News Updates, Tough Questions at Town Hall Meeting
Students and faculty alike clustered at the Wilf Campus’ Heights Lounge this past Wednesday for a Town Hall meeting with President Richard Joel.
President Joel hit the event off by announcing the appointment of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as the Kressel and Efrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought in a joint appointment with New York University, where the Lord will serve as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought.
“I had an appointment with the Lord today. How many people get to have an appointment with the Lord?” the President joked. Rabbi Sacks will spend six weeks a year at YU for at least the next three years, teaching at and engaging in public events, participating in Shabbatons, and representing YU in different venues.
Danny Ayalon, former Deputy Foreign Minister of the State of Israel to the United States, was also announced as taking on an 8 week co-teaching position as a Renard Visiting Professor of Foreign Policy Studies at the university next semester.
President Joel mentioned the appointment of Toby Winer as the new CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of YU, who takes the stead of former CFO J. Michael Gower. Winer was Senior Vice President and CFO at Pace University, and comes to Yeshiva University with an ambitious agenda of upgrading its financial operations.
The President finished his initial round of announcements saying that the university had received the JED mental health award, a seal of approval bestowed upon the institution in recognition of the excellent mental health resources on campus.
The floor was then opened for students to ask their questions, which ranged from the typical inquiries about lowering tuition and finding more effective methods of communication than the YSTUD system to hot-button topics such as the firing of a Hebrew professor with a history of sexual misconduct in light of the university’s recent sex abuse lawsuit.
“How can you make sure that something like this won’t happen again?” Shlomo Weissberg (YC ’14) asked.
In discussing the sensitive issue, President Joel emphasized the integrity of the university and its staff and acknowledged that making mistakes is inevitable. He cited an ill-conceived removal of a student’s scholarship and the scholarship’s subsequent reinvestment as an example of the university’s aversion to cover-ups.
“We’re human and we screw up,” he explained as he recounted the events leading to the Roth episode. “There is no reason for someone with a criminal background to be here; we have very strong procedures and policies in place to prevent that, and they are only as strong as the humans employing them.”
The university, tasked with filling in a last minute vacancy for a Hebrew professor, hired the professor before the screening process had been completed, stating that finalization of his employment was contingent upon the outcome of a background check. The results of the background check came in to the office around the time of the eve of Yom Kippur, but were not brought to attention immediately. The moment they were, President Joel said, “we looked at it immediately and we ended [his employment] immediately.”
Another heated question came from Math and Computer Science major Eliezer Snow (YC ’15). He wanted to know why the Computer Science department employs only two professors to serve the needs of what he claims is a major with as many students as the better-equipped English department.
“There is an increasing demand [for Computer Science majors]. We know it’s a very important area of emerging life, and you should discuss it with the dean,” President Joel replied. He also divulged more general details about the issues of expanding the nascent department, such as donor and investor relations.
“We have departments that need to be re-strengthened, and we are conscious that Computer Science is one of them,” said Dean Eichler, who took to the mic to answer the question too. The English department has more staff because it services the entire incoming freshman class with first year writing and seminar courses, he elaborated; it also contributes to core courses and was at the forefront of creating the new core curriculum.
“But we have not neglected thinking about Computer Science,” he concluded.
David Ellenbogen (YC ’14) asked about another issue, one which was on everyone’s mind, as evidenced by the roar of applause its solicitation received: the rising prices of cafeteria cards and food.
“All I can say is this: the caf and caf card prices are lower than any New York university. And it’s kosher,” President Joel replied. “We’ve made a decision to underwrite 70% of Shabbos meals, which comes from the package as well, and we have significantly expanded where the caf card can be used.”
The cafeteria must be a sustainable business enterprise, the President explained, and while Yeshiva does not make profits off of its food services, the insitution does want to avoid losing money.
Another cafeteria-related inquiry was posed by Nathaniel Schreiber (SYMS ’15), who asked a question whose pertinence President Joel agreed with heavily: why did the cafeteria receive a B rating in its health inspection?
“I am as surprised as you are. We were not included in that decision.... We are in the middle of an appellate process, and as soon as we have answers, I will happily join any of you, particularly if you pay,” he quipped, “to eat in any of our eating establishments.”
Gavriel Brown (YC ’14) asked if there would be faculty pay raises in light of the recent Moody’s report downgrading the university’s credit rating.
“The board of trustees announced a two percent increase for all staff except senior staff, which is an insane thing to do when we’re having massive financial issues,” the president said. “But it’s more insane not to tell the people who work for you and me that we appreciate what they do.”
The decision to raise salaries was made not just by the president, but was backed by the board of trustees as well.
Towards the end of the event, the president brought up his claim to fame as the only university president to be using Google Glass and donned the device, taking pictures of the audience with it and attempting to automate it by nodding his head and tapping on it.
The president thanked John Mantell, head of the Office of Student Housing, for his service to the university. Mr. Mantell will be leaving YU for the private sector.
President Joel ended the meeting by thanking all those in attendance, and expaned upon the unique ability of town hall meetings to shed light on university affairs in a direct and constructive fashion for students and faculty.
“This is a great job, but it’s not an easy job. But your support and your investment and my being able to see who you are is everything.”