Stanford’s Apology and the Importance of Archives

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The recent story about Stanford apologizing for limiting Jewish enrollment in the 1950s and misleading investigations into the practice in the decade that followed is, in part, a story of the power of archival material to make history and even force reckonings.

It all started with Cornell postdoctoral fellow Charles Petersen, who in 2015 was doing research in Stanford University’s archives for a book on meritocracy in America. He came across a memo, dated February 1953, discussing the director of Stanford admissions’ concern about too many Jewish students being admitted. The memo informed the university’s president that the admissions office would need to ignore the school’s stated policy of disregarding applicants’ race or religion.

Petersen wrote about the finding in his Substack newsletter, and that’s what prompted Stanford to form a task force, publish a 75-page report documenting the efforts to suppress Jewish student admissions in the 1950s, and apologize both for “appalling antisemitic activity” and for taking so long to acknowledge it.

So, a win for individual scholarship! Postdoc Petersen’s newsletter is called Making History, and, indeed, sometimes to make history you have to study it, page by page, letter by letter. And in order to do that, archives must be carefully curated and accessible—for scholarly purposes or a compelling public interest. For example, in 1963, a German play about the pope’s silence during the Holocaust and the ensuing public outcry led the Vatican to begin releasing wartime documents. Other releases have followed intermittently, including last summer when the Vatican made public many thousands of letters Jews had written to Pope Pius XII asking for help escaping the Nazis. These letters illuminate historical truths and also tell a multitude of personal stories. Collections of saved personal letters can, of course, do the same. Take the 56 letters Tony-nominated director and actor Eleanor Reissa found after her mother died that were written by her father. They tell a story of her parents, both Holocaust survivors, that became a focal point of Reissa’s memoir published earlier this year: The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey.

Last week’s apology from Stanford can also be seen in the larger context of the American ivory tower closing its gates to Jews. Two years ago, Moment reviewed Laurel Leff’s treatment of the topic, Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe. She wrote the book, she said, out of irritation that “the overriding myth of a welcoming American academy remains largely intact.” In her book, Leff did note the exception of historically Black colleges and universities that laudibly welcomed Jewish scholars to their faculties. The story of Jewish refugee professors at HBCUs was the focus of a fascinating discussion last week between Dr. Lillie J. Edwards, Professor Emerita of History and African American studies at Drew University, and Moment Editor-in-Chief Nadine Epstein. In case you missed it, you can still watch it here.

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