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Polishing the Jewel That Is Yeshiva University Before it is Too Late

Disclaimer: the authenticity of the identities of the authors has been confirmed by the Commentator editorial staff; the views expressed do not reflect those of any Commentator writer or staff member.

After the recent State of the University address by President Joel, reasonable people might conclude that all is okay at Yeshiva University.  We think that this conclusion is deeply flawed and we are very worried about the future of YU.  We see six central challenges confronting Yeshiva, and we think that if each and every one of them is not confronted and examined closely, the very existence of Yeshiva is in danger.

Who are we to write such a bold opening paragraph?  We are three Yeshiva faculty members: one of us is a Rosh Yeshiva, one of us is a college faculty member, and one of us works at Stern. Between us we have been students and faculty at Yeshiva more than a century, and counting the involvement of our parents and children, our cumulative years of involvement at YU approach 300 years.  We are all deeply part of the YU family and love the institution. So we write anonymously, exactly because if we have learned anything over the years, it is that this institution rarely responds well to criticism, and we have seen many people driven out of their jobs for lesser offenses than we are going to discuss in this column.

First and foremost, the finances of the University are much worse than President Joel portrayed them to be.  Yeshiva’s discretionary endowment[i] is nearly zero, and the overall endowment has not only plummeted in value, but has plummeted in relative value.  In 2006, the value of YU endowment was 47th among all universities in the United States, while in 2011 it was 66th. In fact, if one looks up Wikipedia’s “list of colleges and universities by endowment worth more than $1 billion,”[ii] YU is the only university to show a smaller endowment in 2011 than in 2006.  The only one. Moreover, the upswing experienced by all universities in the last three years is less at Yeshiva than elsewhere.

For example, in 2006, Columbia’s endowment was $5.2 billion and it is now $7.9 billion, whereas in 2006 Yeshiva endowment was $1.15 billion and now it is $1.13 billion.  We are running out of money, and there are very painful cuts ahead of us that will go to the muscle of Yeshiva if we are not careful. Denying the terrible mismanagement of the endowment over the last decade, and the errors the University made (that other similar institutions did not make) in response to the Great Recession increases the likelihood that we will never learn our financial lesson.  It is not about the Madoff fraud or the Merkin scandal, rather the whole structure does not work and no real information is shared about why.  No one is speaking about what caused the terrible drain on the endowment and when it will stop. In short, there is no transparency.

Second, and equally as scary, President Joel has utterly failed to balance the Torah and the Maddah better at Yeshiva.  At the time of his appointment, all of us were afraid that he would prove incapable of leading the Roshei Yeshiva specifically or Jewish life generally.  Now we are not afraid, as we know such is completely true.  One is hard pressed to see a single point of contention between the Roshei Yeshiva and the President about Jewish life or law resolved in his favor, from the trivial to the important.  Whether it is the gay panel fiasco, or the women’s Purim Chagiga, or the general tone of RIETS, nothing is well-balanced any more.  The Torah u’Maddah at Yeshiva is out of balance completely and we all know this – even the President must sense it, given the weighty battles he has lost.  In his early years as president, Richard Joel used to refer to one of the powerful Roshei Yeshiva by the nickname “Torquemada,” and we were all sitting one day for lunch with one of that Rosh Yeshiva’s students and he remarked to us how surprising it is that notwithstanding the rhetoric, “Torquemada and his talmidim still rule.”  Rabbi Reiss, brought in with a stellar Yale education and with high hopes to modernize RIETS, seems to spend his time working on pornography filters for the dorm rooms.

Third, there is little acknowledgement of the changing market conditions for YU’s services. Touro is a full-blown competitor, attracting many students that we want and is offering a comparable product at half cost.  The University of Maryland and many other public universities are offering a similar product for the many of our students who do not want to learn Gemara thirty hours a week, at half cost as well.  The huge tuition increases at YU have priced much of our Modern Orthodox community out of the market that we seek serve – and there is no acknowledgement of the central problem of Yeshiva’s ridiculously high undergraduate tuition.  People who would have to pay full tuition simply do not think this institution is worth its cost.  How we ought to respond to these market forces is a good question, but the first step is to acknowledge them and not ignore them.  We feel sometimes like we are working at the Kodak film company in 2005, watching our core business disappear while denying such, and the only game plan we really see is to daven.

Fourth, the YC/Stern/RIETS budget is terribly imbalanced.  RIETS is receiving a much higher percentage of the combined budget of these three institutions (the undergraduate institutions) now than it ever did in the past.  The percent of the combined undergraduate budget that is RIETS has nearly doubled since 1990.  (We are not speaking here about numbers, but percentages) and in times of budget cutting, the cuts are disabling undergraduate education at the expense of protecting RIETS.  Releasing the 2013 YU budget (as was promised) is almost meaningless, as the historical figures of budgets past are needed to understand the current numbers and problems.  The budget is extremely imbalanced now with RIETS absorbing a far larger proportion of the total undergraduate budget than it ever did.  We understand that RIETS is central to YU, but an excellent secular education is why kids go to YU and the balance is now lacking.  The secular education here is not as good as it was a decade ago.

Fifth, the salary structure within Yeshiva University is ridiculous.  Senior administrators earn very large sums of money, starting with President Joel who earns close to $900,000 and markedly more than $1,000,000 if you count all the benefits, including a free house.  He makes more than the head of any Jewish institution, and even more than the presidents of Columbia and NYU.  But these high salaries are not unique to him.  Senior administrators – such as the provost and general counsel – make more than $400,000 and deans make more than $300,000.  Second tier administrators – such as Rabbi Josh Joseph -- are making about $250,000. These numbers would not be so out of line until one realizes that the undergraduate programs and RIETS are essentially small programs attached to a large medical school and law school. Our administrators’ job performances would not merit their corresponding exorbitant salaries if subjected to the forces of the free market.  The total budget of all of YU excluding Einstein and Cardozo is less than 50 million dollars we suspect, and that the President is given 2% of the budget himself as salary is ridiculous; that YU employs more than a dozen administrators focused on the undergraduate experience or RIETS that make more than $250,000 is obscene.

Finally, we see very deep structural problems at Yeshiva with its ethics.  We have become an insider shop, where people promote their children into jobs and there are no policies in place to prevent this; even worse, everyone winks and nods because they know that their children will benefit, too.  Let us give a mundane example.  Go look at the list of “shiur assistants,” which used to be a prestigious appointment.  Cross out the names of all the Roshei Yeshiva who are too old or too young to have children who could be shiur assistants.  Now, look at who is left and see how many of those Roshei Yeshiva have their own family members as shiur assistants.  There are quite a few, and we suspect that there are more than meets the eye of simply
matching last names.  We do not doubt the merit of those appointments directly, but we think it is very problematic that such honors are given to family of Roshei Yeshiva.  If these students are stellar – and we are happy to believe they are – let them be stellar in a shiur other than the one given by their family members.  The same is true regarding the Kollel Elyon, the S’ganei Mashgichim, the CJF, and at Stern, where fellowships and stipends are given in a much higher number to children of faculty than to others.  One of us watched a stunning event at Stern a few years ago.  A young woman, the daughter of a well-known posek, was at Stern for a recruitment Shabbat, and someone asked her if she was related to that rabbi.  She said “no.” Someone screamed out: “yes, she is his daughter,” to which she replied, “okay, but I want to make it on my own merit at Stern.” At that, someone else screamed out “At Stern? Are you kidding?  If you have yechus, use it.” Everyone knows this to be true – one is hard pressed to find an Orthodox senior administrator without a family member on the YU payroll.  That is terrible.

All of this leads us to conclude that radical change is actually needed and Yeshiva University will fail in its mission if such changes are not undertaken rapidly.

We think five major changes are needed, but we are uncertain if any of them can actually be implemented in the current situation of denial.  They are:

1.       Yeshiva needs to fix the relationship between its president and its Roshei yeshiva. We are not certain how to do that, but we are certain that it needs to be done.  Maybe a more active Rosh Yeshiva needs to be appointed, to fill the complex role that Rabbi Lamm filled, but now cannot due to his age?  Maybe more Roshei Yeshiva need to teach in the College (where are you Rabbi Dr. Ginsburg when we need you?).  Maybe the President needs a different method of operation?  Maybe Rabbi Reiss needs to focus on this issue?  We are not sure of the solution, but the problem is clear and needs a solution.

2.       Yeshiva needs to be more rational and careful in its financial cuts, as there is a real danger that the secular studies will be cut to the point where there is little difference between Yeshiva University’s secular undergraduate experience and Touro’s – other than the price tag.  Already, all of us see a steep decline in the quality of the undergraduate offerings, both uptown and downtown.  Maybe the RIETS budget needs to be cut to its historical ratio, even as that will impose drastic cuts in RIETS.  This means fewer people working in the many different parts of RIETS on so many different levels.  There is a real danger than RIETS will envelop the whole undergraduate experience and we will be an expensive Touro – which we know is a model that will not allow Yeshiva to financially survive.

3.       Administrators’ total salaries need to be cut significantly – we propose that this start at the top and President Joel cut his pay in half, to only slightly more than the Provost’s pay and many administrators need to be let go or have their salaries reduced.  We propose that all total packages of more than $1,000,000 be cut in half, all packages between $350,000 and $1,000,000 be cut 25%, and all total packages between $150,000 and $350,000 be cut 10%.  Everyone knows we are very top heavy in administration and that they are overpaid.  There is no reason Richard Joel is paid more than the president of Columbia or NYU, never mind more than any employee of any Jewish institution.

4.       Yeshiva College, Stern and RIETS have to function as a meritocracy and to create a strong anti-nepotism policy, like every other University has and like Einstein, our medical school, has.  At the minimum, such a policy has to prohibit family (including sons and daughters-in-law) of faculty from working with their parents or in-laws in positions that ought to be merit distributed, and more generally it must prohibit relatives of faculty from seeking benefit from any program that their parents or in laws are involved in, either as instructors or as selectors of those deserving merit.  This is particularly true in RIETS and Stern College’s Judaic department.  It should surprise no one that Einstein already has such a policy (see, with its simple language of "An employee may not hire or influence the hiring or promotion of any member of his or her immediate family or household into a position in which the employee would then have supervisory or judgmental responsibility over that individual." Every institution has such a policy.  What are the YU, Stern, and REITS policies?

5.       Yeshiva needs to figure out why the endowment is performing so much poorer than the endowment of every other comparable institution in the nation and fix that problem. We do not know what the problem is or how to fix it – but we see that no one else is discussing what really is the problem, in part because of the utter lack of transparency in YU’s finances.

We are unsure if this is enough, to be honest, and we actually think that more radical change is probably needed given the reality YU finds itself immersed in. However, we doubt that the radical change genuinely needed can be undertaken, and maybe this will be enough.

Yeshiva University is one of the greatest assets American Orthodoxy has, but we see it now as a tarnished jewel.  We all need to work to polish that jewel and return it to its glorious luster.

[i] The part of the endowment that is not designated for a specific activity, such as radiology at AECOM.