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Town Hall Contentious, President Joel Reassuring

This past Wilf Campus Town Hall Meeting with President Richard Joel dealt with a number of sensitive issues, many related to the financial state of the University, topics which always have the potential to be divisive and contentious. Widespread murmurs around campus leading up to the meeting were that a certain campus organization would be challenging President Joel to address the financial state of the university, rumors which were confirmed when, prior to the meeting, members of AEPi distributed packets from Moody’s Investors Service detailing the downgrading of YU’s credit rating from Aa3 to A2. The packet also offered a conclusion of “negative” for the financial outlook of the university.  Such was the atmosphere when President Joel ascended the podium to speak to the Heights Lounge’s packed crowd.

President Joel began his remarks by wishing a farewell to Dean Dr. Victor Schwartz, University Dean of Students, as well as announcing the appointment of Dr. Moses Pava as Dean of the SYMS School of Business, an appointment which President Joel was hopeful would assist in SYMS’s continued path toward accreditation, as well as forthcoming Master’s, MBA, and Honors programs.  Nevertheless, President Joel emphasized, this was not a step toward further separation of YC and SYMS, but was still consistent with the overall goal of breaking down the barriers between these schools. He also briefly touched upon the fact that the University is facing a tough financial situation that necessitates readjustment and budget cuts.  The floor was then opened up to questions.

YC student Burry Klein (‘13) began with an inquiry regarding the reasons behind the discrepancy between the last date to drop a class without a “W” in YC and in SYMS. President Joel expressed his hope that this would soon no longer be the case. After further investigation, it seems that Mr. Klein has made contact with the President’s Office, and this issue will be remedied for the Fall 2012 semester.

Doron David (YC ’13) then presented his concern about ensuring that YU students have adequate resources to consult in the face of the impending departure of a number of the Sganei Mashgiach, a question which elicited a deafening 30-second ovation from those assembled. Although President Joel expressed his regret that the state of the economy requires cuts to such a successful program, it was refreshing to note the excitement with which he presented the solution he helped develop along with Rabbis Dovid Miller, Yona Reiss, and Marc Penner, to be instituted in the coming school year.  This system will consist of two or three additional mashgichim (senior mentors) , one for each beit midrash, to work more closely with both the Counseling Center as well as the roshei yeshiva, for both the Mazer Yeshiva Program (MYP) and Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP). Additionally, a system of madrichim (counselors), made up of senior students and kollel members, will be put in place, overseen by a rosh madrichim.  For the IBC program, each rebbe will have particular responsibility for a specific group of students, ensuring that each Yeshiva University student has a clear idea of who is there to help him.

Conversation then moved to analyze the effects of the new interdisciplinary system of requirements, with Boris Tuman , YC computer science major, expressing his hope that the new system will not adversely affect smaller departments by reallocating their resources toward more general courses.  President Joel noted that the new system would not reallocate departments’ faculty, but would place more pressure on Academic Advisement by decreasing the number of class sections, leading to larger classes for underutilized courses. President Joel then deferred to Professor Will Lee of the English Department, whose vigorous sentences reminded the crowd that the current system has flaws as well, and affirmed that the professors who are currently teaching introductory courses will remain teaching those same courses, thereby still introducing students to the faculty of that department.

Bram Glazer (YC ’13) then addressed the issue that seemed to be on everyone’s minds, claiming that although YU is making significant cuts to departments, the aforementioned Moody’s article stated that Yeshiva University is running the largest operating deficit of any research university, and wondering how YU students can be sure that their tuition dollars are not funding inflated staff salaries. At this, President Joel became very passionate, asserting that “the University is not in dire financial states; it is in a similar state to most private universities,” and that the value of a YU education is unparalleled. He directly refuted the question by emphasizing that no YU faculty members are receiving the highest salaries in their fields, or even being promoted, although they are most deserving. He mentioned, though, that the budget cuts are not coming from the academic part of the university. He did not deny the Moody claims, but attributed them to YU’s superior rates of spending on school programs, faculty-student ratio, and rates of financial aid. However, he did say that “we have run out of money.” Although the endowment and assets are still substantial, this necessitated the budget cuts, in order to balance the operating budget by July 1. He then expressed the hope that as more people realize the value and essential nature of a YU education, resources will grow.

President Joel continued to detail the uniqueness of a YU education in response to YC sophomore Eli Shavalian’s concern that the Yeshiva part of YU has been “enveloping” the University portion.  President Joel expressed that YU could not operate as “a university that happens to have a yeshiva,” and that, in accordance with the Rambam, a middle ground must be reached in YU that is neither black nor white but nuanced: “Yiddishkeit [Judaism] is about technicolor.” He also noted that every day, he hears the exact opposite perspective that the University is enveloping the Yeshiva, implying by this that it is impossible to please everyone.

After reassuring YU student Michael Lunzer that a task force is in place to possibly allow students to not be locked in to one morning program, President Joel mistakenly called on Glazer again. Upon realizing this, President Joel attempted to move on to another question, but Glazer persisted brazenly, asserting that President Joel himself made $1.3 million last year, and took a $100,000 pay raise: “Why does the rest of the school have to make cuts, but you don’t?” President Joel passionately responded: “I really resent answering this question, but I will.” He explained that he does not earn $1.3 million; rather, he earns $750,000, and has not taken a pay raise in five years. He reminded the crowd that tax forms reflect not just salary, but assets, and closed the answer with, “I look forward to the day, many years from now, that you find a new president and see what you’ll have to pay her.”

After quickly addressing the fact that it will not be easy to overcome the departure of Dr. Schwartz, or that of the Sganei Mashgiach, he expressed his regret that the University cannot justify a daily shuttle to those commuting to Einstein. President Joel then closed with a short dvar Torah emphasizing that our role as Jews is not to physically see Hashem but to emulate him in a divine partnership. He then expressed his reliance on the entire YU student body to help him achieve this goal.

This particular Town Hall elicited mixed responses from attendees. Tuman continued to express his concern for the fate of smaller departments, citing the fact that Stern College recently eliminated their Computer Science major for lack of interest, even though, Tuman says, it is “the highest-paying undergraduate major.” One YC sophomore felt, regarding Glazer’s inquiry, that “if you want to get something out of the president, don’t quote his salary to him.”

However, the overwhelming sentiment from those in attendance was that they were impressed with the way President Joel graciously and seamlessly handled this particularly difficult batch of questions. The transparency and honesty with which President Joel acknowledged the trying financial situation, as well as his conviction that although times might be hard now, the University is facing better days ahead, left an impression on those present. Similarly, many felt that the passion and detail with which he outlined his vision for Yeshiva University justified his joking claim that although “I am the 30th highest-paid university president in the country…I think I should probably be the 20th!” Overall, many in attendance were left with the feeling that under President Joel’s watchful gaze, Yeshiva University is headed in the right direction.

If only the President had not denied Shimon Farber’s (YC ’12) request to disclose who he had picked in his NCAA bracket.