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Dr. Selma Botman: The Challenges Ahead


The Commentator: What can the students expect from the Provost? What are your main goals?

Selma Botman: I think it’s very important for students to communicate what gaps they see in the curriculum and whether or not the university may be able to fill those gaps. I think students are a very critical source of information that can lead the university forward. Students can expect me to listen and try hard to accommodate their needs. Students should also voice their opinion about student services—whether it be academic support or services that allow them to carry out their work: paying bills, financial aid, or back room operations; they have to work well.

When I think about student success, I think about it both in terms of the classroom and also what happens outside of the classroom. I have years of experience in the classroom as a teacher and student. In addition, I’d love to teach at Stern in the history department.

TC: What do you envision as the greatest challenge going forward?

Dr. Selma Botman: I think as a chief academic officer, the most important goal is to align the academic core with the business plan, to make sure we provide faculty the conditions in which they can teach and do research, make sure we provide the students with conditions for their success, and align those goals with the resources of the university.

TC: The press release pointed out that the provost works closely with the faculty council. I think the faculty here at Yeshiva has been extremely demoralized by years of cuts. How do you see your role in making the hard decisions during this financially trying time?

SB: Higher education in the US is in transition. Since WWII, we’ve created a business plan that no longer works—education keeps expanding without looking at areas that we may no longer need. As we move forward, the costs are escalating in terms of information technology, financial aid, alumni affairs—all of the things that we have built are very costly. At the same time, the costs of healthcare, pensions—many things that are not academic—have also risen.

TC: According to a recent U.S. News and World Report article on the American college system, the highest costs in universities are actually administrative. How do you feel about that?

SB: Universities prepare their students for life. There are student services, gym equipment, alumni affairs—the departments have grown in number and the enterprise has grown enormously. Small, private liberal arts colleges are really suffering.

TC: Yeshiva University had the largest increase in administrative services among all universities between 1996 and 2006 - a 350% increase. The faculty are concerned that these offices are making decisions for them. There is limited transparency at Yeshiva. Do you intend to really communicate and increase transparency?

SB: I don’t want to suggest that it’s just the administration making decisions on its own—I want to hear from the students and faculty. I’m confident that this administration wants to see the university help its students and faculty. And I know that the Faculty Council has already invited me to one of its meetings, and I’m looking forward to hearing from them.

At the University of Southern Maine, we encouraged all the students to participate and listen in on all the budgetary and financial meetings of the university.

TC: I doubt that would happen here. Is that just a public university phenomenon? Students sat in on all the board meetings?

TC: At every board meeting students would sit in. Students sat on the committees and had voting rights.

TC: Would you like to see that at YU?

SB: I don’t know how the board works at YU. I don’t know what the board really consists of.

TC: What needs to happen at Yeshiva to make the university ‘lean and mean?’

SB: When I look at Yeshiva, I take away a few core principles. First of all, this university is so important. It needs to become sustainable and it needs to make decisions that are flawless because the reputation and the students and faculty are at stake. We also must look at what we do in the non-academic and academic areas, and ask what’s core to the mission of this university. You said earlier that the university would be in a position of contraction due to its finances. Yet, I believe that you have to build at the same time. That means that instead of creating entirely new infrastructure, perhaps put an additional track into an existing program. What I’m suggesting is that there are creative ways to deal with the explosion of new knowledge. We can’t just say the status quo programs are the only programs from now until eternity. Let’s look at this intellectual explosion and ask how best to position our students and graduates.

TC: In my opinion, though, if you would ask students they would tell you that there’s nowhere else to cut. There’s no more room. Look at Biology and Computer Science - they’re taking the same professors over and over. The academic program is so bare-bones.

SB: I need to dig into that. I’m in the embryonic stages of this, and I have a lot to learn about the university. Having meetings before July, before I begin, will allow me to hit the ground running. But honestly, at this point, I don’t have all the answers because I don’t have the information.

TC: Your tenure at University of Southern Maine was filled with quite some tension between you and the faculty. At Yeshiva, faculty members are becoming more vocal than ever before and demanding a place at the table. One of the main criticisms of your tenure at USM was that you alienated a number of faculty who ultimately called for a vote of no-confidence. What lessons did you learn from that experience and how do you plan to avoid your stay in Yeshiva playing out in a similar way?

SB: USM educates —to a large extent—the broad working population of Southern Maine. The university is critical for the economy. It’s made up of hard-working faculty and students. When I arrived, I inherited significant debt. I put in place processes for budgetary review. We at USM owed the system office (of Maine) a significant debt. I arrived in July of 2008, shortly before the recession. The state started cutting appropriation to the higher education institutions. And then, on top of that, we had declining enrollment. More students elected to take their first two years at community colleges, due to state subsidies. We had many economic factors working against us.

The faculty offered me a redesign of the university, and I accepted it. I went to the faculty senate and the board of the university—both approved the plan, and it was off and running. The plan was to shrink the number of schools and colleges from six to three with the purpose of increased interdisciplinary work and a leaner budget. The provost wanted us to collapse the number of departments in order to save money. However, the faculty said to both the Provost and me that they wanted to perform the second stage of the plan themselves. In the end, they were working without a contract (unionized contract), they hadn’t had a raise in three years, they were doing all this meeting about reorganization—and they were frustrated. They held a vote of no-confidence and it failed.

The good news is that we paid back the debt three years early, we balanced the budget, we created new programs at a time in which we were cutting. We sold buildings, cut programs, and never sacrificed a single faculty member. We continued to provide the faculty with merit increases, as opposed to collective bargaining. We continued raises. We continued granting tenure and offering Sabbaticals, and continued to provide all the resources.

TC: However, over 90% of USM faculty surveyed said that they strongly disagreed with your leadership. Obviously, there was a cost to how you managed USM and you alienated a faculty who had been at USM for quite some time.

SB: There’s no question that change is gut-wrenching. The status quo is attractive but it doesn’t pay the bills. I’m proud that we provided the students and faculty with what they needed. We never closed a department and never even considered getting rid of tenure. This was a difficult point in my life, but the decisions we made were absolutely critical.

TC: You’re going to have to make tough decisions again. How can you go about doing the things you want to do without alienating our faculty?

SB: That’s a good question. One of the takeaways that I’ve had from meeting with the faculty here is that the faculty—unlike at USM—recognize the depth of the crisis here. In terms of a takeaway? Communication, communication, communication. I tried to communicate the seriousness of the problem at USM, but obviously I should have tried harder.

As an example, the faculty engaged an external group to delve into the university’s resources. The group concluded that there were hundreds of millions of dollars which the university had and asked why the faculty were not receiving raises with that money. What the group didn’t communicate to the faculty was that these resources were not available for one-time operation—such as endowment income that’s spoken for or retirement income that’s spoken for. So the university may have looked like it had hundreds of millions of dollars on the books; however, they were not available. Additionally, you can’t pay raises with one-time money, because how would you pay the faculty the next year! There was a distrust of the administration at the system level, and I think that it took place on the campuses as well.

TC: Whom do you need to have on board in order to make these tough decisions at YU?

SB: We will work together with the Deans and the Faculty Council. Also, my hope is that important meetings and decision making groups that we will have will include students. I don’t know if students are already involved, but I think it’s very important for them to get involved. There are real leadership opportunities for students.