Experience, Excellence, and Examples
The undergraduate experience is as much a function of time as it is one of research, mentorship, and lofty enlightenment. College is quick – four years for most, five for the especially slow or dedicated, and three for the average YU undergrad. Almost as soon as the student arrives at the ivory tower he or she departs for other pursuits: a career, graduate school.
As students, then, the picture of YU that we gather is limited. A student entering YU in Spring 2015 can never fully understand the experience of a student that left YU in Spring 2008, when 185th street still accommodated a steady stream of traffic, and the Heights Lounge, Glueck Beit Midrash, and revamped YC Core curriculum were not yet mainstays of campus life.
In contrast, university faculties are in it for the long haul. Much of Yeshiva’s staff has been teaching or working at YU for decades. Yeshiva College alone boasts over 50 tenured professors, many of whom have diligently and dutifully given their best years to making YU excellent. Some of my professors have taught thousands of students spanning thirty or forty years – a humbling proposition considering my brief four-year stay.
As such, the typical professor’s knowledge of YU is immeasurably more comprehensive than the typical student’s. Our faculty knows what YU was like ten, twenty, and thirty years ago, and is intimately aware of how our university has changed – for better or for worse. Thus, our faculty’s collective experience should be respected and carefully considered by university decision-makers when making decisions.
For this reason, I find myself torn by the Faculty Council’s recent decision to vote “no confidence” in President Joel.
On the one hand, the vote seems shortsighted in its gross refusal to give credit where credit is due. In an official announcement sent to The Commentator for publication, the Faculty Council points to “ten years of improvements in undergraduate education at our University” that threaten to be reversed by this administration. President Joel assumed the leadership of Yeshiva in 2003. If the Faculty Council wants to lambast President Joel for mismanagement, so be it. But it should also thank President Joel for enabling real academic improvements in the first place.
More troubling, though, is the Faculty Council’s offhanded dismissal of “statements [that] have repeatedly been made about the markets, about particular one-time scandals, and about the broader economic situation generally and in higher education,” as if these repeated “statements” were just badly concealed excuses for the missteps of a bumbling administration. The fact of the matter is that YU was hit hard – very hard – by factors beyond this administration’s control. Lest we forget, Bernard Madoff served as this university’s treasurer, and took $100M of our endowment straight to federal prison. That’s not pocket change, especially in an already tenuous environment for small liberal-arts colleges nationwide. In a Time article that I recently came across, Kim Clark writes: “While the elite colleges can keep raising prices and soliciting big donations, small private colleges that don’t offer what today’s students want – generous financial aid, access to urban activities and job markets, and a name that will impress employers – are facing potentially devastating financial pressures that can lead to a 'death spiral' of declining admissions, tuition revenues, and contributions.” As a small private college that likes to think it’s elite, YU faces these issues and a host of other problems specific to the shifting sands of American Modern Orthodoxy. Dismissing these factors as insignificant is seriously misleading.
On the other hand, I empathize with the faculty and understand the necessity of the vote. The faculty as a whole feels largely ignored by a consulting firm – Alvarez & Marsal (A&M) – that has no prior experience with educational institutions and by an administration that has repeatedly promised transparency but failed to deliver. More specifically, the vote reflects faculty insecurity about job security, something that has been quietly simmering for years as salaries, raises, and pensions were placed on hold, then slashed. With news of A&M’s recommendation to cut contract faculty, insecurity boiled over into a vindictive and frustrated vote of “no confidence,” a last resort strategically set just four days before A&M’s long-awaited presentation to the Board of Trustees (on March 17th).
And the faculty is not wrong in voting “no confidence”, if for no other reason than a noticeably absent admission of responsibility for the current situation by those in charge. Certainly this administration is to blame for much of this mess. As described in these pages, this administration made poor financial and operational decisions at a time when it couldn’t afford to. I would point more directly to the Board of Trustees, whose members bear full fiduciary responsibility for the wellbeing of Yeshiva, and who have underperformed when Yeshiva desperately needed an engaged and proactive board.
Still, the vote and subsequent response from the Board of Trustees supporting President Joel left a bad taste. Yeshiva is often referred to as a family, with both positive and negative connotations accompanying the metaphor: positive, in the sense that YU is an intimate, tight-knit community; negative, in the sense that YU sometimes feels like a shoddily run family shop. The Faculty Council vote and Board of Trustees response have created an ugly rift within our family, pitting faculty, administration and board against each other in a battle for the future of Yeshiva University.
I’ve only been a student at YU for three years, and my experience is therefore quite limited. I believe that the faculty, administration and board have the best intentions of this university in mind. But if education is learning by example, our role models are not setting the right one. A real effort at reconciliation in order to collaboratively and cooperatively build toward excellence might prove more admirable, and ultimately more fruitful.