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Student Life Committee Meeting Sparks Campus-Wide Debate

The final item on the agenda of a Dec. 12 Wilf Campus Student Life Committee (SLC) meeting has fueled widespread student indignation.

Elliot Shavalian, SLC’s co-chair, confirmed rumors that “a few months ago, the administration was approached by a few students who wanted to make the Morgenstern Dormitory Lounge single-sex.” Shavalian was at a lost to answer any follow up questions from students and administrators at the meeting and instead began to ask a number of questions to the administrators present. “Where is this issue coming from?” he asked Dean of Students Chaim Nissel.

“I’m not sure,” Nissel responded. “I heard that Rabbi Brander and Rabbi Penner were approached by students, but I’m not sure about the rumors.” Jeffrey Rosengarten, Vice President for Administrative Services, said, “the sense I had was that they felt students had come to them with concerns.” Neither Rabbi Penner nor Rabbi Brander were present at the meeting.

“Why weren’t we, the committee who represents the student body, consulted?” Shavalian asked. Shavalian said he conducted anecdotal research about the policy before the meeting. Many students “expressed shock” at the plan, he claimed. He continued, “Is this a good policy—making decisions and then waiting for students to react? We always rely on data, why don’t you?”

Nissel responded that “student opinion is important,” but “this isn’t a democracy.” He also made it clear that a decision had not yet been made whether to gender-segregate the lounge. “We need more information about what students are feeling.”

A member of the Wilf Campus Department of Safety and Security also announced that a new indoor shuttle waiting area would be built in an unused storefront on Amsterdam between 185th st. and 186th st.

Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, asked if there were additional expenses associated with converting the storefront. “There won’t be a security agent inside the bus stop, but there will be cameras and a hot-line phone inside the space, which still is being converted,” Donald Sommers, Chief of Security responded. “So yes, there will be expense,” Schiffman confirmed.

The Commentator asked Nissel if he knew what the exact concern was from students who wanted the lounge single-sex, but he said he was unable to answer the question. Yechiel Auman, SLC co-chair, ended the meeting by saying “there needs to be more student feedback before this is implemented,” otherwise, “there will be student backlash.”

That afternoon, The Commentator conducted a “dip-stick” survey to gauge the student body’s opinion on the matter. The survey was run between 2 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Although over 1,200 students responded, the results were never intended for publication.

Soon afterward, a RIETS student and shiur assistant sent out a widely-circulated email urging students to contact Dr. Chaim Nissel to “disallow girls from entering the dorms, maybe specifically Morg.” The SLC meeting didn’t discuss a change in the policy banning women inside dorms, but banning women inside Morgenstern Lounge.

The letter mentioned two issues. The first was “the specific question about whether women should be allowed into the dormitories. My feeling is that they should absolutely not be allowed into the dorms.” The letter said, “the increased presence of women in the dorms, and on campus in general, is very detrimental to the large numbers of students who are trying to grow religiously in a Yeshiva atmosphere.” The letter also contended that “in general the Roshei Yeshiva should be heavily consulted on how to best maintain the highest Torah standards for our diversified community.”

Another widely circulated email urged students to write to Dean Nissel  “expressing your approval of banning women specifically from dormitories (not anywhere else that is already permitted) and moving the shuttle stop to a different corner from where it is currently.”

The Commentator reached out to all shiur assistants, including the two who wrote letters urging student action. All but one declined to offer a comment. One shiur assistant who did answer, but wished to remain anonymous, said, “although a common university scene today includes socializing of all genders and folks and espouses that as a positive, our mesorah shows a clear preference for separation of men and women who are socializing not for the sake of heaven.”  Having women in “our yeshiva setting detracts from the ‘yeshiva’ aspect of our setting,” he said. “The holiness lost by such extraneous guests is not because women detract from our holiness, rather because unneeded mixing does.”

On December 16, Rabbi Penner told The Commentator, “The plan has been - and continues to be - to make an informed decision with the input of many people. I am working closely with Rabbi Brander who will (at the right time) put together a committee of student leaders, faculty members and roshei yeshiva to discuss the matter in the proper way.”

After a week of rumors, students finally received clarity from an email sent to the student body from representatives of the SLC, YC and SSSB student council. “Throughout this past week, there have been some issues raised within the university regarding possible policy changes and not all facts have clearly been portrayed to the student body,” the letter said. “We hope this e-mail clarifies these issues.”

The letter mentioned that Dr. Nissel had been approached on separate occasions from men on the Wilf campus and women on the Beren campus asking for the Morgenstern lounge be made single-sex. “In both cases,” the student leaders wrote, “there has not been a definitive answer as to how many students raised this issue as a concern of theirs and in neither case was any member of the Wilf or Beren Student Life Committee approached with this concern by a student.”

The letter confirmed that YU is going through with the plan to build the shuttle waiting area in a storefront on Amsterdam, but “this does NOT mean that when the waiting area opens, Morg Lounge will automatically become a single-sex lounge.”

The email confirmed that Rabbi Brander will be meeting with student leaders, administrators, Roshei Yeshiva and all other parties involved with this issue. The letter also assured students that before the university moves forward with any final decision, “they will be sure to meet with student leaders and to take into consideration the views of the students these decisions are directly effecting [sic].”

Additional SLC Meeting Highlights

SLC announced a number of improvements to the Wilf campus, including improved amenities to the pool, designated smoking zones on campus, and a reassessment of club hour. SLC also announced that it had fixed numerous broken clocks around campus. In addition, at the conclusion of the meeting, The Commentator asked if there were any plans to implement a policy to prevent faculty members and rabbis from entering the student dorms. “I agree,” Dr. Nissel said, “faculty and members and rabbis should not be in the dorms.”