President Joel, Provost Botman Hold Meetings to Discuss Coming Changes
Two days after Yeshiva College Students Association (YCSA) held an open meeting for students regarding proposed changes to the college’s faculty and academic offerings, President Richard Joel and Provost Selma Botman held two meetings on Thursday, March 13th to discuss those same issues with the student body.
The meetings, which were attended by several dozen students, opened with President Joel giving a brief overview of the ebb and flow of Yeshiva University’s finances over the last decade or so. Besides the well-known circumstances which caused YU to lose a lot of money before and after the stock market crashed, President Joel emphasized that YU also spent a considerable amount of money in efforts to improve the undergraduate experience. The number of full-time faculty has increased by over 50% in the last decade, tenured faculty has doubled during that time span, and a number of departments exist today which were simply not around not too long ago. Additionally, there have been noticeable improvements to our college experience as a whole, ranging from increased research to improved Shabbat programming.
However, the President was forthright in admitting that there was insufficient oversight of YU’s finances during those years, due to both an outdated system as well as rare but costly administrative errors by members of the university’s Finance department.
Whatever the circumstances that led to the current crisis, however, everyone agreed that the most relevant dilemma how to best move forward while maintaining a strong undergraduate educational experience.
As the meetings opened up for students to speak, this question was echoed by several students. Much to their relief, President Joel emphasized his view on the key element underlying these concerns: holding a signed copy of the Declaration of Principles composed by the YCSA, he declared that he “embraced all of these principles,” later stating that students and faculty are of utmost importance in considering the future of the university.
With regard to questions about faculty morale and whether they had been sufficiently consulted on potential department, staffing, and curricula changes, President Joel acknowledged that this is not an easy time to be a professor at YU, but pointed out that the faculty is in a position no different from that of the administration. Granted, the faculty has received only one raise in the last six years and has had the contributions to their pension reduced, but so has the administration, he claimed. Additionally, Provost Botman remarked that she has recently attended upwards of 60 meetings with department chairs, deans and other faculty members in attempts to achieve a collaborative, shared understanding of the University as it moves forward. She stressed that while she, the President, and the A&M consultants presented many different options, they were meant merely as suggestions; the faculty and department heads have been given full reign to determine curricula, with the simple caveat that they meet the budget.
What is notable, though, is that these sentiments do not necessarily jive with the perspectives shared by faculty members in recent weeks. President Joel did submit that he feels it is possible the administration did not conduct its affairs regarding faculty in the best of ways. It is also possible, though, he noted, that while we hear from the professors who are particularly frustrated and driven to express their views, there is a considerable amount of the faculty which—though they would certainly wish for better financial times—are understanding of the difficulties of the situation, committed to YU’s raison d'être, and appreciate the opportunity to teach in such an institution despite the challenging times.
Both the President and Provost Botman expressed regret that there are faculty members who feel belittled, encouraged the students and faculty to be in constant communication, and expressed hope that the future would hold smoother and more constructive communication, with the President even offering to have more meetings with students.
On a different note, President Joel was asked multiple times about the future of scholarships. He was adamant about the fact that no student would be asked to reduce their scholarship and that no student would be turned away if unable to absorb the hefty cost of a Yeshiva University education. Nonetheless, the President did clarify that YU aims to add more efficiency to dispensing scholarships in the future. For example, students admitted to the honors programs will no longer receive full scholarships if an 85% scholarship will also attract honors students. He additionally pointed out that some students would be prepared to pay full tuition to a private secular university, yet expect to receive a scholarship from Yeshiva University- which is no longer something YU can provide indiscriminately.
President Joel rightfully called attention to the fact that Yeshiva University offers a singular hybrid of traditional learning together with a quality academic education which is of crucial importance to the centrist Orthodox community and, as such, people should feel privileged to support it rather than trying to find ways out of that opportunity.
In the days leading up to the meetings, rumors abounded as to the number of faculty that would be cut for next year. President Joel explained that the rumors of the University’s plan to cut all contract faculty may have originated from a letter sent to the faculty at the beginning of the year informing them that the University might not hire them for the coming academic year. The President explained that, for legal reasons, the University is required to notify all contract faculty of their termination one year in advance. Thus, all faculty received letters so that the University would have the flexibility to choose which faculty members would remain, and which would not. Of course, he stressed, many faculty members who received those letters will have their contracts renewed.
Perhaps the most contentious issues under discussion were the proposed changes to the YC curriculum. In reply, Provost Botman assured students that there were no plans to close a single department in the school or eliminate any of the offered majors. Students were told that First Year Seminar (not First Year Writing) would be eliminated, to be replaced by more writing-intensive classes in other sections of the Core. Regarding Jewish studies, it was acknowledged that Hebrew classes would transition to becoming either fully online or blended classes. President Joel affirmed his belief that requiring academic Jewish studies plays a crucial role in making YU a singular institution, yet stated that he feels students would benefit from fewer mandatory classes and more flexibility in choosing electives.
Provost Botman specified in the second meeting exactly how many contract faculty members would be cut from each school: three from Stern, four from Syms, and six from Yeshiva College. President Joel explained that the disproportionality reflects the larger number of tenured faculty at YC as compared to Stern and Syms. He added that historically speaking, YC has received a disproportionately larger budget than the other undergraduate schools, and would have to be “rightsized” in the coming years. He suggested that the reason YC is in a state of flux, as it has been asked to cut faculty in addition to implementing two changes in the curriculum for the coming year.
Despite the overall collaborative and encouraging feel of the meetings, some students were left looking for clearer responses to their concerns. This author, for instance, suggested that if members of the administration are not able to take pay cuts, the student body should at least be given an explanation of why not; this idea, however, was passed over without further discussion. Other students felt that while we were reassured that faculty cuts from YC would be quite minimal—six being the number quoted—perhaps this didn’t accurately reflect a rumored three-year plan in which a nearly triple that amount would be let go, a possibility which was not directly addressed.
As was noted by one student in the beginning of the meeting, in previous generations, President Dr. Belkin would not talk about such matters to students on principle. In light of that, students were grateful simply for the opportunity to have their voice heard and simultaneously, to hear about changes in the college straight from the top rather than underground rumors. One student explained afterwards that while the students and administration may have different perspectives, everyone shares the same goal of advancing a Yeshiva University which can offer a stellar education to its students for years to come.