Ambiguous “Legacy” At Brown University from a Recent Commencement Address

It is January of my sophomore year when I realize my grandmother is getting old. She is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, just beginning to confuse names, dates and grandchildren, and I know that in five years she may not recognize me.

I have just read Maus: My Father Bleeds History, and I’ve been wondering if maybe my grandmother bleeds history too. I arrive at her apartment with two bags of fruit and a miniature tape recorder, which I test a few times to make sure it’s recording and set on the table between us.

I ask her to tell me her life story. She’s not sure what that means. I say. “Start with where you were born. Grandma,” and she says she was born in the Ukraine but came to this country on a boat when she was five.

She doesn’t remember much about her childhood, though. She is more eager to talk about her years as a student at Pembroke College during the twenties, because she wants me to compare them with my own experiences at Brown [which incorporated the all-women’s Pembroke in 1971].

She begins to tell me about her friends at college and how they would see plays in downtown Providence on the weekends for fun. I ask her if most of her friends were Jewish, and she says they were, but that she didn’t feel any discrimination at Pembroke. When she graduated, though, she found out from some of her classmates that there had been a quota for Jews. She says that this news upset her but didn’t surprise her—because Jewish quotas were a product of the times.

When I have to leave, I kiss her goodbye and on the elevator ride down I take out the tape recorder, excited to hear how her stories came out. It’s blank. I am positive I pressed “record,” but there is not a thing on the tape. I am infuriated. But I take a deep breath and convince myself that it all makes some sort of cosmic sense that my first attempt to record my grandmother’s oral history failed miserably.

My grandmother dies almost exactly a year later. In the fall of my senior year, I decide to write a thesis for my concentration, Public Policy. I want to choose a topic with intense personal significance—and that’s not too easy to do in Public Policy. I remember my grandmother’s story about the quotas and I write a proposal to study discrimination in Brown admissions against Jewish and Asian Americans .

If the tape recorder had worked on that cold January day, I would never have attempted to uncover my family’s history at this institution. I learn, through my research, that the policy of legacy preference, giving admissions preference to children of alumni, was developed by 1920s administrators for the purpose of limiting the number of Jewish students. Because nearly all the legacies during that time were children of the Protestant elite, legacy preference served as affirmative action for Protestant applicants.

I also learn that the anti-Semitism of administrators affected my grandmother’s experiences at Pembroke. One morning at the John Hay Library, I open her file, dated March 21, 1929. I read what was supposed to be a recommendation for her from  one of her professors: “Miss Sohn has some Jewish traits of personality that are not attractive. She is inclined to push in and get as much as she can with the least possible expenditure of effort. There’s a sort of efficiency in that, however, which one admires with some exasperation….But she dresses neatly and in good taste. In the right place, she will do excellent work but she should not be recommended for a position…where a Jewess would not be acceptable.”

I cannot help but reflect on the irony of reading these words while sitting in my grandmother’s favorite library. There is something chillingly odd about my becoming aware of the anti-Semitism of my grandmother’s mentors while sitting in the Hay. I am grateful to have the privilege to study in such stunning surroundings. Yet after reading the file, I am suddenly and frighteningly aware that I’m not so sure I want the membership privileges in a club which could have penned such vitriol.

As I continue to uncover my grandmother’s history at Brown through my thesis research, I finally begin to confront my shame at my own legacy status. On the one hand, my study of Brown admissions gives me the knowledge to understand the true, anti-Semitic basis for legacy preference. On the other hand. I cannot deny to myself that as a legacy, I am a beneficiary of the system I understand well enough to despise.