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Emory apologizes for history of anti-Semitism at dental school

Dentist's oral history project shines light on painful era

1951: Dr. Brickman as a first-year dental student at Emory University.

Atlanta—Emory University examined a painful part of its history this fall and in so doing began a healing process for a number of its former dental students.

Students at the Emory School of Dentistry, which closed its doors in 1988, accused the school of anti-Semitism for failing Jewish students or forcing them to repeat coursework at a rate disproportionately higher than their non-Jewish colleagues. The controversial period in time centers on 1948-61, during which one dean, Dr. John Buhler, presided over the dental school.

Before Dr. Buhler's tenure ended, many Jewish students had decided to pursue careers outside of dentistry. Others moved on to other dental schools. Most endured ridicule and harassment from professors and administrators.

The university is now acknowledging its past and has issued an apology to the students and their families. At an Oct. 10 ceremony and private screening of a film commissioned by the university that includes testimonials from former students, Emory President James W. Wagner said:

"Institutions—universities—are as fallible as the human beings who populate them, and like individuals, universities need to remind themselves frequently of the principles they want to live by. The discrimination against Jewish students undermined the academic integrity of the dental school and ultimately of Emory. I am sorry. We are sorry."

"It was a sincere apology," said Dr. Perry Brickman, an Atlanta oral surgeon. "They (the current university administration) weren't the ones who did this to students but they took responsibility for it and that's all we could ask of them."

It was the work of Dr. Brickman that led to this event. He began dental school at Emory in 1951 and was surprised to learn after his first year that he had "failed out."


Honor: Dr. Brickman with the medal he received as an Emory University History Maker at the Oct. 10 ceremony.
"There were four Jewish boys in my class. All four of us were gone in two years," said Dr. Brickman, who would go on to identify scores of men affected by anti-Semitism at the school (there were very few female dental students at the time). 

The incident stood in stark contrast to his experience as an undergraduate student at Emory University. But dental school was different. One of Dr. Brickman's classmates, Dr. Arthur Burns, was kicked out after two years. He eventually went into the Armed Services and was later accepted to Temple University School of Dentistry, where he received his dental degree in 1959.

Another student was forced to repeat his second year of dental school but Emory declined to protect him from the draft so he was drafted into the Army, came back to Emory and repeated his second year for a third time. He graduated in 1959.

Some abandoned the idea of becoming a dentist altogether. They would go on to become psychologists, gastroenterologists, CPAs, attorneys and cardiologists.

When Dr. Brickman left Emory dental school, the Chattanooga, Tenn., native pursued his dental education at the University of Tennessee, where he graduated with honors. His experience at Emory scarred him enough that he never considered living in Atlanta again until he married his wife.

He moved on, building a practice, a family and a good life in Atlanta. His fellow students moved on as well, but seldom, if ever, discussed their experiences at the dental school, even with their wives and children. For Dr. Brickman, it was a simple recognition of right and wrong: "They said I was a failure but I wasn't going to let them define my life."

Years later, he learned that the Anti-Defamation League was clued in to what was going on at the dental school. As far back as 1960, the ADL brought evidence of the disproportionate failure rate of Jewish students to Emory and pressured the university to fire the dean but the university simply denied the charges. Dr. Brickman believes that Dr. Buhler was emboldened by the lack of institutional control over charges of anti-Semitism, and in 1961 he introduced a new application form that requested students indicate their race as "Caucasian, Jewish or other."
"That was too much, and he resigned that year," said Dr. Brickman.

News accounts at the time quote Emory's president stating that Dr. Buhler was not forced to resign because of anti-Semitism, and in fact could have stayed had he chosen to. For many, the controversy seemed to end there. Dr. Buhler went on to become dean at the University of South Carolina and died in 1976.

"In 2006, I was invited to attend a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Jewish studies at Emory University," said Dr. Brickman. "So much had changed. There were no Jewish professors when I was a student, now there were many, and 25 percent of the student body was Jewish. They were proud of this and showed historical artifacts of Jewish life at Emory since 1900."

An exhibit panel caught his eye. It recalled the ADL's efforts to unseat Dr. Buhler and force Emory to do something about the high failure rate of Jewish dental students. He discovered a retelling of the dental school's sad history in a chapter published in 1962 ADL book "Some of My Best Friends ..." that stated that 65 percent of Jewish students at the dental school either failed out or were forced to repeat coursework—sometimes several years worth—from 1948-61; 39 Jewish students were enrolled at that time and 12 failed out; only three of those 12 went on to become dentists; and 15 of the Jewish dental students who lasted were forced to repeat coursework.

"It really upset me but it was all there, everything I lived," said Dr. Brickman. "They picked us off one at a time. I wondered why they would even put this on an exhibit. Someone said maybe Emory was ready for a dialogue."

It was at first difficult for Dr. Brickman to conceive of taking on a research project of this scope, but he knew it had to be done.

"I thought I could do something but I didn't know where to go. I knew it happened to me and a few other guys, but no one said anything. The trouble was that no one talked about this. I had retired from practice in 2004, and when I told a few people I wanted to do this they said, 'You don't have to.' Then one day out of the blue I got a phone call from Dr. Art Burns, whom I hadn't heard from in 56 years. We talked about Emory and he told me, 'This has been a burden to me every day of my life.'"

For the next four years, Dr. Brickman immersed himself in an effort to track down former Jewish dental students, interview them and conduct research through a number of libraries and historical archives. 

Some of those whom he contacted were equally reluctant to re-visit the past. "Many didn't want to participate at first, but then one would talk, then another." His interviews with 75 men and countless hours of research would form the basis of a documentary he made himself on a Mac computer.

As part of his research, Dr. Brickman found that as early as 1945 concerns over the geographical representation of dental students were raised prompting the ADA board to adopt a resolution stating that: "The Board of Trustees is of the opinion that the members of the Dental Profession, and the Association, are opposed to a quota system which will discriminate against students on the basis of race, religion, or on the basis of origin, and indicate their adherence to the American principle that all men, regardless of race, creed or color, are entitled to equal opportunity, and that their fitness to practice Dentistry shall be determined solely by their capacities and attainments." 

Earlier this year, Dr. Brickman unveiled his documentary to faculty and administrators at Emory University. They told him, "This is not Emory now." It was clear that the university was committed to doing something about it. They started by commissioning their own documentary using some of Dr. Brickman's footage, "From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory's Dental School History." Then they set the stage for the public apology to be held Oct. 10. Fifty-two former dental students were invited, even families of students who are deceased. Attendees came from California, Texas, New York, Wyoming, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

Dr. Ted Levitas, a 1950 graduate of the Emory University School of Dentistry, wouldn't have missed it.

"I saved all my news clippings from this era just hoping someone would be interested in reading them," said Dr. Levitas, in his 65th year of practice. Dr. Levitas began dental school two years before Dr. Buhler arrived and said he was not failed or asked to repeat coursework, but as a Jewish student was well aware of what many students endured. "I believe that this will serve as a statement to any university that this is not the way you do things, that this is America.

"Without Dr. Brickman devoting himself to gathering this information, this never could have happened," said Dr. Levitas. "It was an issue that had been put aside, no one really cared to move on it after the dean left."

"There was a lot going on in history at the time," said Dr. Brickman. He explained that people were hesitant to talk about such things and many were afraid to confront anti-Semitism publicly. Emory had a powerful presence in Atlanta, it was only the beginning of the post-Holocaust period in American history, racial divisions were becoming more entrenched particularly in the South, and one of Atlanta's synagogues had endured a bombing in 1958. The Anti-Defamation League let the dental school controversy die down after Dr. Buhler left.

"Many in the Jewish community decided they wouldn't respond because he was gone. They had to get along in the community at the time. Going against Emory in Atlanta would be like fighting the Vatican in Boston," said Dr. Brickman. 

"Even our parents had a hard time believing that Emory would do something like this," he said. "There were many of us who went through this but could never talk about it. My wife said we were a fraternity of silence."

That time is over, said Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory.

"Emory has one of the finest Jewish studies programs in the nation," she said in a statement on the university's website. "We have great accomplishments, faculty and resources. But the university has said, 'This is a mark on our history, and the only way of addressing it is by shining a light on it.'"