What are We Going to Lose?
I was up for the night shift at a small homeless shelter housed in a synagogue and staffed by community members and outside volunteers. The men at the shelter fell far below the poverty line, most temporarily, others for ten or fifteen years: in and out of shelters, on and off welfare. These men were wearing coats once worn by YU students that were distributed on “midnight run,” the annual charity event on campus.
The men who slept amid the miniature chairs and primary colors of the nursery school had hit bottom. Most were reluctant to speak about the past; sleeping in a nursery school classroom is already an overwhelming loss of dignity, sharing the story of how they got there would be humiliating. However, some did want to talk.
I met a 21 year-old struggling to finish community college. He couldn’t afford the rent, but he “couldn’t afford to drop out of school,” so he slept in the street. Another man, in his sixties, began telling me his story. Mr. Hayes (name has been changed) suffered from chronic pain and couldn’t hold down a steady job. He was thankful that the social safety net caught him, but wished there was a better alternative.
Leaning on the leg of his cot sat a blue, scuffed up, frayed messenger bag. Presumably, its contents were the extent of his possessions. He picked it up and began digging around to find a pair of socks. As he searched, I noticed a familiar logo on the front of his bag—Yeshiva University. I was astonished. How did a YU bag end up in the hands of this homeless man?
“Oh that,” Mr. Hayes said as he broke out into a wide smile, “that’s from my daughter.”
“She works at YU?”
“Yes she does. Best job she’s ever had. I couldn’t be more proud of my daughter.”
“Where does she work?”
“She works in the cafeteria. She’s unionized, she’s got good pay, sick days, vacation days. She ain’t afraid to get fired for no reason. I sleep better because I know that Yeshiva and the union is making sure my grandkids don’t end up like me.”
Rubin “Chi Chi” Lopez, has worked at YU for 19 years. A spry 50 year-old Puerto Rican with a hardened face, Chi Chi has become a fixture for many students and even faculty members on campus.
“I started from down, and I’ve been working up, little by little,” he says, gesticulating to make up for the language barrier. “First McDonalds, then security, and now, for a long time, at YU. In food services, then housekeeping.”
Chi Chi has stayed for almost two decades because, like Mr. Hayes’s daughter, he is protected by the 1199 Union. He receives healthcare, retirement, vacation, and job security. He earns a much higher wage than his friends who work at bodegas or area restaurants.
That changed a few weeks ago when Chi Chi faced an agonizing decision. Budget cuts forced YU to cut in every department, and housekeeping staff bore the brunt of the blow. Half of the maintenance staff and over two thirds of housekeeping staff have left after YU offered severance packages. Robert Vallespi, housekeeping manager, declined to comment on the changes.
“Everyone wants to leave,” Chi Chi said. “They cut back on people, but then don’t hire more people, so then we have to work harder. That’s not possible.” YU will likely contract-out its housekeeping needs to non-union companies in an effort to cut costs; Chi Chi’s union job costs around double the total cost of non-union work.
“I love the school. I love the students and the teachers and the rabbis. I will miss them telling me to ‘have a good shabbat’ and then I say ‘todah.’ I will miss them, but if I stay in YU, I will be working so hard that I couldn’t see my wife and my children.”
YU will be making far-reaching cuts—from academics to housekeeping, from morning learning programs to secretarial staff. After years of cutting one, two, or three percent from budgets, some departments are now being asked to slash twenty percent of operating costs as the university prioritizes and strengthens the “core component: the undergraduate experience.” YU has begun offering across-the-board incentives for employees to leave voluntarily, before “involuntary” cuts hit later.
Chi Chi will have to go. Mr. Hayes’s daughter may have to go as well. YU has no choice. But what are we losing?
As non-union labor, adjunct professors, and transitional—even temp workers—fill the gaps, students will suffer. They will lose the long-term relationships with staff and faculty that make this university special. The undergraduate education needs to be the priority, but haphazard cuts conducted “under the pressure of a gun,” as one administrator called them, will diminish whatever morale students (and staff and faculty) have left.
Worse, these cuts will no doubt lead to an inferior education. Students need long-term faculty to mentor projects or counsel student success. An adjunct may be able to fill in a history course, but will he or she understand the unique pressures of YU students? Will an adjunct hired for a semester really commit to supervising an honors thesis? Will a temp maintenance worker work beyond the punch-card to ensure that the sidewalks are plowed and classrooms clean?
“You are too busy learning to have to deal with peripheral issues,” YU’s newly named provost, Dr. Selma Botman told The Commentator. She’s right. For high-level learning to take place on this campus, essential services—food, facilities, IT—need to be supported. We can’t research without WiFi. We can’t study in dirty classrooms.
YU is attempting to invest in students, but those in daily contact with students are now being placed in precarious positions. Staff and non-tenured faculty don’t know if their contracts will be renewed. Rabbis who don’t have “chazaka” (similar to tenure) have begun looking elsewhere, knowing that layoffs loom. While President Joel and the Board attempt to organize a strategic plan to keep YU’s credit rating afloat, deans and department chairs don’t know what could come next. I am not alone in my fear that the President will use the guise of “strengthening the core component” to decimate what little is left of the undergraduate academic experience to placate the banks hounding at our door.
A cut of twenty percent among academic departments may convince creditors that YU is making the right steps, but YU is not a corporation, it’s a university. Universities have long-term, committed faculty. They have staff who know the students’ needs, who take pride in working here, and who place students first. Our relationship with warm, caring faculty and staff is the undergraduate academic experience. Take away our enduring professors or our long-standing custodial service workers, our advisors, or our cafeteria staff and you’ve ripped the heart and soul out of the college. And that’s a price too high to pay.