Nicholas Lemann’s absorbing new history of American meritocracy, The Big Test, contains an interesting anecdote about William F. Buckley’s inadvertent role, while an undergraduate at Yale during the late 1940s, in helping that university restrict the number of Jews and Catholics it admitted. Here is how Lemann tells the story (on page 142):
One year the Connecticut legislature got the idea of forbidding universities to ask for information about the religion of applicants. [Yale President A. Whitney] Griswold persuaded the student editor of the Yale Daily News, William F. Buckley, Jr., to go up to Hartford and testify against the bill; Griswold told him such information would be indispensable for the Yale Archives (though Buckley, an opponent of government regulation, didn’t need to be persuaded very hard). A few days later, when Buckley told Yale’s Catholic chaplain about his political mission, the chaplain broke the news to him that Yale maintained a ceiling of 13 percent on Catholics and on Jews and that was why they needed to ask the question.
Lemann got one detail wrong: Griswold didn’t become Yale’s president until a few months after Buckley graduated, so the president in question would have been Griswold’s predecessor, Charles Seymour. When Chatterbox asked Buckley about this intriguing story–which apparently has never been told before, except in a footnote to Dan A. Oren’s 1985 book Joining The Club: A History of Jews and Yale–Buckley was a little hazy about the details:
I met with Charles Seymour, ex officio as chairman of the Yale News, once every week. I can’t exactly remember whether it was he who asked me to go to Hartford or whether it was [Yale’s lawyer, Frederick] Wiggin. I do remember at one point Seymour telling me that it was ridiculous not to ask an applicant what religion his was, since “colleges are historical research facilities.” I exactly remember going to see Yale’s counsel, the formidable Mr. Wiggin, who asked why I opposed the law. I gave the libertarian answer and he said, “You’re wrong. The legislature can do anything it wants to do provided it isn’t unconstitutional.” He instructed me, in effect, not to stress my own libertarian line, but simply to say I had no reason to suppose that Yale had quotas.
Even granting that Buckley’s libertarian opposition to Connecticut’s Fair Education Practices bill, which never did pass, would not likely have been altered by the discovery that Yale did indeed have quotas, it appears that Buckley was duped–either by Wiggin or by Seymour or by both men–into repeating a lie that helped Yale restrict the number of Catholics (of whom he was one) and Jews who got in. According to Oren’s book, Wiggin assured Buckley that there were no quotas. But there were quotas. Whether these were formal quotas can’t, perhaps, be proved. But against Jews there were, Oren told Chatterbox, “admissions guidelines and understandings, ‘informal quotas’ that had the same net effect,” and these “were not relaxed until the early ‘60s.” Against Catholics there’s less direct evidence of ‘informal quotas,’ but Oren got some former Yale admissions officers to admit that their colleagues discriminated against Catholics during this period. And at least according to the testimony of Yale’s Catholic chaplain (as recounted by Buckley), “it was a funny ‘coincidence’ that exactly the same number of Catholics and Jews were admitted into Yale.”
What Chatterbox wants to know is: Why are we learning about this only now? William F. Buckley is not only a journalist, but a journalist who has written extensively about his own personal experiences; moreover, the first book Buckley ever published, God and Man at Yale, was, in part, an argument that Yale should uphold its antique tradition of inculcating Christian values and beliefs. In taking this position, Buckley ought to have noted the inconvenient fact that historically, running a Christian college (which to Yale really meant a Protestant college) meant excluding, to some extent, Catholics and Jews–and that, a mere two or three years before publishing this book, he himself had encountered some evidence that systematic exclusion might still going on.