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A Recap of the Town Hall Meeting

This past Thursday, November 3, students, faculty, and staff joined together in the Heights Lounge for this semester’s Town Hall Meeting with University President Richard M. Joel. Intended to promote open and meaningful dialogue between President Joel and the YU community, Town Hall Meetings are perhaps the best-attended Club Hour events. The program, as usual, featured a brief talk by the President followed by a question-and-answer session.

President Joel opened up his talk with a quite humorous and telling comment when he excused himself in the event of repeating his divrei Torah by explaining that “[he] never remember[s] which divrei Torah [he] give[s],” getting the crowd laughing early on. He elaborated on the fact that we should view ourselves not as “children of Noah,” but instead as “children of Abraham,” and that as such, we are destined to answer the call of God and be a blessing for the world.

In terms of the financial crisis that YU may or may not be experiencing, Joel explicitly stated that Yeshiva was down to its last one billion dollars and as such there have been pension issues and no salary increases for three years. However, he reassured the crowd, most other universities and businesses were in the same or similar boats and we therefore should not worry. He advocated admissions and recruitment as the way to save Yeshiva from this crisis and that all students should be ambassadors for the University. “That is,” he stressed, “if you believe in YU. If not, I’ll write letters to Fred Lawrence, then new pres[ident] of Brandeis telling him that you should go there.”

President Joel ended his monologue by emphasizing the positive things that YU has seen and will continue to grow from over the next few months and years, including: a more creative faculty, a new, innovative curriculum with a different selection of courses, integration of the Syms School of Business (which Joel claimed is stronger than it has been in years) with Yeshiva College, the launching of a new MBA program (which will be closed on Shabbat, setting it apart from other programs), the new Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, as well as a slew of new CJF programs.

President Joel then opened up the floor to questions. The first question came from Matthew Luxenberg (SYMS ’13) who thanked President Joel for his improvements to SYMS before getting to his question. He expressed how he was troubled by the fact that at the recent Durban III conference and bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN, Yeshiva University did not send students to rally for Israel nor did it excuse absences for students who wished to attend such events. President Joel explained that while, in the past, YU provided chartered busses or “fare cards” for the subway, this time was different, and they chose specifically not to, because the event was quite politically charged and much of the leadership of the “organized Jewish community,” including Malcolm Hoenlein, said to stay away and not to mobilize for various reasons. In terms of the issue of absences, Joel basically responded by telling students to use their absences wisely. Luxenberg was unhappy with this answer and argued for a bit before giving up the microphone, but nothing came of it.

The next question, also involving absences, came from Shlomo Weissberg (YC ’13), representing the members of the various institutional athletics teams. He argued that, as representatives of YU, students who are on teams and miss class due to a team event should not be penalized. President Joel responded very simply by stating that he does not know about the policy and will look into it, without giving a definitive answer.

Daniel Spector (SYMS ’12), following up on an article published in The Commentator, inquired about transparencies in the Seforim Sale. President Joel assured students that “this year will be different,” explaining how everyone needs checks and balances, especially students. He explained that with an internal audit staff, financial management help, guidance and support, the university will “make sure that everything is on the up-and-up.”

Representing the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society, Tani Isaac expressed concern over the selling of the Schottenstein Cultural Center (SCC) on the Beren campus, which up until now served as the venue for the Stern College performances. President Joel, expecting this question, expressed how pained he was by having to make this decision, but rationalized it explaining how it was a necessary financial move for the university and, further, that SCC is not an ideal theater for performances – “it’s a movie theater.” He also reassured students that they are doing everything they can to find another viable venue to replace SCC.

Following up on this question, another student asked where the money from the selling of SCC would go. The President said that majority of YU’s costs are from the undergraduate schools, so a large part will go there; however, it will be spread to the entire University, wherever it is needed.

Chesky Kopel (YC ’14) inquired about “unconfirmed reports that the University plans on blocking webpages for content on YUWireless.” President Joel explained that it in fact was true. He, in consultation with psychologists and rabbinic authorities, decided that a “narrow experiment” will be run, blocking pornographic material in the dormitories, and that students will be informed of the guidelines. He also explained that illegal downloading sites will be blocked as well, having nothing to do with this “experiment,” as he has a legal responsibility to do so as a university.

An Isaac Breuer College (IBC) student expressed a deep concern that the image of IBC is seen “more relaxed” and that a sign of this is the fact that the professors show up fifteen minutes late. President Joel expressed what appeared to be anger when he quickly responded, “It will be more relaxed when they’re not working here anymore!” He further explained that it is very complicated because the issue is one of faculty action. He assured the students that we will see changes there as far as faculty taking their responsibilities seriously.

Another student expressed his disappointment with the morning program as a whole and how it does not provide for all of its students. President Joel explained that they are currently looking into the morning Judaic Studies programs and how to improve them to meet student needs.

One student, expressing the voice of thousands, complained about the new cafeteria layout, explaining that it takes a grueling fifteen minutes to get food – not nearly enough to get back to class on time. President Joel asked the audience if this was true and earned a unanimous, resounding “YES!” After turning to Vice President of Administrative Services Jeffrey Rosengarten, who nodded his head, Joel assured that crowd that it would be fixed as soon as possible.

Another student, upset about personal issues, asked President Joel to have his grade changed in one of his YC courses, as he felt he was graded unfairly. Joel quickly dismissed this question, explaining very clearly to the student that this was not the appropriate venue in which to discuss such an issue.

Yitzy Frankel (’12) complained that since the integration of YC and SYMS, he is unable to finish his dual major that crosses both schools and that it would only be possible if he were to stay an extra year. President Joel advised him to stay that extra year and graduate in 2013 instead, which did not really address the student’s concern.

Ryssa Henry, from the Office of the Dean, complained about the garbage overflow on the fifth floor, and the consequent fruit-fly infestation. Joel said that the infestation is a known issue and is being dealt with.

Finally, Adam Newman (’13), complained about the impropriety of music played on the inter-campus shuttles. President Joel was a bit surprised that this question was being raised at the Town Hall Meeting. His solution: “We’ll get more Maccabeats,” or get rid of the music entirely, which seems to have already happened starting Saturday night.

On a whole, the Meeting was a productive one, providing a means for students and, in this case, staff, to communicate their concerns and needs regarding their university experiences. After conducting a survey, a high number of students complained about the questions that dealt with students’ personal issues, such as grades, absences, and musical preferences.