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No Need for Popcorn: President Joel Hosts Tame Town Hall Meeting

Apple slices, cookies, and carrots were the refreshments of choice for students and faculty who attended last Wednesday’s Town Hall Meeting with President Richard Joel. This semester’s biannual assembly, punctuated in previous years by penetrating and strident inquiries from the audience, featured a much tamer lineup, and included general remarks and specific announcements by President Joel followed by a question and answer session.

After opening with some impressive statistics from the recent Chag HaSemikhah Rabbinical Convocation—the 230 Torah scholars awarded Rabbinic ordination from the past four years surpasses the total amount of graduates from all other Rabbinic seminaries combined— President Joel moved on to update the students and faculty as to the current financial state of the university. Though at times the explanations seemed to be taken from an Intro to Economics or Accounting Principles course, the President’s underlying message was simply that “we have spent more money that we can afford to on the unique education we offer.” Optimistic news from across the financial spectrum helped buoy spirits, from the start of implementing new fundamental, bottom-up financial systems to a successful and clean audit from PricewaterhouseCoopers and a re-affirmed A credit rating from Standard & Poor’s.

The meeting then turned to personnel announcements, after explaining the necessary reduction of force that is soon to come to campus. Reiterating an email sent out earlier in the week, the President announced that Rabbi Menachem Penner’s “acting days are over,” with his full appointment to Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Undergraduate Torah Studies. Dr. Selma Botman, the university’s new provost and vice president, was also introduced at the meeting; in her brief statement, Dr. Botman expressed that she was “delighted to join the YU community.” As previously reported in a press release, Dr. Botman’s role will be “working together with faculty and the administration to strengthen teaching and student learning, foster scholarly research and creative projects, and build a collaborative culture across the University.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Ambassador Danny Ayalon, President Joel revealed, would both be returning to campus next year, and Seth Moskowitz was announced to be succeeding Daniel Forman as Vice President for Institutional Advancement.

President Joel’s final remarks surrounded the renovation of the university library which, thanks to an earmarked donation, will re-open the sixth floor, revamp the wireless network, and enhance the architecture of the “space where faculty and students come to work and study together.” Additionally, the 185th Street pedestrian plaza, which includes the area between Furst Hall and Glueck Center, as well as the mall along Amsterdam Avenue, will continue to be upgraded and improved, with an anticipated completion date in the summer of 2015.

Avishai Cohen, a Syms sophomore, initiated the question and answer session by inquiring about YU’s subsidies of the Yeshiva University Museum. President Joel, though asserting that due to its generous benefactors, YU was in fact no longer providing any subsidies, it gladly would, due to the importance of the arts: “YU cannot lose its sense of the aesthetic, cannot consign Betzalel [chief artisan of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle] to history.”

Another student brought up the core classes, specifically with regards to the Experimental & Quantitative Methods (EXQM) course, which he felt was lacking organization: “it is hard to see the connections between the different areas of science that the course alleges to fuse.” President Joel deferred to Yeshiva College Dean Barry Eichler, who explained the difficulties of crafting a pilot course like the science requirements in the new core. The student commented afterwards, “While I have learned a lot from the professors and coursework of EXQM, at the same time, the course itself is rather disorganized. We had very little guidance on how to prepare for the three simultaneous midterms, and many of us did not know who to approach with questions and complaints.” Yeshiva College Student Association (YCSA) President Adam Zimilover did take the microphone to assure the student body that YCSA would continue to work on the students’ behalf with regards to petitioning on academic affairs.

“I think the meeting was informative,” said Sam Moses (Syms ’16), who asked about the fate of undergraduate pre-engineering at YU, as he sees many of his friends continue to transfer away to other schools with stronger programs. “Though President Joel was very straightforward, I was not as happy with Professor [Edward] Berliner, the official pre-engineering advisor, who didn’t provide clear answers even after I clarified my question.” Other academic concerns that were brought up included pre-med sophomore Shalom Rosenbaum’s complaint about the lack of available advanced biology courses and Josh Azar’s comment that only Syms students can currently take an ethics class to satisfy a Jewish Studies Bible requirement; the President was aware of both issues and reminded the audience that “change happens incrementally.”

Other questions that were raised but were not easily answered in a public forum included the reasons for the sudden dismissal of Coach Jonathan Halpert and the fate of YU couples with YU’s sale of ten Washington Heights properties. President Joel did take the opportunity to echo an email from his office sent out several weeks ago, which asserted that the “sale [of the apartments] delivered a tremendous return on the University’s original investment and provided an infusion of cash.”

In his explanation of the financial state of the university, President Joel mentioned that “we are at the end of the beginning of this process.” Perhaps this lack of “fireworks” at the town hall meeting is just what YU is hoping for, as it attempts to continue to offer its important and unique blend of Judaic and secular education in these “trying times.”