U-M, Jewish Students, and Belonging

A hardhat from the construction of the current Hillel building in 1988

From the exhibit “Striving to Stimulate Serious Thought: Jewish Scholarly and Cultural Life at Michigan Across Two Centuries” on the 7th floor of Hatcher. 

Last year, I learned about Jewish quotas in my SOC 100 class. The quota system sought to limit the number of Jewish students who attended universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. However, I never knew how U-M fit into this—were we just as discriminatory? Or did we live up to our name as the Leaders and Best?

In her talk “But Not the Loud Offensive Type: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Michigan during the Era of Jewish Admissions Quotas, 1925-1939,” Dr. Karla Goldman discussed how U-M treated Jewish applicants and students during this critical time period. In many ways, U-M really was the “Harvard of the West” for Jewish students, since U-M didn’t have the same caps on Jewish enrollment that universities like Harvard did. But part of the reason U-M was less discriminatory was simply that there were less Jews in Michigan than along the East Coast. Goldman shared an interesting fact about Bert Askwith, the namesake of Bert’s Café and Askwith Media in Shapiro. He was so successful with his business busing students to and from New York partially because so many Jews from New York had to come to Michigan for school.

Yet Jewish students were still stereotyped and discriminated against. They often had trouble finding landlords in Ann Arbor who would rent to them, and donors like William Cook (who funded the Martha Cook dorm) tried to use their power to limit Jewish enrollment. U-M’s response is important for understanding what diversity, equity, and inclusion have meant at this university throughout time. It also speaks to broader questions that our nation is facing—who “deserves” to be here? What does it mean to belong? We can learn from the historical successes and failures that U-M has had in, as Dr. Goldman put it, “incorporating those who are seen as Other.”


The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the U-M Library.