Our Attitude is the Enemy -- Not the Administration
Insecurities, when harnessed and properly disciplined, can lead to positive change. On a personal level, I can attest to them motivating me to overcome various challenges; insecurities have increased my performance in school by impelled me to study diligently, they’ve improved my health by driving me to make positive, lasting changes, and they’ve helped me maintain a robust spiritual life by stimulating me to question and reaffirm my commitments as an observant Jew. Chronologically speaking, challenges spawn insecurities, which subsequently drive improvements.
Thus, after years of unaddressed budgetary deficits at YU, feelings of insecurity were more than welcome. As a supporting pillar of Modern Orthodox, North American, and worldwide Jewry, YU is certainly an institution that warrants such positive insecurities. Yeshiva bridges the worlds of academia and Orthodox Jewish thought, while producing scores of rabbis and organizational leaders who have manned the various helms of North American Jewish communities.
The fact that the University recently committed itself to initiate sweeping cuts and hired consultants to manage that process indicates a resolve for more responsible management. While University stakeholders might quibble over where those cuts should be exacted, administrators, faculty members, and students alike understand the necessity of upcoming cuts across departments. Insecurity has led to the collective conclusion that change is a vital necessity.
But insecurities have an ugly side as well. When left undisciplined, they can cause anxiety and, in extreme cases, unbridled panic. As a former lifeguard, I’ve witnessed struggling swimmers flailing wildly in the water, expending far more energy in their panic than they would need to swim calmly to safety. In this scenario, challenge leads to insecurity, and insecurity to panic, which is, in a word, counterproductive.
About a month ago, a sense of panic permeated the student body of Yeshiva College. Rumors trickled through various sources, eventually reaching the pages of The Commentator, that various imminent changes would negatively impact the undergraduate education. With few exceptions, students immediately accepted the rumors as uncontested truths. As it became clear over time that many of the rumors were unsubstantiated or exaggerated, I couldn’t help but wonder how students, many of whom I would describe as close readers and intelligent, critical thinkers, allowed themselves to be swept away with the crowd.
After thinking about this question a great deal, I’ve developed a theory. It dabbles in the worlds of psychology and sociology- in neither of which am I an expert- so I’ll suggest it tentatively, but with a great deal of conviction. I don’t think the average student accepted those rumors on their own merits -- I have far too much faith in the intelligence of the student body to believe that. I would instead argue that students accepted them as a pretext to malign and assign blame to the administration.
In difficult times, people will often look for to blame their problems on someone else. The scapegoating theory of inter-group conflict (yes, that’s a real thing) suggests that a group undergoing some collective hardship will look to some force outside the group (in sociological terms, a member of the “outgroup”) to attribute responsibility. The benefits of this are twofold: the “ingroup” has the security of thinking they understand the source of the problem, and they can combat the problem by attacking that source.
In order for scapegoating to manifest in a group setting, members of the group must come to a consensus as to who deserves the blame. As the scapegoat must be an individual (or group of individuals) who could have plausibly caused the problem, YU students would naturally assign blame to the administration. After all, only they could be responsible for the lack of financial oversight that caused the problem, and the decisions to be made going forward.
But there remains a second criterion in creating a scapegoat: the target must be qualitatively different than the members of the ingroup. So, in formulating my theory, I have to ask: Do students really view the administration as so different than themselves? I would answer that question in the affirmative. The topic of compensation for high-ranking administrators has been a source of contention for some time now, and putting aside the question of that sentiment’s validity, I think that the student body regards the administration as “different” because they make a lot of money.
As a scapegoat, the administration has become an object of unrestrained vitriol and a target for derogation. I’ve listened politely to rational-students-turned-conspiracy-theorists arguing that YU actually has a budget surplus and has conjured up a fake crisis to cut costs and siphon off money for its leadership. I’ve heard people talk derisively about recently hired administrators (who couldn’t possibly be responsible for YU’s problems or its intended solutions) simply because they are, well, administrators.
Admittedly, the scapegoat analogy has its limits. Even the administration’s most ardent supporter would have to admit that it has made errors in judgement, most notably in its past mismanagement of the University’s finances. Granted, many of the administrators responsible for that mismanagement are no longer around. But, as fallible human beings, administrators have made and will continue to make mistakes in other areas. When they do, they are target for criticism which, if presented rationally and respectfully, can ultimately effect positive change.
Unfortunately, I get the sense that rational thought has taken a back seat among the majority of the student body. These days, it seems as though every cut lacks a focus on the students, and every press release is a cleverly worded gimmick to obfuscate any substantive meaning. This type of rhetoric that regards administrators as evil until proven otherwise is both foolish and destructive. It’s foolish because the act of occupying an administrative position doesn’t come with a prerequisite for disregarding students’ best interests, nor does a higher salary negate the possibility of having good intentions. And it’s destructive because the only way that YU will pull through its financial crisis and reassert itself as a thriving, sustainable institution is through cooperation between the administration and students. By thinking critically about each rumor and voicing courteous concerns to the appropriate parties, students can play the vital role of providing feedback for questionable administrative decisions.
We may not always get along, but students and administrators are part of the same family. Administrators have made mistakes, but one thing they’ve gotten right is their tone of voice: they have consistently spoken to students with a tone of respect and civility. It’s time we started doing the same.