In the 1920s and 1930s, it looks like Columbia found a loophole. Sifting through old newspaper articles and University records from this time, I come across dozens of permits and permit applications, all to allow the University to obtain alcohol during prohibition by sending it to a college within the University—a college called Seth Low Junior College. With further research, I find that the college had a premedical program—this explained the alcohol, since science classrooms would need alcohol to clean lab equipment. The true loophole took further digging—while the college was not created to obtain illicit liquor during prohibition, it did prevent Jewish students from attending Columbia College.
SLJC, a community college attached to Columbia through a shared administration, was established in 1928 in Brooklyn Heights by the board of trustees and then President Nicholas Butler as fundamentally a place where Columbia would send Jewish applicants. While the University has changed within the past century—Columbia today has a vibrant Jewish life on campus—the anti-Semitism that led to the establishment of Seth Low Junior College persisted past the college’s closing, but its memory hasn’t.
By the 1920s, Columbia College experienced some significant changes: The Core Curriculum had just been introduced, Baker Field Stadium finalized its construction, and Columbia’s academic life expanded from Manhattan to the greater state of New York, accumulating schools such as Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson under the University umbrella. Located in the same building as Brooklyn Law School, Seth Low Junior College was ostensibly a preprofessional school for students hoping to attend law or medical school. According to Leeza Hirt, a former writer for The Current, a Jewish publication at Columbia, and a member of Columbia College’s class of 2018, students weren’t offered a degree because the idea was that they would go on to earn a degree at a professional school. Historical evidence today, based on research by Barnard history professor and Columbia historian Robert McCaughey and documentation from the early 20th century, suggests that SLJC was created with the explicit goal of reducing the amount of Jewish students on the Morningside campus. In Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University, McCaughey notes that enrollment of Jewish students at Columbia College after Seth Low Junior College’s opening dropped from 40 to 25 percent.
McCaughey, a professor of history at Barnard, believes that Seth Low Junior College was created for Jewish students without question. “I think the record is pretty clear with respect to Seth Low Junior College,” he tells me. Butler, however, stated that Columbia was trying to limit the amount of New York public school students in order to draw more nationwide attention to Columbia. But McCaughey believes that this “rationale fails to recognize the disproportionate number of New York City high school graduates who were Jewish.”
The Committee on Undergraduate Admissions was formed in 1909 in order to concentrate admissions under one authority. In Michael Rosenthal’s Nicholas Miraculous, which details the life and opinions of Butler, Rosenthal notes that “Butler wasted no time in supplying the committee with his suggestions.”
According to McCaughey, while half of the Columbia College applicants in total were accepted, only one in six Jewish applicants were admitted during the early 20th century. McCaughey tells me that though there was no specific quota, Jewish students, when interviewed, were advised to look toward NYU or CCNY, schools with larger public school graduates—which included many Jewish students—at the time.
The tension between the the two schools extended across the East River. The editor of SLJC’s undergraduate newspaper “condemn[ed] Columbia’s attitude of scorn toward its branches in general and Seth Low in particular.” The segregation was upsetting, and some students didn’t hesitate to express their dismay. Will Katz, who left Seth Low before he could graduate, wrote in a letter, “I can see only one reason for this action of the entrance board of Columbia College in rejecting me—even after I offered to throw away my Seth Low credits and enter as a freshman again.” Katz revealed his sadness and disappointment with Columbia, and wrote, “My pride was hurt at the insult that Seth Low throws to the Jewish race.”
There were many disadvantages to attending SLJC: It didn’t provide a degree, there wasn’t any guarantee that students could go to Columbia professional schools, and the school existed within Brooklyn Law School rather than holding classes within its own space—and yet tuition was just as expensive as that of Columbia College, according to The Current. Compared to Brooklyn College—a public college with no tuition at the time—SLJC seemed much less attractive. In 1936, after eight years of segregation and discrimination of Jewish students, a New York Times article made public Columbia’s intention to close down the college, citing financial hardships. Both students and faculty at SLJC were against this decision. Students thought this would lead to a “loss of identity as a separate unit,” and faculty were concerned that they might be fired. But in addition to Brooklyn College, CUNY opened its doors in Brooklyn directly following the closing of SLJC, and many students went on to attend those schools. Other students who were still at SLJC became absorbed into University Extension, another undergraduate school at Columbia, which would later become the School of General Studies.
I sit down to talk to Dr. Robert Pollack, professor of biology and former dean of Columbia College from 1982 to 1989, to talk about coeducation at Columbia, but our conversation shifts to SLJC. After his discovery of SLJC, he decided to research some of its graduates, and came across acclaimed science fiction writer and one of Pollack’s personal favorites, Isaac Asimov, who attended but never graduated from SLJC.
Pollack invited Asimov to his own office to give him an honorary diploma. But first, Pollack made Asimov complete a few Columbia College requirements, including the swim test. Rather than taking him down to Dodge Fitness Center, he got creative. “I invited him to my office. I had a bucket of water and I said, ‘Take off your shoe and put your foot in it,’” Pollack tells me, and I try to imagine his organized office with bucket on the floor, water spilling out of the sides. “He did, and I said, ‘You just passed the swim test,’” Pollack recalls. It was as simple as that.
And to Pollack, it was one small thing he could do after discovering the history of SLJC. “That, I think, is the low point of Columbia's self-regard as protecting some ideal of humanity from the lesser people,” Pollack says.
So how did Columbia get from the discrimination of Jewish students to a campus that promotes diversity and inclusion? Change certainly didn’t come quickly. Schoolwide discussions of the “Jewish Problem” were still held regularly through the 1940s. New York City held a rally for Hitler in 1939. As the 20th century progressed, more Jewish students began attending Columbia College. There were no longer publicized discussions about a “Jewish Problem.” Jewish students were allowed to miss class on Jewish holidays starting in the 1950s.
Even in the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish students had a presence on campus. There were Jewish studies programs, Jewish student dances, Jewish academic societies, and other Jewish clubs, including the Jewish Theater Ensemble, that began to appear on campus. In the 1970s, the Council of Jewish Organizations gained popularity at Columbia, and led groups such as the Jewish Defense League, which was popular among both the student population and the surrounding community. Today, Columbia has many clubs centered around Judaism, such as The Current, Columbia-Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, and more. Columbia/Barnard Hillel Kraft Center for Jewish Life has also grown significantly since its establishment.
As I speak with Hirt over the phone, we talk about the legacy of Seth Low Junior College—or lack thereof. That may be one of the key factors in how Columbia has come to be seen as having a great community of Jewish students; Columbia has forgotten about the past. It isn’t necessarily that it has been covered up. If it had been named “Seth Low Jewish College, right?” she tells me, “then I think people would remember, but the fact that the kind of anti-Semitism aspect of it is a little more subtle, it makes it more difficult to, you know, isolate like this dark period in Columbia’s history.”
Hirt reminds me that, without making a conscious effort to remember Seth Low Junior College, its existence could easily slip through the cracks. “Unless there’s effort made to memorialize something,” she says, “then it’s not going to be remembered.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Seth Low Junior College was located in the same building as Brooklyn College. It was actually located within Brooklyn Law School. It also included a quoted section from the book "Columbia” which misrepresented the intent of its author, Frederick Keppel. Spectator and The Eye regret these errors.
Enjoy leafing through our ninth issue!