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Special to JTA Brooklyn College Survey Asks Students for Ethnic Origin, Religious Preference

December 20, 1971
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The major Jewish and Christian student organizations at Brooklyn College have expressed concern over the distribution of an official college survey which asks students to list their ethnic origin and their religious preference. In an ad which recently appeared in one of the college’s student newspapers, the Kingsman, the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation and the Newman Center asserted that “such questions in an official university document…constitute an invasion of one’s privacy.”

The ad urged “all students not to answer those sections in the questionnairs…dealing with ethnic or religious preference.” The eight-page questionnaire booklet has been distributed to students at the college under a cover letter from the school’s president, John W, Kneller.

His letter states that the survey is part of the college’s efforts to develop “a plan of change” and that the information, which will be kept “confidential.” will help “expand educational opportunity for all persons, regardless of their racial, religious or economic background.” The survey, which will become part of a centralized computer based file, will, according to Kneller, enable the school to modernize its record-keeping system.

The questions about ethnic origin and religious preference, as well as the one asking the student’s sex, are marked with an asterisk to indicate that answering them is optional. But Rabbi Frank A. Fischer of the campus’ Hillel Foundation, charged that the college “has no right asking” such questions “in the first place.” The survey, he said, provides the school’s administration with information “that we have no way of judging what it will be used for.”

Rabbi Fischer said the administration has stated that the information about religious preferences is needed, for instance, to set up a common academic calendar which would accomodate the holidays of different religious groups. But he said, he believes the survey might be used to insure greater ethnic and racial integration at Brooklyn College, whose student body he estimated to be about 70 percent Jewish.

The college has one of the largest concentrations of Jewish students in any of the public colleges in the city. Figures commonly used last spring approximated that of a total student body of about 28,000 in the day and evening sessions, some 18,000 were Jewish. Around 5,000 of the Jewish students were said to be Orthodox.


“I think it bothers the Board of Higher Education very much” that only 15-20 percent of the total student body at the college is non-white, Rabbi Fischer stated. He said he opposes the use of ethnic or racial quota systems as the basis for re-distributing students among the campuses of the City University of New York.

Brooklyn is one of ten senior colleges in the CUNY system. At present, all those graduating from high schools in New York City who have an 80 percent or better grade-point average, or are in the top half of their graduating class, quality for admission to a senior college. Applicants are asked to specify which senior college they would like to attend and assignments to the various schools are made on the basis of high school academic achievement. If, for example, there aren’t enough places at Brooklyn College for all those wishing to go there, students with the best scholastic records get their first choice.

Lawrence Noonan, executive assistant to President Kneller, said Dr. Kneller is “emphatic” that the information in the survey “not be used to impose any type of quotas on the institution.” Noonan said the survey would allow the college “to meet the needs of the students better,” and would “reduce the amount of paper work that students have to fill out. He said the information has been previously “asked in a variety of places and ways,” including official college forms. He pointed out that the questionnaire of the American Council on Education also includes questions about religion.


Father John J. O’Sullivan, director of the Newman Center which is comprised of a number of Christian groups, said “I don’t necessarily think it (the questionnaire) is an invasion of privacy.” He added that he would have “no problems” answering any of the questions. Nevertheless, he said, students “should be alerted to ponder” whether the questions are indeed an invasion of privacy even if they are marked with an asterisk.

“One of the problems,” he said, “is that kids are so programmed to answering questions that you have to say ‘watch it kid.'” If alerted to think about it, he said, “some kids might consider it an invasion of privacy.” Father O’Sullivan said the information about ethnic and religious backgrounds could be used to improve the school’s educational program. He said he would not be opposed if the questionnaire led to a more integrated Brooklyn College student body.


A number of student leaders have focussed attention on other questions in the booklet. The booklet asks each student to list his or her extracurricular activities at the college, and those students who wish to be considered for financial aid are expected to fill out a page devoted to financial background. Students fear that the records will become available to government investigative agencies such as the FBI. In his letter to the students, Dr. Kneller assured them that the information “will not be available to outside persons or agencies without your permission.” However, the files will be subject to government subpoena.

Dr. Kneller met last week with a group of student representatives and, according to Noonan, assured them that the information obtained will not be used to impose any type of quotas on the school and that special precautions have been taken to ensure the confidentiality of the information. Noonan stated there has been “a lot of misunderstanding about” the questionnaire.


He asserted that the survey was “designed to help the student” and that the files will contain only what the student wants in them. He said the students will have regular opportunities to review the information in their own files and to update it either by adding to or deleting form what they previously recorded.

Despite the anxiety expressed by some on the college’s campus, at least one student, an editor of the Kingsman, played down the controversy. In a telephone interview, he said that students who did not want to fill out the forms really didn’t have to. There’s “so much red tape,” he said, that the administration “can’t follow up” on who fills it out and who doesn’t.

The survey is the first of a five-part study. Future questionnaires will deal with courses, school facilities, non-student personnel, and the budget. The cost of the survey will come to more than $100,000. Part of the funding, somewhat less than half, will come from the Board of Higher Education and the rest from the college’s operating budget. None of the other city colleges have yet undertaken such a project, but, Noonan noted, the survey has “applicability” to other institutions.

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