Missouri]. If you match up those schools on their academics, on their social life, on reputation and everything else, we do very, very well - with one exception," says Mr. Schoenfeld. "If you are Jewish - and I myself am Jewish - and being in an environment that is positive for Jewish life is important to you, you're going to throw Vanderbilt out of the mix. You're going to say, 'There's nobody there like me. There's no community for me to be a part of.' And while there is no anti-Semitism or anything of that nature, it's just not a place for me, in the same way that if you were a rugby player, and you were considering five schools, and four of them had a rugby team while one of them didn't, you'd say, 'Well, that may be a great place, but it's not a place for me.'"

So Vanderbilt is making a concerted effort to increase its Jewish presence, with recruiting visits to U.S. secondary schools that have large Jewish enrollments. Last December, a Nashville rabbi hired by the university even handed out Vanderbilt brochures and buttons at a national convention of Hebrew congregations.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Vanderbilt chancellor Gordon Gee as saying that Jewish students "make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life."

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes that, in Northeast Ivy League schools where they represent almost one-fourth of the student population, Jewish men and women score well on entrance tests and get better grades than all other students grouped by religion, save for Unitarians. Mr. Cohen writes that Vanderbilt, which has a two percent Jewish enrollment, wants more Jews because it's "determined to lift its academic standing."

But even officials of the nation's leading watchdog against negative stereotyping of Jews, the Anti-Defamation League, have misgivings about the targeting of Jewish students. Deborah Lauter, the ADL's Southeast regional director, based in Atlanta, says enlisting Jewish students because of their academic performance may be a flattering kind of stereotyping. But it's stereotyping, nonetheless.

"When you're looking at stereotypes, you're basically looking at generalizations," she explains. "The common ones you'll hear are: 'They are all cheap,' 'They are all good dancers,' 'They are all stupid.' Or 'They are all smart.' It's a positive statement, but it's almost an intellectually lazy way of looking at a group of people. Where it can get dangerous is that some stereotypes may be seen by some as positive, but the result can end up being negative. There are those that would say, 'Not only are all Jews smart, but all Jews have money. Jews control the media.' That's a classic anti-Semitic canard. And that flows from that same process of making a generalization about a group of people."

Margaret Shih, a Taiwanese-American who is a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, wholeheartedly agrees that positive stereotypes often have a darker flip side. As a Harvard University graduate student, she helped administer a mathematics test to Asian-American women. During the preparations, some were subtly reminded that they were Asian, others that they were women. Nothing was said about race or gender to a third, control group. Those branded as Asians fulfilled the positive stereotype that Asians are whizzes at math. They did much better on the test than the control group. Those whose gender was emphasized met a negative stereotype - that women do poorly at math. One might conclude, therefore, that calling attention to positive ethnic stereotypes - Asians excel at math, Jews are smart, blacks are good athletes - is a good idea. Not so fast, says Professor Shih. Positive stereotypes can backfire.

"If you stereotype somebody positively, and you're very explicit about it, there can be a lot of negative consequences," she explains. "For example, Asian-Americans and Jewish-Americans are often help up as 'model minorities.' And people point to that as an indication that these groups don't experience discrimination and we don't really need to pay attention to these groups, and they don't have hardships. But that's not the case at all. Bringing them in [as at Vanderbilt] because you're stereotyping them positively, you treat people as members of a group almost as a means to an end. And you're almost pigeonholing them, telling them that because you're a member of this group, you should have these certain characteristics."

Ms. Shih points out that not every Jewish student is smart, and not every Asian-American woman is a wizard with a calculator.

Hold on a second, says Vanderbilt's Michael Schoenfeld. There is no Jewish quota. No special scholarships are given to Jewish applicants. "Vandy," as the school is known, is already world-class academically, but it needs more ethnic seasoning.

"Any university is improved by a greater diversity of voices and viewpoints and backgrounds," he stresses.

A new Jewish cultural and community center, featuring a kosher and vegetarian café, opened on the Vanderbilt campus last year. According to its director, Shaiya Baer, the city of Nashville is not the intolerant, conservative southern capital city that many felt it once was. He says it has thriving Hispanic and Ethiopian communities, a Jewish population of about 8,000, and the largest Kurdish population in America.

"Nashville itself is a very welcoming city and a unique city and a wonderful city, and I'm very happy here," he points out.

Vanderbilt University is by no means the only traditionally white, largely Christian college aggressively recruiting Jewish students. Susquehanna University, a Lutheran school in a small Pennsylvania town with no synagogue, has started a Jewish-studies program. And even two Texas universities with Christian names - Southern Methodist and Texas Christian - are, as The Wall Street Journal puts it, "avidly pursuing Jews."

Vanderbilt won't know for sure, until fall enrollment begins in August, if its recruiting efforts have paid off. But Vice Chancellor Schoenfeld says early indications are that a significant number of new Jewish students, perhaps 100 more than usual, will be joining the student body.