From the President’s Desk: YCSA - The Yeshiva College Student Senate
The New York Times in May 1969 published an article about Yeshiva University. No, not about a scandal, but rather about Yeshiva President Dr. Samuel Belkin’s approval to create a college senate comprised of students, faculty, and administrators at Yeshiva College. The Times called it “one of the most ambitious and far-reaching in the nation… [going] far beyond the formulas adopted at other universities.” Universities across America established senates around that time as well - many in response to violent student protests against administrators’ decisions - but Yeshiva’s model seemed to significantly expand the powers of the student body, without the pressure from protests.
At first, the Yeshiva College Senate operated as a policy-making body, whose decisions became College policy, unless vetoed by President Belkin or the majority of the Faculty Assembly. After a few years, the Senate lost this absolute power, but remained in an influential advisory capacity. As the founding student leaders of the Senate noted, once the students, faculty, and administration representatives on the Senate approved a recommendation, the university community would have a hard time ignoring it.
The Senate acted as a forum to share the responsibilities “for the operations and improvement of the College among the groups that constitute the College” (Constitution of the Yeshiva College Senate, 1969). Six students, eight faculty members, and a small group of administrators (which usually included the Dean, the Director of Admissions, the Registrar, and at least in the early years, the Vice President for Academic Affairs) would meet regularly to discuss academic issues, recommending ways to improve the quality of education and life at the College. Dr. William Lee, in a 1989 Commentator article remarks, “as a forum, it is the one location where students, faculty members, and administrators regularly air their views to each other.” He notes how this contributes to the College’s healthy “spirit of community” (“Anatomy and Physiology of the Yeshiva College Senate”, YU Commentator, 1989).
Throughout the Senate’s almost 40 years of existence, it dealt with a myriad of issues, from the mundane to the innovative. Along with its regular discussions on when to start the academic calendar, preventing rampant cheating, and creating programs to encourage more student-faculty interactions, the Senate also initiated the creation of the Writing Center and the College’s first support services for students with learning disabilities, today both integral institutions at Yeshiva College.
At Yeshiva College today though, no such body exists. Around 2005-2006, the Senate disbanded, but no similar forum arose in its stead. If students see an area for the College to improve or see a need for a new initiative, what can they do? Although occasionally individual initiatives succeed, students with ideas generally lack the power of an organized system that can incorporate the views and support of different parties. In the 1980s, students realized they needed to improve their compositional skills, so they approached the Senate about creating a writing center. The Senate debated the pros and cons, researched how writing centers operate on other campuses, and recommended, as a unified voice comprised of students, faculty, and administrators, to establish such a center. The Senate empowered students to mold their education.
Currently however, the University as a whole seems to place less emphasis and value on student input. The University convened a Strategic Planning Committee at the beginning of this academic year to create a “set of actionable, measurable initiatives to move [YU] forward with excellence over the next few years” (http://www.yu.edu/strategic-plan), yet no students sit on the actual committee. Shouldn’t an initiative that explores the future of YU include students? The committee of 18 people divides its responsibilities among a number of advisory task forces, which includes the single task force with students, “Student Success and Wellbeing Task Force”, which I and only one other student serve on. Dedicated and thoughtful stakeholders of the YU community work on this committee and its task forces, yet I am shocked that no one seems to want to consult with more students on these issues. Who else would know the impediments to student success and well being than students themselves? I as one single student cannot effectively represent all students on this committee. The current search committee for the next president does not have an official space for students’ input beyond the short meeting with student leaders last week. Even within the College, many departments decide on which courses to offer and change their requirements without hearing input from students, who might have a perspective that the faculty did not consider.
YCSA’s experience with the Yeshiva College Office of the Dean stands out as a notable exception to this trend. Dr. Joanne Jacobson, Yeshiva College Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, diligently incorporated student ideas and concerns into the proposed changes to the YC Core Curriculum, including having an open meeting for anyone to contribute. Like Yeshiva College Deans Eichler and Koller last year, both Dean Karen Bacon and Dean Jacobson offer their time whenever YCSA requests meetings and their Office will periodically reach out to us for our input.
Nevertheless, in the long run, the College has no official policy that recognizes YCSA as the official representatives of the YC student body. Our entire existence stems from the Student Constitution, a document that governs extra curricular life via the Office of Student Life, but completely powerless over the academic departments of the University. So any academic ideas we have, usually limited to the brainpower of the three students on YCSA, lack the resources and clout that official student representatives would have. Despite being elected by the entire YC student body, administrators, faculty, and even students do not necessarily see YCSA as academic representatives.
Thus, YCSA would like to reconvene the Yeshiva College Senate to once again have a powerful voice at Yeshiva College. It would offer students an effective forum to propose new ideas for the College and create a space where their unique perspectives, as recipients of the education, could inform better academic policies. It could foster “a spirit of community” between students, faculty, and administrators, empowering each party to garner support for their causes. With the approval of these multiple groups, its recommendations will pressure decision-makers to listen to ignored concerns; last year’s changes to Yeshiva College- which upset many students and faculty- may have turned out differently if a senate existed to facilitate more dialogue between the parties and had a unified voice to publicly raise concerns.
A number of issues that YCSA has dealt with this year could also have benefited from having the Senate: (1) Although the Core Curriculum proposals contain some student perspectives, students and faculty actually never had a dialogue about it, where rejected ideas could have been explored more fully through discussion. (2) A group of students have proposed establishing a Math Center, similar to the Writing Center. A Senate, like it did it 1985, could initiate that process. (3) A few months ago, Dean Bacon asked the YC Academic Standards Committee (a faculty committee that usually selects two student members) to reassess the policy of accepting only a 5 on high school Advanced Placement Exams. Shouldn’t students - who could comment firsthand on the consequences of receiving exemptions for introductory courses from AP credits - and faculty discuss this policy together on more equal ground? (4) In previous years, students would fill out two course evaluations at the end of each course: One for the faculty and deans to evaluate professors and one for students, with the end goal of compiling those evaluations into a database to help students decide which courses to take. Yet numerous complications arose, many of it due to lack of communication and motivation. Despite YCSA’s efforts over the last few years, no such database exists right now. Yet a senate of faculty and students could ignite the project forward.
Students created Yeshiva College. In the early 1900s, the students of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary protested the lack of secular subjects taught at their institution. Their desire for a better education led Dr. Bernard Revel to establish Yeshiva College in the 1920s. Thus, students are at the heart of the institution. The 40 years of the Yeshiva College Senate continued that trend of empowering students to shape their education. Now in 2016, as students seem to lack a powerful voice, we need to ensure that we do not lose that defining characteristic of Yeshiva College. We need the Yeshiva College Senate.
 Most of my knowledge of the Senate comes from reading old Commentator articles, perusing old Senate meeting minutes in the Library Archives, and from discussions with professors, most notably with Dr. William Lee, who served on the Senate for 20 years.