“I am sorry. We are sorry.” It was with those unscripted two sentences uttered in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 people that Emory University’s president, James Wagner, gave voice to a great wrong.
But first some background. From 1948 to 1961, the university’s dean, John Buhler, led Emory’s dental school. . Every year, a small number of young Jewish men would be admitted to the school. Then, at Buhler’s instigation, often within a year, many would be flunked out. Some of the luckier ones were forced to repeat a year. Their lives were, in the words of one student, “a living hell.” They knew that irrespective of how hard they worked or how well they succeeded, all would probably be for naught. Many were told by Buhler that “Jews do not have it in the hands” for dentistry.
Humiliated, they had to explain to parents, many of whom had sacrificed greatly for their sons’ education, that they had been ejected. Parents asked their sons, “Couldn’t you have worked harder?” Many of these men went on to stellar careers in dentistry; one became a cardiac surgeon. Despite their successes, most never spoke to their families about the shame they had felt.
Some in the Atlanta Jewish community knew what was happening, but in typical Southern Jewish fashion they elected not to make a fuss. Some communal leaders were convinced that the students were trying to make excuses. One brave soul, Art Levin, head of the local Anti-Defamation League, believed them and chose protest. He amassed statistics showing that 65% of the Jewish students at the school were failed or had been forced to repeat a class. He compared this with the medical school, where only 4% faced that fate. He was told that none of this happened and it won’t happen anymore. But it did.
In 1961, the dean, probably feeling impervious, prepared an admission form with three boxes at the top. Applicants were to pick one. The choices were Caucasian, Jewish and Other. (It goes without saying that there were, of course, no African-American students at the school during those years.) After the ADL brought the admission form to the university’s attention, Buhler resigned, though Emory insisted that this was unrelated to the charges of anti-Semitism.