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The Surge

After much fanfare, on September 12, President Richard Joel announced a momentous increase in the number of students on campus in his “State of the University” address. Residence halls were filled to capacity. Many Courses were filled to their limits. The honors program welcomed 129 students while Yeshiva College saw its biggest class size in history. The total undergraduate student body increased by four percent, while the number of First Time on Campus students rose by 13 percent.

The President attributed this increase to a concentrated effort “over nine years” to build a “first rate product here at Yeshiva,” and the surge served as “an ultimate testament to our noble undertaking.” Importantly, the President ensured that pure numbers had not come “at the expense of quality.” However, in what came as a disappointment for many, the President glossed over important details behind the numbers—why the surge happened and what it means for Yeshiva University’s future.

A series of interviews conducted by The Commentator with President Joel, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Henry Kressel, provosts, deans, professors, high school principals, Jewish communal administrators and Yeshiva University staff reveals the story behind the surge. It’s a story of administrative overhauls, task forces and committees. It validates long-term investments in infrastructure and individuals and rapid and innovative problem solving. It reveals the concentrated efforts of creative bureaucrats and the determinations of long-time academics to beat back the recession. It points to the challenges of a hopeful future.

Breaking Down the Walls

Fifteen months ago, President Joel tasked Rabbi Kenneth Brander with an important job: to overhaul the admissions team.  Brander, the Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future, knew about recruitment, retention and reform. Before being brought in by President Joel to run the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), he oversaw the explosive growth of Boca Raton’s Jewish community from 60 families to 600. He founded Weinbaum Yeshiva High School. “My expertise is not in admissions; it’s in building communities,” Brander said.

Brander’s administrative philosophy was simple: “We need to realize that the Yeshiva has no walls.” In breaking down the borders and streamlining relationships between admissions, the CJF, Communications and Public Affairs, and academics, Brander hoped to strengthen the impact on potential and newly-enrolled students. “He involved all of us,” said Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Morton Lowengrub. “He believes that it’s not just the admissions director’s job to recruit students, it’s all of our jobs if we want to have a vibrant future.”

But beyond long-term goals, Brander’s immediate challenge was reforming the professionalism at admissions. “We had to do something to change admissions,” said Provost Lowengrub.  “They weren’t answering emails, they weren’t answering calls. It’s clear there were issues,” said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Schiffman. “There are times you need to push a reset button. Let’s not hold on to baggage, sometime you need to leave your old clothes behind,” said President Joel, “We needed someone to take us to ‘next’.”

“Rabbi Brander has introduced an image of professionalism through responsiveness to students and parents,” said Schiffman. Rabbi Josh Frohlich, Assistant Director of the S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program said that with Rabbi Brander’s guidance “we’ve developed a strategic approach to each individual school as well as a clear overall plan for the entire year.” A slide show released to The Commentator from the office of admissions shows Brander’s new month-by-month calendar that keeps the entire office organized and forward-thinking. The calendar includes admissions office events ranging from open houses to reminders and from invitations to the Seforim sale to “student-to-student” calls to prospective students.

Perhaps the most significant change Rabbi Brander oversaw was keeping students committed to their admissions decisions. After all, Rabbi Brander began consulting for admissions in August June of 2011, a few months after many in the historically-large freshman class should have made their admissions decisions. Keeping those students engaged with YU through the S. Daniel Abrams Israel Programs was an important factor in retaining and committing students to enroll. President Joel insisted that the particularly high numbers of FTOCs this year “wouldn’t have happened anyway.”

The normalization of the recession has certainly played a part in the increase in numbers. When things get bad, people get scared and they don’t want to pay tuition, so parents send their kids to less expensive schools, ”said Provost Lowengrub. But the “shock” of the economic downturn has “worn off,” said President Joel. Financial aid has not been reduced. More honors scholarships have been given out than ever before. According to Vice Provost Schiffman, copious financial aid has made it such that, for many students, the recession “doesn’t matter.” Renewed numbers have also galvanized donors. Chairman of the Board of Trustees Henry Kressel emphasized that, while change is not immediate, “there is enthusiasm on the Board of Trustees and a lot of enthusiasm from donors in funding various scholarship programs.”

The Brander Overhaul

As an “outside consultant,” as President Joel described him, Rabbi Brander was able to bring in fresh ideas to an office that needed a major overhaul. He commissioned independent studies to assess financial aid and the budget. He ordered the creation of virtual campus tours, professional recruitment videos and sophisticated online material. He inserted Yeshiva University admissions advertisements in 40,000 “Yeshiva University Holiday To-Go” pamphlets that reach 340 communities. He created two advertising campaigns in Jewish newspapers emphasizing affordability and quality of the undergraduate education. He ordered posters geared toward individual high schools’ needs and view-books to publicize the various academic and extra-curricular opportunities offered to students at YU.

Both Rabbi Brander and President Joel wanted to capitalize on many of the programs already in place, such as the Wittenberg Wrestling Tournament, the Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament and YU Model United Nations (YUNMUN). Prominent YU branding on all materials and giveaways, from backpacks to binders and on-the-phone follow-up would ensure that students who participate in the programs stay connected to YU.  Sophie Felder (SCW ’13) and Secretary General of YUNMUN said, “YU Admissions has put in a significant amount of effort to increase the professionalism of the event. Recent features include a twitter feed and increased exposure to the different kinds of students at YU.”

Inspiration for these changes came from “receptivity” to outside ideas, said Rabbi Brander. He listened to leaders, students and faculty from across the spectrum and he “caught on to things that other universities were doing that we weren’t,” said Schiffman. There was “a significant broadening and enhancement” said Michael Kranzler, the Director of the office of Admissions. Recalibrating admissions meant recognizing that we are in “a buyers market,” explained Schiffman. “They were aiming incorrectly at the market. You’ve got to tell them what you are and what you offer,” said Schiffman.

Brander put together what he calls a “young, aggressive and truthful admissions team” to represent Yeshiva University around the country. He encouraged the recruitment of young professionals like Rafi Katz, who worked on the Hill at the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs and Jonathan Schwab, a Presidential fellow at the office of the President last year. He appointed Stephanie Strauss the director of the S. Daniel Abrams Israel Program and David Miller as the Chief Operating Officer of undergraduate admissions.  The team emphasized following up with students and parents on the phone and online and “treating schools, potential students and families as clients,” said Brander. “Rabbi Brander challenged everyone involved in admissions to “become even more hands-on and client-centered,” said Rabbi Frohlich. “He tied together different constituencies in the process of recruitment and encouraged greater ownership of the admissions of YU to include faculty, rabbis and student leadership.”

Over the last 14 months, the team reached out to high school administrators around the country, forming relationships and emphasizing the quality of education at an affordable cost. Rabbi Avid Levitt, the high school principal of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland said “one of the things that have been positive for us in the past years is the number of students who were recruited dollars-wise.” YU made a “level playing field with the University of Maryland” and recruited more students into honors programs and competitive scholarships. For the first time ever, the office of admissions reached out to two other schools in the Silver Spring area, the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, a right-wing Orthodox school and the Charles E. Smith Community Jewish Day School.

Rabbi Brander also prioritized creating relationships with youth programs such as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Rabbi Steven Burg, the  International Director of NCSY said, “Since Rabbi Brander took over our relationship has seen a turnaround.”  Rabbi Brander saw “great potential” in working with NCSY’s large teenage population of 35,000. According to Burg, for example, the NCSY summer programs had over 800 students who weren't engaged or weren't knowledgeable about YU. In the past this captivated group hadn’t had a “particularly good engagement with the admissions office".  This past summer, because of Rabbi Brander’s initiative, members of the admissions team in Israel, including Rabbi Jonathan Frohlich and the Dean of the Mechina program Rabbi Jonathan Shippel, “did much more than pitch the school, they made their presence known, not in a bad way but in a constructive way. There was nothing that they did that didn’t involve admissions. They organized learning programs and basketball tournaments. “Students were very receptive,” said Rabbi Burg.

“We weren’t sure if anyone could make a difference; Rabbi Brander did,” said Provost Lowengrub. The major results of Rabbi Brander’s efforts will be visible next year, when the first class that was recruited to YU under Rabbi Brander has registered. But President Joel assured that “The numbers are going up and their going up with a purpose.”

The Syms Slump

Data released to The Commentator from the office of admissions reveals dramatic drops in the number of FTOCs enrolling in the Sy Syms School of Business over a decade.  A large drop between 2008 and 2009 at the beginning of the recession has causedconsistent decline in students between 2009 and 2012. In 2011, Sy Syms saw its numbers dwindle to fewer than 100 students in its FTOC class for the first time in at least eight years. That the school was not affected by the surge this year should come as no surprise. “We had some false starts,” says President Joel.

From name changes to proposals for integration and changes in administration, the Sy Syms School of Business was, and still is in need of stabilization. The school was underfunded and over adjuncted,” said President Joe.  Many top students simply chose to register in YC or enrolled in other universities. Efforts have been made to stem the receding tide of undergraduate students, including a move towards accreditation, the creation of an honors program. The “reimaging” of YU’s business school, under Dean Moses allows for a united faculty between campuses and a move towards more permanent faculty. “It takes time for results to show,” said Chairman Kressel.  But the President assures that Sy Syms is “on the move” with aggressive reforms aimed at boosting enrollment.

Challenges of a New Population

In reaching out to NCSY, the admissions team was expanding the pool of potential students. For years admissions went after “the same constituency that we had before,” said Provost Lowengrub. A recent AVI CHAI study revealed that there were 2800 potential students in the yeshiva high school market every year in North America. However, the Yeshiva market is limited, and raising the percentage of students who apply from Modern and Centrist Orthodox day schools would require an “immense effort,” says Burg. Indeed, despite YU’s increased admissions efforts, the percentage of the student body who applied to YU from Berman Hebrew Academy, for instance, remained at 30 percent. “However,” said Burg, “the public school market is unlimited.” “Rabbi Brander went outside of the box,” said Provost Lowengrub.

The number of “True Freshman” has increased from 47 to 57, many of whom are in the Mechina Program. “Based on what we know, there was an increase in applications for both men and women in Mechina,” said Moshe Zharnest, the Director of Outreach and Recruitment for the Mechina program. Of 16 community day schools visited this year, all but one saw students apply to YU. He worked with the Koheleth Foundation to secure scholarships for four students who come from community day schools. “The mission of the school is to offer an education to a broad spectrum and that was certainly the idea in working toward a broader student base,” said Chairman Kressel.

Enrolling students from community schools and public day schools to the Mechina presents a significant challenge, but has nevertheless been a goal for Rabbi Brander and for President Joel. “For years,” said President Joel, the precursor to the Mechina program was “remedial and uninspirational.” The Mechina Program went through a complete overhaul last year: “The Mechina program has changed and is being changed radically. The men’s Mechina program, which languished, is being oriented to reach out to those students,” said Vice Provost Schiffman. On a day-to-day level, Brander has expanded Shabbat programming to include game rooms and snacks to make the environment on Shabbatonim more inclusive and fun. “It has been a great success in the past and to revive it is a great thing,” said Schiffman. Much is riding on the new Mechina Program. “If those people aren’t happy, those numbers will go right back down. You need to make the effort to get students from public schools and community schools to go home and say, ‘I have found paradise’” said Burg. For this reason, admissions looks for students who will “fit the spectrum.” But, “It’s not about cookie cutting,” Schiffman assured. “It’s about recruiting students who will succeed here.”

A Good Problem

In August, tens of students showed up at registration who had not indicated their commitment to enroll in YU. “We were scrambling to get students into classes” said Yeshiva College Dean Barry Richler. “There were still honors students in July who weren’t sure about coming. Most universities know who’s coming in April,” said Dr. Gabrielle Cwilich, the Director of the Honors program.

Unlike other universities, YU does not require significant tuition deposit from students soon after being accepted. Students who opt out of attending YU a week or even a day before classes begin simply loose a small deposit, severely compromising the ability of deans to plan ahead. “There is a percentage, larger than we would like, who are procrastinating decisions. I creates big problems with the dorms, not just in the classes,” said Vice Provost Schiffman. The reasons for this loose commitment policy remain unclear. Fear of turning off students by requiring a large deposit could be one reason. In addition, YU may not want to force a decision on students who would like to study for an additional year in Israel.

This policy, which was merely an annoyance in previous years, caused disorder in the first week of classes and triggered deans worried about keeping the quality of education a high as possible. Vice Dean Raji Viswanathan said, “If we knew in advance, we would plan. We would get the resources and we would hold to the promises of a great education.” Dean Eichler affirmed this concern saying, “We would have preferred to analyze the numbers this summer, not the first week of school. It’s late in the game, students are already here and it’s hard to prepare for them.” The policy has “got to be corrected,” said Lowengrub. “We can’t hire people in the last minute.” President Joel called the commitment policy a “monstrosity” and expressed interest in “moving up the commitment process by changing the culture of commitment.”

This policy, coupled with the student surge, caused many courses to reach higher than usual numbers. While the new CORE curriculum classes were capped at 30 students months before the surge, many courses are pushing the upper limit. Dr. William Stenhouse’s “Roman Empire in Theory and Practice” has 29 students, Dr. David Lavinsky’s “Monstrous in Medieval and Early Modern” has 28 students, and Dr. Jess Olson’s wildly popular “Idea of Self” course was over-tallied at 31 students. “I’m not surprised about those numbers,” said Lowengrub, dismissing assertions that the surge caused these increased numbers. “It’s pretty obvious, that some faculty members are excellent teachers and lots of students want to get into their class.”

However, developing new curricula with the stress of many students has “put pressure on first year writing courses and CORE classes,” Dean Eichler admitted. Indeed, the first year writing courses, previously capped at 15, have increased to 17. Among the honors writing courses, which are usually capped at 12 with an upper limit of 14, one is at 14 while another has hit 16. Still, preliminary numbers released by the office of the Provost revealed that the student-faculty ratio rose to just under 1:6.5 from 1:6.

CORE and first year writing courses may only be taught by full-time, tenure track, or tenured professors, preventing the university from hiring adjunct professors to teach new courses when news of the surge came to light. While this policy ensures that “professors are invested in the long term growth of the curriculum,” Dean Eichler said, it nevertheless placed pressure on faculty to take on even more responsibility.

“We are not setting a precedent” ensured Dr. Cwilich. Indeed, the honors committee voted to keep the honors CORE classes at twenty for a maximum of two semesters before a reevaluation. “We think twenty students in a CORE class would be ideal,” said Vice Dean Viswanathan. Now that the deans know the numbers for the spring semester, they have increased the number of first year writing seminars from 20 to 22, ensuring that “we keep the numbers low,” she said. Dr. William Lee, who co-chaired a major task force in charge of rolling out the new CORE curriculum with Dr. Adam Zachary Newton, said, “The price for implementing the new curriculum includes large class sizes; in future years, decisions about class size should be solely based on an educational, not a budgetary basis.” Committees will be meeting at the conclusion of each semester to evaluate the new curriculum and the effect of class sizes on quality of education.

A number of rumors circulated that the YU Office of Admissions lowered its admissions standards to raise the number of students admitted. However, according to figures released to The Commentator by Rabbi Brander, provisionally admitted students make up 3 percent less of this past fall’s FTOC class compared with last year’s FTOC class. A large majority of provisionally admitted students are moved off of the status within two semesters through academic success mentoring with the guidance of Dean Frederick Sugarman. In addition, the surge saw the largest Honors class since the program’s inception at 129 students, 59 women and 70 men. “I am proud of the fact that we have never received pressure to lower standards to increase enrollment. Not from the president, not from the deans, not from anyone at YU,” said Michael Kranzler.

Now that admissions is more centrally organized, deans are also receiving the numbers of committed students in a more timely fashion. However, Dean Eichler said, “there are steps to be made.” Vice-Provost Schiffman was more enthusiastic; “If the problem is that we need more sessions and more filled dorms, it’s a good problem. If it is our fate that we grow, it’s a problem we can live with.”

The Product

Ultimately, the story of the surge is a story about a product. “Perception follows product,” said President Joel, “and we need to have a great product.” Under the President’s tenure, Yeshiva University has seen a “quiet revolution,” as President Joel said. The new Glueck Center, student lounges, and the closing of 185th Street have changed the look of the campus. YU has 94 more full time faculty members across its Manhattan campuses than it had nine years ago. On the Wilf Campus, the Career Development Center, the Mechina Program and the Registrar’s Office have seen recent turnarounds. Sy Syms has seen substantial changes. More research money is being pumped into the university than ever before. The CJF has focused on undergraduate student leadership and compelling service-learning trips. “The fact that these numbers are up despite the fact that the economy has not improved is a testament to the product we have built here at YU,” said Chairman Kressel.

Infrastructure, institutional, and academic changes make selling the “product” that much easier for recruiters in admissions. But the best recruiters are “students who go home and are enthusiastic about the changes happening here,” said Michael Kranzler. But it’s not just students who are seeing these changes. “People are waking up and realizing what this university is,” said President Joel. This isn’t a time of optimism around the world,” said the President,  “but this is a time of optimism for Yeshiva University.”