Emory confronts a legacy of bias in overture to Jewish ex-students

  • Article by: SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN , New York Times
  • Updated: October 6, 2012 - 5:35 PM

Many dental students were flunked by a single dean, now deceased.

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Perry Brickman

Photo: Virginie Drujan Kippelen, New York Times

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In the summer of 1952, after his first year of dental school at Emory University in Atlanta, Perry Brickman received a letter from the dean. It informed him that he had flunked out.

Brickman was mystified. He had been a B-plus student in biology as an Emory undergraduate and had earned early admission to dental school. He had never failed a course in his life.

Over the next few weeks, Brickman found out that three of his classmates had also been failed. All of them happened to be Jewish. Yet instead of fighting back, Brickman and his friends searched for other dental schools and swallowed a shame that lasted decades.

"Your parents said, 'Why didn't you work harder?'" Brickman, 80, recalled. "My mother said, 'What have you done to me?' ... No one believed us."

Sixty years later, Brickman has helped to see belated justice done. In large part because of his personal research into the anti-Semitic record of Emory's dental school, the university has invited many Jewish former students to a private meeting Wednesday with its president, James W. Wagner, and that same night it will host the premiere of a documentary film about the scandal.

'We need to be fearless'

The evidence of bias against Jewish students in Emory's dental school under the reign of Dean John Buhler from 1948 to 1961 has been known for decades. Until now, however, the university had neither admitted the bias nor apologized for it.

"We need to be fearless in confronting our past as individuals and an institution," said Gary Hauk, Emory's vice president. "There are often things we regret about our past, but there is the possibility of making amends and of building on the acknowledgment of those things. Part of our vision of Emory is being ethically engaged, and that means wrestling about what it means to have these warts."

Emory's event this week is part of a larger inquiry and atonement for anti-Semitic practices at elite universities for much of the 20th century.

Emory has become a drastically different place since the 1960s. Its student body is about 20 percent Jewish, said Hauk, and its faculty includes prominent Jewish scholars like Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt. In fact, it was an exhibit by one of her academic colleagues, Eric Goldstein, that set Brickman on his quest.

As part of commemorating the 30th anniversary of Emory's Jewish studies program in 2006, Goldstein assembled a display on the Jewish experience at the school. It included news articles about a 1962 book on American anti-Semitism written by two staff members of the Anti-Defamation League, which had a chapter about Emory's dental school.

During Buhler's years as dean, the book showed, 65 percent of Jewish students were either flunked out or forced to repeat entire years of classes. Jewish enrollment at the dental school plummeted, and it adopted an application designating prospective students as "Caucasian, Jew or Other."

'I had no idea'

Although Buhler resigned after the Anti-Defamation League brought that application form to the attention of Emory leaders, the university denied that there was any connection between the two events. The dental school's practices were simply dropped, and the affair faded from collective memory. Buhler died in 1976.

Viewing the Goldstein exhibit, however, Brickman felt stirred to action. "It was the first time I'd seen those figures of how many people had flunked," he said. "I had no idea how many there were. It was obvious that it was a systemic problem."

So he tracked down dozens of the students who had been affected, most of them still holding a mix of anger and embarrassment. He taped interviews with many of them, and that video became the foundation of the coming documentary, "From Silence to Recognition" by David Hughes Duke.

"Can you imagine trying to study," one former student recalls in the film, "knowing that whatever you did was not acceptable to a dean who was committed to flunking you out?"

As for Brickman, he eventually went to dental school at the University of Tennessee and graduated fourth in his class.

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