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Preserving a Flourishing School

Sometimes there is so much discussion about an event that it is easy to become inundated with the ensuing sea of news reports, uplifting assemblies, reassuring letters, and memoranda. Our university is faced with a significant financial predicament that is forcing its leadership to change business as we, the students, know it. Cost-cutting is certainly necessary. Any business swamped in debt has a responsibility, both to its trustees and to the larger community, to reduce its operational inefficiencies and to find means of increasing sources of revenue. But it is just as important that the business does not veil from its customers – in Yeshiva University’s case, the students – the small details that may have dire consequences for the business’s product.

Yeshiva University rightfully prides itself on being a top-caliber research institution that provides the highest-quality Jewish and secular educations among Jewish universities worldwide.  For several years now, our school has worked tirelessly to build its research departments to advance its mission of rigorously pursuing knowledge and wisdom. The value that the production of such research provides to society, our school’s reputation, and the classroom itself, is immeasurable. It is for this reason that the almost certain changes on the horizon are so worrisome.

In his letter to YU’s student body, its faculty, and the wider community, President Richard Joel outlined a Roadmap for Sustainable Excellence. This Roadmap is the plan put forth by a leading consulting firm, Alvarez & Marshal, to restore solvency to the University’s finances. Part of the plan stipulates that class sizes will be brought “in line with other top-tier universities” and that there will be increased “student access to tenured faculty.” The increase of class sizes is not an issue. On the contrary, it is strange that class sizes have been kept so small for so long, especially during this financial crisis. Not only are small classes a misuse of the University’s limited resources, but they are also a waste of professors’ time. Professors could teach a class of twenty as easily as they teach a class of ten or, in some cases, five, and at the same salary. The significant issue in the Roadmap lies in “increasing student access to tenured faculty.”

On its face, of course, this seems like a noble aspiration. Tenured faculty members have much to contribute to students. The problem, though, is the plan’s implication. If increasing class sizes and increasing access to tenured faculty are two separate things, as the Roadmap, Provost Botman, and the deans are making clear in faculty meetings, the only way for there to be an increase in access to tenured faculty is if those who are tenured teach more classes. This poses the danger of destroying the environment that is conducive to producing research.

We are fortunate that some leading scholars in various fields have made our school their home and that they infuse our classrooms and laboratories with their knowledge. YU has attracted these scholars, and importantly, retained them by providing them with competitive salaries, teaching loads, and research environments. If the University freezes salaries, increases teaching loads, and fractures the research environment, it will effectively ensure a brain drain.

There are two factions in the faculty that need to be given explicit attention. On one side is the faculty which produces research, some of it published in leading journals. On the other side there is the faculty which does not produce major research, and which consists of instructors. Naturally, these two groups have different interests. The members of the group which does not produce research have an incentive to change the mission of the school and to move it away from being the ‘Research 1’ university it currently is. This would improve their chances at securing promotions, tenure, and other benefits. The members of the other group in the faculty would prefer if instructors were not given equal treatment and consideration for these benefits.

In these times, when YU is looking to the academic department to cut costs beyond those pertaining to the administrative and operational branches of the University, the instructors’ arguments to move away from research are simply more satisfying for the money-hungry administration. The lower teaching loads of research faculty are being portrayed as the source of the superfluous spending that should be cut. Simply put, the climate is more favorable to their interests, and in this context there is little the researchers can do to make their expensive case attractive to the administration.

President Joel, who has promised in the Roadmap that students will soon have more ‘access’ to tenured faculty members, fails to understand a basic economic idea: opportunity cost.  Not every professor’s time is optimized by being in the classroom longer. By forcing researchers to take on more classes so that fewer adjuncts have to be hired, the school is declaring that avoiding paying the salary of a few extra adjuncts is worth the reduction of time a scholar will spend researching ideas and bringing them to society and the classroom.

The Roadmap judges everything in dollars, as opposed to the more intangible criteria that make up a university’s raison d'être. In fact, even in monetary terms, the A&M recommendation is based on a shortsighted, misconceived understanding. It doesn’t take into account that government grants are often awarded to research faculty, that donors are attracted to sponsoring the production of leading research, and that graduate programs run by research faculty generate revenue. In short, it doesn’t take into account the long-term sustainability of the university.

What’s more, it is likely that the school will still require its research professors to keep producing and publishing at the same rate as when they were originally hired. It is clear that few researchers will want to stay here when this happens, and that few leading researchers will want to join the faculty. Our school will have saved money indeed, but it will have been transformed into a teaching college, and it will still charge research university tuition prices.

Instead of instituting blanket policies, YU must accept there is a difference between research faculty and instructors. The Roadmap should not apply to everybody equally. The research environment cannot be allowed to be crippled. All the efforts that have been put into gathering an elite group of scholars should not be undone so that the school can save itself from having to hire a few more adjunct professors, whose salaries are anyway quite low.

It is crucial to understand that the damage will not only be short-term. Building up a leading research faculty requires decades and it should not be undone the minute financial conditions are poor. Trust is crucial as well. If our university breaches the trust which brought in scholars from across the world by forcing them to take on more teaching loads than initially promised, future job applicants will take that breach into consideration when considering joining our university’s faculty.

Class sizes should be increased. Redundant departments should be merged. Courses should be blended among campuses.  More revenue-generating programs, such as masters and certificate programs, should be introduced, and professors should participate when they can. The Roadmap is correct in all these areas. Costs will be reduced and revenues will increase. But to even risk destroying the research environment and losing the research faculty for additional savings is a very perilous path to wander onto.

This is likely my last year on campus. I recognize that most of these potential changes will not affect me personally. But I am also cognizant that Yeshiva University will always be my alma mater. That oft-used Latin term literally means ‘nourishing mother.’ Indeed, the experiences I have had here have been exceptionally nourishing in an academic sense. The professors I have had the privilege to know and admire will have a lasting impact on my life. The classes I took with leading scholars have granted me a very deep sense of appreciation for and a childlike awe of the baffling world around us. These are the outcomes that make a college experience meaningful and successful.

I cannot imagine that YU would risk moving away from this model. For the sake of the future students, it is our responsibility to remind our proverbial ‘mother’ that to continue to nourish her offspring, she must also continue to nourish herself.

Nathaniel Kukurudz (YC ’15) is the Chief Financial Officer of The Seforim Sale and the President of the Undergraduate Economics Society.