University confronts former dental school bias against Jewish students

History Maker: Perry Brickman (left), who "flunked out" of Emory's dental school, graduated from the University of Tennessee and had a long career as an oral surgeon in Decatur.

It happened to them gradually, one by one: a failed course here, a dismissal letter there. Between the years of 1948 and 1961, more than half the Jewish students at Emory’s now-defunct School of Dentistry were the targets of systematic discrimination—an insidious pattern that took years to fully come to light.

“Nobody believed us,” says Perry Brickman 53C, who, despite excelling at Emory College as an undergraduate biology major, received a letter after his first year of dental school informing him that he had flunked out. “Our parents said, ‘you must not have studied enough.’ ”

A half-century later, Brickman has helped to clear the record by spearheading production of a documentary film, From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory’s Dental School History, which premiered at Emory in October.

He was inspired to delve into this chapter of Emory’s history by a 2006 exhibit on Jews at Emory, curated by Associate Professor Eric Goldstein, that included a bar graph showing the exceptionally high rates of failure of Jewish students at Emory’s dental school during the 1950s. Research by the Anti-Defamation League showed that 65 percent of the Jewish students present during the tenure of Dean John Buhler either failed out or were forced to repeat coursework.

It was the first time Brickman had seen those figures. He went on to interview dozens of former students with a video camera and showed the footage to Emory Vice President Gary Hauk, who commissioned father-son documentary filmmakers David Hughes Duke and John Duke to complete the documentary.

From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory’s Dental School History debuted at an emotional gathering in October, where nearly thirty former Emory dental students and their families received a personal apology from President James Wagner. A crowd of hundreds filled the ballroom at Cox Hall for Wagner’s statement, the public screening of the documentary, and a panel discussion afterward.

In the film, several former students spoke about the hurt and shock of receiving letters saying that their work was not up to par, they lacked the manual skills, or they “didn’t have it in the hands”—and the shame they continued to feel decades later.

“Not to have acknowledged this shameful chapter in our history would be to live a lie,” Hauk said at the event.

Emory’s dental school, which began as the Southern Dental College in 1887 and became the Atlanta-Southern Dental College before becoming the Emory University School of Dentistry in 1944, was closed in the early 1990s due to increasing competition from state schools and a lack of funding.

Brickman, now seventy-nine, was named the 176th Emory “Maker of History” in the university’s 176th year, building on the celebration of history makers from last year.

Wagner told the group that the actions that took place were the opposite of what Emory strives to be—an ethically engaged university that celebrates its current broad diversity.

“I hope that you will not leave the campus this evening without knowing that the Emory community claims you as one of its own,” he said. “If you have been alienated from Emory, I hope that you will find it in your heart to claim this university once more as your own.”

“My kids, it’s hard for them to imagine that that really happened,” said Dick Arnold 58D, who had to repeat a year of coursework but ultimately graduated from Emory dental school and is still practicing in Coral Gables, Florida. “I do want to say, my hands had no trouble doing anything then, and they still don’t.”

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