Rabbi Isaac M. Wise almost single-handedly saved the University of Cincinnati in 1885. In return, he and his students at the Hebrew Union College endured 18 years of injustice, prejudice and discrimination.
Rabbi Wise is known as a founder of the American Reform Judaism movement. In 1873, he organized, in Cincinnati, the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of the Reform Movement in North America, and in 1875 he founded the Hebrew Union College in the basement of a West End temple. By the time HUC moved into its own quarters on the far western reaches of Sixth Street in 1880, Wise was a respected civic leader and a member of the Cincinnati Board of Education. In 1882, he was invited to join the University of Cincinnati Board of Directors, a post he held with distinction until 1899.
On November 7, 1885, the University of Cincinnati learned what a good friend it had in Rabbi Wise. At 4 a.m. that Saturday morning, the 10-year-old university building on the old McMicken estate burst into flames. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [8 November 1885]:
“The south-west rooms of the two lowest floors were entirely destroyed, which included the chemical room and laboratory of Prof. Norton and the rooms of Profs. Benedict and French. The loss in these apartments will not fall short of $3,000. The total loss on the building and contents is estimated in round numbers at $10,000.”
That is around $260,000 in today’s dollars. Although some of the university’s directors met in an undamaged room of the building to discuss repairs, it was clear that holding classes there was out of the question. According to the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette [8 November 1885], the directors read the following letter to the UC board president:
“Dear Sir – The University building being burned down, I take pleasure in informing you and the Board that the Hebrew Union College building, and each room thereof, is at your service, to be used as temporary quarters of the University of Cincinnati. There are sufficient rooms in the building for the University classes. The Hebrew Union College building is at your service daily up to 2 pm, as long as you deem proper to use it. I have the pleasure to be, Isaac M. Wise.”
The UC board leapt at the offer and presented UC classes at the HUC building at 724 West Sixth Street (just west of Gest Street today) throughout the 1885-86 academic year. The University of Cincinnati was saved.
It was years later that a dark secret emerged. The New York Times [7 Oct 1899] revealed that UC had systematically discriminated against Jewish students for most of two decades. The university had enrolled Jewish students from the beginning and, according to the student newspaper, half of the 1883 graduating class was Jewish. It appeared, however, that UC had forced its Jewish students to register as non-residents. While Cincinnati residents paid no tuition at UC, non-residents paid $60 a year in 1885, an amount that climbed to $75 annually in 1899. According to The Times:
“The University Trustees at their last meeting concluded that the Hebrew Union College students are not residents of Cincinnati and cannot therefore be allowed the privileges of the university.”
A good many of UC’s Jewish students were enrolled through Hebrew Union College and UC’s President Howard Ayers required these students to list the nationality of their parents as “Jewish” or “Semitic” instead of “American.” As self-declared non-residents, the Jewish students had to pay tuition, unlike other city residents for whom tuition was free.
As the university trustees debated the issue, they did so in the presence Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, who was himself a director. Although the 1899 dispute was with President Ayers, Rabbi Wise told The New York Times that he had been fighting this practice for 18 years—or back to his first days on the UC board:
“I have been fighting this tuition matter for eighteen years, and if the will of Mr. McMicken should be brought into court it would be proved that no one can be excluded from the educational institution founded by him. But I will not drag the matter into court.”
Two HUC students, however, did take the matter to court, and won. Judge Ferdinand Jelke Jr. of the Court of Common Pleas ruled that these two students, although born and educated in other cities, had established residency in Cincinnati while studying at the Hebrew Union College. They were therefore eligible for free tuition at UC, and so were their fellow students in similar circumstances.
The victory was bittersweet. Not quite three weeks before this landmark decision, Rabbi Wise died at the age of 80. Under the headline “Hebrew Union College Wins,” The New York Times [13 April 1900] said of the decision:
“A posthumous triumph for the late Dr. Isaac M. Wise, President of Hebrew Union College . . . was recorded in the Common Pleas Court to-day in the form of a decision of Judge Ferdinand Jelke, which has the effect of sweeping away the restrictions imposed upon students of the college by the University of Cincinnati.”
The university board voted not to appeal the decision.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities