Immigrants and the Institute

A Longtime, Mutually-Rewarding History Continues

By Donald Gilpin | Photographs courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study

The United States is a country of immigrants, but the question of immigrants and immigration has never been without controversy. It has been especially dominant in the national media during the past two years. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus in an 1883 poem to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Long before 1883 and in the 135 years since, immigrants, from refugees in direst poverty to students, entrepreneurs, and the most prosperous, have helped to shape the country and have permeated its civic and political dialogue.

More than 22 percent of New Jersey’s population is foreign-born, according to New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors. There are only two states, California and New York, where a higher proportion of the population is made up of immigrants. And Princeton, a “welcoming community” (though not officially a “sanctuary community”), increasingly attracts visitors and new residents from all over the world, drawn to the educational, work, and business opportunities and the lifestyle of the town. A growing population of Latinos is settling in the Witherspoon-Jackson section of town, and a diverse population of Asians, and others are attracted to the excellent Princeton-area schools and the variety of jobs in the Philadelphia-Central New Jersey-New York region.

On the peaceful southwestern edge of town, the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) resides on nearly 600 acres. Even in this country, state, and town of immigrants, the IAS is remarkable as a testament to the importance and powerful, positive presence of foreign-born residents. Since its founding almost 90 years ago, it has thrived on the contributions of its immigrant population and depended on the work, the ideas of its resident scholars from dozens of different countries, and the support of thousands of others from around the world.

In the face of recent immigration restrictions and limitations, travel bans, and political rhetoric stirring up fear and animosity, along with the inability of government to pass meaningful legislation, the IAS has asserted the founding principles of the Institution, which reflect the founding principles of this nation, and spoken strongly to embrace the cause of its immigrant scholars and their freedom of movement and study.

Recent clashes and the current charged climate have sent the IAS back to its roots, into its past to reaffirm the principles on which it was founded and the history that has shaped its formidable status as one of the premiere research institutions in the world.

IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf.

In response to a 2017 executive order that restricted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf, himself a native of the Netherlands, wrote immediately to the IAS community: “From our founding the Institute has welcomed academics from around the world, irrespective of race, gender, and creed, with the simple requirement that they be dedicated to advancing scholarship. Bringing leading scholars from all of the world’s countries and regions and supporting their unfettered academic research, wherever it may take them, are among our core values. This was true in the 1930s when faculty like Einstein, Weyl, and von Neumann came from Europe to the Institute, and it is true today as we welcome faculty and members from more than 30 countries.”

Two days later, on February 1, 2017, the IAS faculty, emeriti faculty, and trustees followed up with their own affirmation of this Institute’s founding principles, its history, and its ongoing commitment to the welcoming and support of its members and visitors from around the globe.

“The Institute for Advanced Study, since its founding in 1930, has provided an unbiased environment for international scholars to pursue vital and groundbreaking work in the sciences and humanities,” they wrote. “Its mission is to recruit the world’s most prominent scholars, ‘in the spirit of America at its noblest’ and ‘with no regard whatsoever to accidents of creed, origin, or sex.’ Against the backdrop of Fascism’s rise in Europe and in the best tradition of American higher education, some of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century, immigrants, and refugees themselves, found a safe haven within our walls, among them Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel, Erwin Panofsky, and John von Neumann.”

The statement from faculty and trustees emphasized the executive order’s conflict with IAS’ founding principles and values, unwavering belief in non-discrimination and inclusion, and fundamental mission to provide a free and open environment for basic research in the sciences and humanities. Asserting a commitment to protect and support those who were affected by the order, the statement further condemned “the unjust and discriminatory restrictions of the executive order.”

As much as, perhaps even more than, the town and the country in which it resides, the IAS has been dependent on immigrants for its survival and has, since its founding, thrived and grown to prominence in good measure due to the strength of its immigrant population.

The adversity of the era in which it was created in the early 1930s, the Great Depression, the buildup to World War II, and the flourishing of authoritarianism, particularly the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, created opportunities for the Institute as it recruited top scholars from German universities.

In January 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany and quickly consolidated and expanded his power. A law in Germany initiated in April of that year called for a purge of all civil servants of non-Aryan descent or questionable political affinities. German universities were strongly affected by that law, particularly in the fields of mathematics and natural sciences, where Jews had enjoyed better opportunities. In the ensuing months, distinguished scholars left many of the country’s most prominent universities and intellectual institutions, most notably the renowned Mathematical Institute at the University of Gottingen.

The timing was perfect for the fledgling IAS, which had just launched its inaugural School of Mathematics, housed in Princeton University’s Fine Hall until the building of the Institute’s Fuld Hall in 1939. A wave of refugee scholars were seeking to emigrate from Germany and other European countries and find positions elsewhere.

Abraham Flexner, the first director of the IAS.

Abraham Flexner, IAS’s first director, and particularly Oswald Veblen, mathematician, geometer, topologist, and first faculty member, recognized the opportunities for recruitment. Albert Einstein, targeted by the Nazis in Germany; Hermann Weyl, mathematics luminary at the University of Gottingen; and John von Neumann, renowned young mathematician of Hungarian origin who was a visiting professor at Princeton University at the time, joined the Institute in 1933. Over the next few years they were joined by Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, and two women scholars, algebraist Emmy Noether and topologist Anna Stafford, along with many other visiting scholars. Women students were not accepted at most leading graduate schools at the time.

The founding principles of the IAS spoke loudly and clearly to the acceptance of scholars purely on the basis of merit, without regard to religion, race, or gender, but Flexner was initially hesitant. He wondered in a March 27, 1933 letter to Veblen, “if we do not develop America, who is going to do it, and the question arises how much we ought to do for others and how much to make sure that civilization in America advances.”

Veblen continued to try to persuade Flexner not only to embrace merit-worthy immigrants at IAS, but went on to propose the creation of a committee to raise funds to support refugee scholars. “Some kind of a committee to raise funds for the purpose of enabling some of them to live and continue their scholarly work in the countries adjacent to Germany or elsewhere might be feasible,” he wrote. “The existence of such a committee would in itself be an eloquent protest!”

As the 1930s proceeded and turbulence in Europe grew, Flexner abandoned his reluctance and, with Veblen, became deeply involved in projects to assist refugees. First Veblen then Flexner joined the New York City-based Institute of International Education’s Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars (later renamed to include all foreign scholars) to assist scholars fleeing Europe.

In a 1938 letter to the Harvard mathematician George Birkhoff, Flexner expressed his determination to expand and develop the IAS without regard to national origin of its members. He also revealed an understanding of the monumental scope of the venture he and the IAS were engaged in. He claimed that “the center of gravity in scholarship” would move across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S., as so many of Germany’s top scholars emigrated to the United States and particularly to the IAS.

“The center of gravity clearly shifted in the second half of the twentieth century,” the History Working Group, a recently formed collection of IAS scholars, wrote in a 2017 article, “The Institute’s Founding Ethos in Our Precarious Present.” “Germany’s leading share of Nobel Prizes plummeted after the war, even as the number of American laureates soared (one-third of whom were foreign born).”

Flexner said in his letter to Birkhoff, “Let us keep firmly in front of our eyes our real goal, namely the development of mathematics, not American mathematics or any other specific brand of mathematics, just simply mathematics … Hitler has played into our hands and is still doing it like the mad man that he is. I am sorry for Germany. I am glad for the United States. I will undertake to get a position within a reasonable time for any really first-rate American mathematician, and I will also undertake simultaneously to do the same for any first-rate foreign mathematician whom Hitler may dismiss. The more the merrier.”

The decision by the Institute to welcome immigrants and provide them with a sanctuary was remarkable, but the realities of the immigration process posed significant additional challenges. The paperwork necessary for them to enter and exit was daunting, requiring Flexner’s or his successor as director Frank Aydelotte’s intervention with federal authorities in a number of instances. “Even after they succeeded in reaching the United States, refugees needed to stay bureaucratically alert,” the History Working Group reported. “Under the Alien Registration Act of 1940, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service required noncitizens to record all changes of address, and even local travel could necessitate permission.”

A letter that Einstein wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt in July, 1941 highlighted the difficulties faced by the Institute and some of its immigrant scholars in navigating the bureaucratic tangle of federal immigration policies.

He wrote, “A policy is now being pursued in the State Department which makes it all but impossible to give refuge in America to many worthy persons who are the victims of Fascist cruelty in Europe. Of course, this is not openly avowed by those responsible for it. The method which is being used, however, is to make immigration impossible by erecting a wall of bureaucratic measures alleged to be necessary to protect America against subversive, dangerous elements.”

The IAS in 2018 continues to welcome an increasingly-diverse group of permanent faculty and visiting researchers originating from countries around the globe. Among its faculty and visiting scholars are 33 Nobel Laureates, 42 of the 60 Fields Medalists, and 17 of the 19 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many MacArthur Fellows and Wolf Prize winners.

An early mathematics conference at the IAS.

The History Working Group, in carrying out research for their article on the Institute’s founding ethos, noted “a sense of urgency” expressed by leaders and scholars in the 1930s that “resonated deeply” and had “an unsettling contemporary ring.” In issuing “a call for vigilance,” they commented, “this part of the Institute’s history testifies to the individual courage of these men and women who extended a helping hand and built institutional networks to provide sanctuary for displaced refugees. In doing so, they overcame the nationalist siege-mentality that sees foreigners, whether they are mathematicians or fruit pickers, as a threat to be warded off. An unintended consequence of their acts was the shifting of the center of intellectual research from Germany to the United States, enriching the country that gave them refuge. Their individual initiatives and collective institution-building endeavors provide us with much-needed exemplars of moral fortitude.”

Knowledge of the early history of the IAS, the writers claimed, should serve as “a call for vigilance in the face of policies such as travel bans and immigration deportations, as well as attempts to curb scientific inquiry and cut funding to the arts and humanities endowments” that now threaten research endeavors and the lives of the scholars who undertake that research.

In conclusion the Working Group urges, “As it did in the 1930s, the Institute can play a leading symbolic role in our contemporary predicament.”