Vanderbilt U. Woos Jewish Students
The school says it's encouraging diversity; some wonder if Vanderbilt is promoting the idea of Jewish intellectual superiority.
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Keimowitz said she worries that the recruiting could put pressure on Jewish students and feed stereotypes that Jews have the "inside track" or are part of some kind of conspiracy.
"Part of the problem is that, given the situation in the Middle East and the anti-Semitism that followed in Europe immediately afterward, it is fresh on people's minds," she said. "We are more ripe for anti-Semitism now than we have been in a while."
Tamar Rudavsky, director of the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, said Vanderbilt and other schools that are recruiting Jews are also trying to pump up donations.
"Universities have figured out that there are many wealthy Jews who want to contribute to universities," she said. "They see this as an opportunity to get Jewish money. There is an aging population of 60- or 70-year-old second-generation Jews who want to give back but want to do so in a way that enhances education."
Vanderbilt's Schoenfeld said that getting donations is not a primary concern of the recruiting effort.
Vanderbilt is not alone in trying to attract Jews. Richard Joel, president of Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, said the group has built 19 Jewish centers in eight years. Other schools with centers in the works or recently completed include Brown University, where Gee was president before coming to Vanderbilt, and Florida State.
Still, Vanderbilt's intense, high-level effort to recruit Jews, even if part of a broader diversity effort, is uncommon.
Vanderbilt was founded in 1873 through a $1 million gift from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and steamship industrialist. It started as a Methodist school but severed its church ties in 1914.
Despite its location in a city where only about 6,500 of 570,000 residents is Jewish, Vanderbilt once drew a substantial number of Southern Jews because other elite universities would not accept them, Davis said.
As recently as the 1960s, some top universities used quotas to hold down Jewish enrollment. During the 1970s, Jewish enrollment at Vanderbilt was 9 percent or 10 percent, but it slipped as Ivy League and other prestigious universities abandoned the quotas.
If Vanderbilt seems unabashed in its courting of Jews, Davis said, it is because it is playing catch-up.
Some Vanderbilt students said they do not mind the push for diversity. On campus, senior Ashley Hunt of Hanson, Ky., motioned toward the new Jewish life center and said: "I don't know if it will make a difference, but I think it's a bold statement."