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A Diamond in the Rough: A Response

More than 17,000 people read “Polishing the Jewel That Is Yeshiva University Before it is Too Late,” published in print on November 16, but sparking controversy online at the end of October. According to The Commentator’s analytics, 2,000 of those readers were from Israel and 500 were from Canada. Tens of visitors logged on from Australia to France, and from Germany to the United Kingdom. Over 100 visitors from the University of Maryland, over 120 from the University of Pennsylvania, over 150 from Columbia University and over 60 from Yale University read the article. I mention these numbers to illustrate that Yeshiva University is far more integral an institution in the landscape of American, or rather world, Jewry than most people consciously think or want to believe.

The now-notorious article contends that there are deep fissures within Yeshiva University that threaten the very existence of the institution. Three anonymous faculty members, whose identities were confirmed by The Commentator, delivered this dooms-day Jeremiad. We read of “ridiculous” salaries, “endowment mismanagement,” of “never learning our lesson,” and of the “core business” of the university “disappearing.” We are told that there has been a “steep decline in the quality of undergraduate offerings” and of RIETS “enveloping” the “whole undergraduate experience.”  Elementary language and sensationalism aside, we are also lectured about the various “imbalances” within the institution, from the RIETS budget to the balance of secular education and from Torah u’Madda being off-kilter to the powerlessness of President Joel to steer the university in any meaningful direction.

President Joel’s brusque response to the article, or as he called it “a screed,” in a recent Town Hall meeting was not only unsatisfying and unfair, but left many feeling that perhaps the article did in fact contain far-reaching legitimate points. I would like to contend otherwise. While “Polishing the Jewel” does contain important grains of truth, it is filled with shrill hyperbole, brims with ambiguous contextualization, is indifferent to reality, contains strident politics, and teems with a smug sense of prophetic vision. It is, in a word, unrestrained.

Various students and faculty members wished to uncover the identities of these longtime faculty members. Some went so far as to (falsely) impugn faculty members by name in the comment section. Witch-hunting is not the purpose of this article, nor should the article’s anonymity change the nature of the charges it laid forth. If the arguments stand by their own merits, they should be taken into consideration. I will argue, that in fact, these arguments do not stand on their own merits and are in fact blown out of proportion.

Many readers were upset that the article failed to mention all the “numerous and overwhelmingly positive aspects of YU,” as one commenter contended. This argument, repeated in many other contexts, repudiates the very purpose of a free and independent press on campus. Articles need not wax praise before appraising. They need not “cover their bases” before moving on to contentious issues. While there may indeed be (and as I will argue, are) overwhelmingly positive aspects of YU, to require that every critique come with complementary compliments sets a dangerous precedent for journalistic standards, as it would drown important opinions in a sea of equivocation.

I make no pretense to be exhaustive; I will not, for instance, discuss the budget or the endowment (which I, nor the anonymous writers, know enough about). Rather than attempting to retort every contention, opinion, and fact in the article, I will examine several glaringly false arguments, ambiguities, and deceptive techniques.

The trio would have us believe that nepotism plagues YU, that people “promote their children into jobs,” and that there are “no policies in place to prevent this.” There are, in fact, official and unofficial policies in place to prevent this. Members of the office of admissions must, and very often do, recuse themselves from conducting interviews or reviewing an application if there is even a doubt concerning objectivity. A family member of a student who applies for a position in RIETS may not sit on the admissions board not only for discussions of said family member, but may not even serve on the admissions board that year. Officially enumerating policies that ensure impartiality would go a long way in putting this accusation to rest and preventing isolated cases of favoritism in unofficial selection processes (in Torah Tours, for example). But to level the accusation that YU is an “insider shop” and that “everyone knows this to be true” is an inflated indictment of a relatively minor problem that has already been consciously addressed.

“Polishing the Jewel” attempts to capitalize on what it sees as popular sentiment. We are thus given phrases such as “everyone knows,” “we all know this,” and “the problem is clear.” A prime example of this is the authors’ repetitive use of the word “balance.” The authors seem to be talking to converted audiences who all have some preconceived notion of what balance is and is not.  Thus, President Joel has failed to “balance Torah and the Maddah better at Yeshiva.” Better? The authors’ main examples are the segregated Purim Chagigah, the “gay panel fiasco” and the “general tone at RIETS.” General Tone? Is there some magical formula for “balancing” Torah U’Madda? No. Is there some objective spot at which the scales balancing Torah U’Madda sit evenly? No. It’s a haphazard, spontaneous, and ever-moving target, and to simplify the process and claim that a precise equilibrium exists displays a false understanding of the nature of the challenge.

Overblown simplicity aside, the article sets up a political scheme such that President Joel appears to be held hostage by Rav Reiss and his RIETS cronies. There is, on a whole, a deep mistrust of the Yeshiva. The authors contend that the President has proven “incapable of leading the Roshei Yeshiva specifically or Jewish life generally.” They interpret one change in policy and one event in particular as bunker-busting examples of the president’s ineffective authority in the face of the Roshei Yeshiva. (They unfortunately failed to capitalize on President Joel’s “Shleimut” speech in which he urged the audience to “emphasize Torah as the ikkar”—the most important.) The article seems to contend that members of the RIETS faculty are conspiring to “envelop” the “whole undergraduate experience.” Rabbi Reiss is singled out as “spending his time working on pornography filters,” and President Joel is accused of calling one Rosh Yeshiva “Torquemada,” after the infamous inquisitor.

This false dichotomy reinforces the notion that RIETS and the Roshei Yeshiva are the big, bad wolves of YU, stymying progress and stifling the campus. While there certainly are major arguments to be made regarding the power (real and imagined) given to Roshei Yeshiva, a generalized demonization of the very individuals who play a large part in making YU unique is not only unhelpful, but unfair. Taking pot shots at RIETS is easier than constructing a critique of what Torah U’Madda is and could be.

The piece further contends, “Touro is a full-blown competitor […] offering a comparable product at half cost.” Anyone who has viewed the Touro or Lander’s College course offerings (an insignificant nod to liberal arts, at best), talked to alumni of the college struggling to find jobs, seen their paltry library (archives and digital collections), or learned about the faculty (most of whom are adjunct) knows that this equivalence is patently false. But don’t take my word for it; the holy grail of college classifications, U.S. News’ “Best Colleges” rankings, places Touro College at number 104, in regional colleges, in the northern region of the United States. It is barely a contender with Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania but narrowly beats out Georgian Court University of Lakewood. Touro can’t even contend with CUNYs or SUNYs. To claim that Touro offers a “comparable product” with Yeshiva University is downright insulting and simply ignorant. This all too familiar trope on campus belies the prestige of a YU degree, the strength, diversity, and size of the Jewish study programs, and the world-class faculty of the university. Touro is simply out of YU’s league. It might be cheaper, but you get what you pay for.

Quality aside, as a supposed demographic competitor, Touro is marginal at best. The college’s application pool is for the most part limited to a New York-based, religiously (and socially) conservative clientele looking for professional training, not a liberal arts degree. Because it is a highly commuter-based school, their extracurricular offerings are minimal. And if you thought YU registration was bad in years past, Touro just switched their registration from paper to computer this year.

On the “flip side” of YU’s supposed competitors, public universities—Rutgers, Binghamton, and of course the University of Maryland—are said to seize the rest of YU’s applicant pool. Thus, the article claims, “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.” Here, again, is an ill-conceived contention that public universities offer the “same product” as YU.  The faculty student ratio at University of Maryland-College Park is 18:1, at YU it’s 6:1. Further, 35 percent of classes at UMD have fewer than 20 students, at Yeshiva that number hovers at 70 percent. Most people forget that YU is ultimately a small liberal arts institution, which, numbers aside, means that professors are more accessible, teaching assistants (T.A.s) are virtually unheard of, and mentorships are the norm not the exception. Public universities can’t possibly come close to the same level of student-faculty interactions, extra-curricular opportunities, and student affairs events offered at private universities. With the added benefits of the Yeshiva and the Center for the Jewish Future, YU offers so much more than University of Maryland or any other public university.

There is, of course, the issue of the prohibitively high cost of those essential opportunities offered at a place like YU. While the authors contend that “there is no acknowledgement of the central problem of Yeshiva’s ridiculously high undergraduate tuition,” anyone who has been to an open-house event knows that President Joel does not shy away from openly discussing the affordability of a YU education, nor does Admissions shy away from a frank discussion of cost. In that discussion, potential parents are reminded that YU is delivering an exceptional product: a dual curriculum, campuses in Manhattan, and a tiny faculty-student ratio. That goes without saying that YU has shown time and again its serious commitment to student aid—far and above what other universities would dole out. That Yeshiva takes into consideration the burden of day-school tuition and gives scholarships to nearly all its honors students, for instance, demonstrates a thoughtful “acknowledgment” of this “central problem.”

Continuing on a financial note, the authors contend that the salaries of administrators are in their judgment “ridiculous.” They contend that President Joel makes “more than the presidents of Columbia and NYU.” While this fact is demonstrably false (though he does make more than President Tilghman at Princeton and President Skorton at Cornell), it again tries to extract popular support without properly investigating the context. There is, in fact, a “reason” President Joel is paid more than “any employee of any Jewish institution” (besides for the fact that no other Jewish organization employs as many people as Yeshiva University). The authors contend that “our administrators’ job performances would not merit their corresponding exorbitant salaries if subjected to the forces of the free market,” and on this point they are correct. If President Joel or Rabbi Reiss returned to law, they wouldn’t be making what they do at YU, they would be making much, much more.

Painful cuts have been made in faculty retirement compensation, raises have been frozen for three years, and discretionary funding in various departments has dwindled (a trend across the board in other universities). Accordingly, many faculty members and students would not be opposed to President Joel taking a symbolic pay reduction in solidarity with the faculty. However, to advocate slashing the President’s pay in half, as the article demands, is rather discourteous. After all, President Joel, and for that matter, other administrators, doctors, and lawyers working for YU who earn over $350,000, are not doing the school a favor (nor is YU a charity case). They are professionals. Attracting and sustaining first-rate talent requires adequate and competitive compensation.

The final point I wish to contend is the article’s romanticization of the era before the ascension of President Joel. We hear of the grumblings of President Joel’s failure to fill the “complex role” of former President Dr. Norman Lamm. We hear of a Rabbi Dr. Ginsberg who apparently taught at both the college and in the Yeshiva (never mind Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler). We are told, “The secular education here is not as good as it was a decade ago.” This sentimentalism is awfully misleading. A decade ago the campus was barebones, bereft of a vibrant faculty and academically challenging curriculum. A decade ago, there was no Glueck center or 185th street plaza. There was no Nagel or Heights Lounge.

Fast-forward a decade and dozens of newly tenured faculty are teaching an up-to-date curriculum in a campus that looks—and feels—drastically different. YU has 94 new faculty members than it did nine years ago. Fourteen faculty members were tenured last year alone. The college has fewer adjuncts. This year saw the largest enrollment of students in Yeshiva College and in the Honors program in the history of the school.  Staying well ahead of “market forces,” Yeshiva College recently unveiled a redesigned curriculum. A rebooted office of admissions, career center, and registrar’s office add to the growing momentum of progress. YU has been awarded more research grants that it received a decade ago.  The college now has a true campus and the university now has first-rate competitive degree programs in multiple fields.

YU is consistently growing in its importance in the American Jewish landscape. The Institute for University-School Partnerships sends young, passionate fellows to teach across North American Jewish day schools. The Straus Center’s “Great Conversations” series bring in world-class speakers to the YU community. The annual ChampionsGate conference is slowly becoming the “TED” seminars of the Jewish world. CJF not only sends students on service missions throughout the around the world, but trains leaders in experiential education and Jewish communal service.

Despite what Rabbi A, Dr. B, and Mrs. C want you to believe, YU is not doomed for bankruptcy, irrelevance, and mediocrity. Are there problems within YU? Yes, and President Joel would be the first to say so. But the existential schisms that the trio tries to convey, the deep ethical problems they attempt to uncover, and the competitors they try to flag are outrageously exaggerated.