Two Requests of The YU Board

Date: January 3, 2017 12:19 pm
Author: Doron Levine

The Yeshiva University Board of Trustees needs to be a bit less transparent. An opaque object, even if mysterious and unknowable, is at least perceptible to the eye; but the YU Board is as undetectable as pellucid glass. Any bird who’s ever had the painful experience of flying into a window will understand what I’m saying. Better to be translucent and at least noticeable than transparent and not visible at all.

This is not a mindless screed against the Board, fired by millennial disdain for entrenched authority. While I do indeed harbor a natural distrust of authority, in my more judicious moments I recognize that this attitude is irrational. There’s nothing inherently slimy about the few holding jurisdiction over the many (is there?) — prudence and practicality actually recommend this sort of structure. And perspective matters; a governing group that we might perceive as an elitist oligarchy might just as well be viewed as a team of generous volunteers.

Especially when directed at members of YU’s Board, reflexive cynicism is misguided. Board Members are, I presume, appointed because of their dedication to YU, and many, if not all, have made major contributions to our university, financial or otherwise. But conjectures on the considerations relevant to the appointment of trustees are just that—mere conjecture—because YU’s Board of Trustees is utterly invisible. The public has no grasp of the qualifications necessary to become a Trustee and no handle on the process for appointing them because our Board has no channel for communication of its procedure and decisions. YU’s supreme governing body is a closed book.

This sort of secrecy is unusual for university boards. Many other university websites offer biographical information on the members of their governing body — YU offers nothing. Many other university boards make publicly available their history, meeting dates, agendas, minutes, committees, university charter, and bylaws — YU’s board provides none of these. I would venture to say that the publication of at least some of this information is pretty standard among American universities. A simple Google search will do the trick. (For a small sampling, visit the informative board webpages of these universities: Amherst, Brandeis, Columbia, Duke, Emory, Fordham, Georgetown, Harvard, Indiana State, Johns Hopkins, Kent State, Lehigh, Maryland, Middlebury, Notre Dame, NYU, Princeton, Purdue, Rockland Community College, Rutgers, Swarthmore, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, William and Mary, Xavier, and Yale.)

What do we know about YU’s Board? Our university’s website has a page which lists the members of the Board and specifies its Chairman, Vice Chairmen, Treasurer, and a number of honorary positions. That is all. No contact information is provided for any Trustees, not even for the Chairman of the Board, Moshael Straus. When and where does the Board meet? What happens at the meetings? What sort of decisions does the Board make? What rules govern its actions? We do not know.

The unavailability of our university’s constitution is particularly troubling. Every university has bylaws, a set of rules that govern and constrain its leadership. They determine the structure of the university’s administration, delineating the powers and duties of the president, vice presidents, and board members. They explain how a president is elected and how trustees are appointed. And they govern trustees, demarcating their roles and charging them with specific responsibilities.

But YU’s bylaws are tightly classified. Dr. Paul Oestreicher, Executive Director of YU’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, maintains that YU’s bylaws are not public documents. The Commentator reached out to various members of the Board and was told that only its Chairman, Moshael Straus, can grant access to the bylaws. Chairman Straus has not returned The Commentator’s repeated inquiries and requests for comment. General Counsel Mr. Andrew Lauer refused to speak with The Commentator, let alone provide any information about the bylaws.

This policy of withholding bylaws is highly unusual. Yeshiva University is ranked 66th on the US News and World Report’s university rankings. Out of the sixty-five universities ranked higher than us, fifty-nine of them make their bylaws publicly available on the Internet. Of the six that do not, a number of them offer access to the rules through the Secretary of the Board or the Office of the General Counsel. By withholding its governing document from the public eye, YU breaks rank with standard practice for universities of its caliber.

Where is the accountability? Imagine if the US Constitution was known only to federal elected officials. The mind rebels. What use are statutes that constrain a governing body if those rules are known only to the governing body itself?

Moreover, where is the Board? Trustees have little connection to or familiarity with daily life here at YU. The Board’s decisions, mysterious as they may be, surely affect life on the ground and should therefore take the current reality into consideration. As much as the Trustees should be visible to us, we should be visible to them.

For the benefit of the YU community, I respectfully make two requests.

First, the Board should make its constitution and bylaws public. Adding a new webpage or even just a PDF link to YU’s recently updated website would not require much effort. Second, the Board should develop some sort of face on campus. I understand that Trustees are people with family lives, professional ties, and limited time. They cannot all be constantly available for media consultations, and such an expectation would be unreasonable. But I think it is reasonable to expect the Board as a unit to project a public identity, to show occasional signs of life, to be at least somewhat communicative. There should be a way to contact the Board with questions, compliments, or complaints, whether through its Secretary or its Chairman. And maybe the Chairman should appear for questions at town hall meetings and interact personally with students in that forum. A Board with a thorough understanding of the spirit of the university and its complex personality as shaped by students and staff would be a more effective governing body.

I respect the Board’s collective wisdom that results from years of cumulative experience and recognize that I know relatively little about managing universities. Nevertheless, I humbly ask you to examine my argument and consider my requests.

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This post was written by Doron Levine

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