Administration Proposes Damaging Cuts to Our College Education
By: Yadin Teitz
The Yeshiva College Core Curriculum has been the subject of much consideration since its inception two years ago. To many students and faculty, the Core is a valuable asset to YU. Josh Tranen, a junior in Yeshiva College, claims that “The Core has offered me classes that center around different topics from an interdisciplinary perspective, allowing me to evaluate a given topic from multiple methodological approaches.” Tranen credits the Core for having honed his critical thinking skills across multiple disciplines, topics, and time periods. Likewise, Professor Rachel Mesch, Director of the Core, asserts that “We have made great strides toward education in the past few years with the implementation of the Core.”
On the other side of the spectrum are those students who dislike the full scope of Core classes. While some science majors may enjoy The Natural World (NAWO), they are puzzled as to why they are required to take First Year Writing (FYWR), considering that few of their courses require intensive academic writing. English majors, conversely, appreciate Interpreting the Creative (INTC), while bemoaning their Experimental and Quantitative Methods (EXQM) classes. This dichotomy is precisely the purpose of the Core. All students are invited to foray into worlds where they may be uncomfortable in order to broaden their horizons and become well-rounded, thoughtful individuals.
A recent rumor that the First Year Seminar (FYSM) requirement was likely to be terminated only added fuel to the popular debate about the Core. To some students, the reasons for condemning FYSM seemed obvious (at least to them): it was a strange, unloved Core, with offerings by professors spanning the departmental gamut vaguely united by a writing component. Yet other students, including I, recall their FYSM class as one of their most influential and best-liked classes at Yeshiva College, a class which truly solidified their writing skills while simultaneously applying those skills to the world at large. To these students, cutting FYSM was incomprehensible. Interesting conspiracy theories abounded as to why FYSM would be no more. But the real reason remained unknown.
Enter the budget crisis. Yeshiva University’s financial perils are not a closely guarded secret. But throughout the years of turmoil, President Joel has assured the student body that the administration will do all that it can to ensure that the quality of education being offered at YU will be impacted as little as possible. Previously, cuts were proposed in areas where they would matter the least, including in President Joel’s own salary. Since 2008, each and every department has tried to reduce spending wherever it can. There are close to 100 overall fewer classes being offered now than in 2011. Tenured faculty have gone without raises for several years. To save costs, faculty receive little compensation for administrative duties, research, and travel. Professors are even asked to take out their own trash from their offices.
But as times have worsened, it seems that the administration has found a new place to reduce spending: FYSM. Because the department is entirely staffed by contract employees who are not subject to the same legal protections as tenure-stream positions, it is quite easy to simply let contracts expire. “There’s a sense,” says one anonymous professor, “that students won’t be affected and won’t notice the changes.” But the results will be catastrophic for students. As Dr. Gillian Steinberg, Director of Writing, asserts; “The instructors who are scheduled to lose their jobs…are some of the most beloved and talented at YU…No one involved in this decision-making, even at the highest levels, has any complaint about their teaching ability, work ethic, or commitment to the institution and its students. On the contrary, these instructors are widely recognized as among our very best.” The course itself cannot be blamed either. First Year Seminar classes, despite student grumblings, were carefully developed and tested over the course of several years and have been immensely successful in preparing students for future academic writing. So why FYSM? Steinberg explains, “The course is just in the administration's sightlines right now because it is largely staffed by easily-fired faculty.”
If FYSM is eliminated, other departments will not be far behind. The Spanish department, built up by Professor Graciela Bazet-Broitman, would be at risk. The Music department is also staffed exclusively by contract faculty and would be a natural cut. A full half of the Sociology faculty is made up of contract faculty, meaning that it would survive only by depending on its tenure and tenure-track faculty. Beloved sociology professor Daniel Kimmel would be lost. Even the Hebrew Department, a staple of Yeshiva College, is at risk of being transformed to an online form that would save costs and eliminate most instructors. The overall loss of faculty would have a profound effect on students. In addition to those named above, some of our most treasured professors like Tsering Lama, Bella Tendler, Carin White, Jamie Aroosi, Chaviva Levin, Johanna Lane, Liesl Schwabe, Eliezer Schnall, and Barbara Blatner would be forced to leave. Eventually, all twenty-two lecturers employed by the university across several departments would likely be removed. And the damage would be irreversible. Claims one professor, “It is unclear how we will be able to continue to staff those courses and give students a full roster of high quality classes to choose from with the potential loss of these extremely talented faculty over the next two years (as their contracts expire)."
Indeed, it would be impossible. Even if tenure and tenure-track faculty were asked to teach more classes to make up for the loss, there is still a limit to how many classes they can teach. Inevitably, gaps in course offerings would still exist. The example is well-illustrated in the chemistry department, where one professor left abruptly this year, leaving students to take classes at CUNY. Additionally, college professors tend to be specialists in their particular fields and cannot be expected to teach other subjects with the same passion and alacrity as experts. The loss of such professionals would impact our education in countless ways. Also planned is an increase in class size, one of Yeshiva’s strongest assets in attracting and maintaining students. Establishing personal relationships with professors would prove to be far more difficult, if not impossible.
In the past decade, Yeshiva College has worked hard to improve itself and the level of education it offers in order to attract new applicants. The Honors College was one step in that direction, as was the hiring of a number of renowned professors in a variety of fields and prominent research faculty to bolster their individual departments. The Core was a third such investment in improving the quality of education. The effects that these changes have had on Yeshiva College cannot be quantified. Long-time professors have noted the differences in the student body, reporting that today’s students are far more open to education and to interacting with other cultures and ideas. Such progress is difficult to build but, unfortunately, all too easy to destroy. Those proposing such a plan are underestimating the importance of education and the importance of protecting everything that has been created in the last few years. As one professor succinctly put it, “YU needs to decide if it wants to be the Jewish Harvard or the Jewish Indiana State.” If these plans are put into place, YU’s mediocre reputation of the past will be restored upon it.
The sea of changes at Yeshiva has ramifications for the present as well as the future. Claims one professor, “Our educational agenda has been literally paralyzed by the continuing financial crisis at YU.” Professors were recently sent an email from the Provost informing them that faculty jobs were at stake and simultaneously thanking them for their help in creating a “brighter and better future” for YU. After this cruel awakening, professors were expected to go on teaching as usual, wondering if it was their position being cut. Popular tenured faculty hired in the past few years have been told directly that their hiring was a costly mistake, yet they are still expected to teach classes and conduct research and do what is expected of them on a daily basis. As a result, faculty members have noted that morale is lower than ever.
This is exacerbated due to the size of the College, which allowed for close-knit partnership and interaction between all members of the faculty, regardless of their departments and fields. The loss of faculty in certain departments is keenly felt by all. Dr. Steinberg says “Nearly every day, I find myself near or in tears as I think about what has been done to this university that meant so much to me and thousands of others. Being part of this community has completely changed my life for the better, but I can no longer see a future for myself here.” At the helm of the ship through turbulent seas is President Joel, who recently told tenured faculty that if they had offers elsewhere they should accept them. Apparently, the leadership of the University sees no future for its faculty either.
Granted, YU is going through a tough period. It is understandable that cuts must be made, and that certain things must be foregone in order to ensure a future for the university as a whole. Yet it is shocking to observe this administration’s callous approach to our education. Steinberg resents the “cavalier attitude toward the university's financial well-being by the people whose charge was to ensure our fiscal health.” At the very least, our president and vice-presidents, all of whom make tidy profits from the University, should bear some degree of responsibility. The faculty are not to blame, and neither are the students.
And how much money will we save through these cuts? Overall, the College is projected to save $2 million over the course of four years. The total cost of maintaining FYSM? $400,000; a drop in the bucket considering the salaries of some within the administration. If each of these individuals accepted some culpability for the past and reduced their salaries, Yeshiva College’s educational future could remain stable, at the very least. It is simply incongruous that our high-level administrators collect hefty salaries while forcing students to sacrifice their education.
Any future improvements to the Core are understandably being put on hold until a final decision is made and a final vote is cast about the future of the College. Like many, Professor Mesch is a strong believer in the Core and its potential. Mesch adds that because the Core is still in its experimental stages, it is still very much susceptible to student opinions. She notes that she “has met with students and pored through evaluations” and that “there are certain questions that have arisen in the past few semesters that the Core committee is eager to address.” Unfortunately, positive changes to the Core cannot be implemented while the future of its faculty members is in limbo. And for those students who think that they should drop their FYSM classes now, Dr. Steinberg cautions, “I can say with certainty that the current FYSM will count towards students’ graduation requirements and that students who do not complete FYSM in the near term will have to take some other writing requirement instead.” The only thing left to do is wait.