By: Etai Shuchatowitz  | 

Proposed Changes at YU Lack Focus on Education, Professors

As Yeshiva University’s financial difficulties continue, recently announced plans to cut costs on campus have left all adjunct, contract and non-tenure track faculty in fear for their jobs. These changes, which include cutting courses, faculty, and even departments, singularly focus on the financial strains on the University, paying little attention to how its effects on the university’s academic standing. According to one source, “Since such lines are not evenly distributed across departments, the cuts [are] happening selectively and with no clear curricular objectives or planning.”

Though illuminating articles from newly hired Provost Selma Botman’s previous university reveal some of the details at her previous job,  her history and role in the restructuring of YU has not yet been clarified, and this source was more than happy to fill in details.

According to the Yeshiva University website, “As the president of the University of Southern Maine, [Botman] inspired new academic programs, raised scholarship dollars for students who would have otherwise been unable to attend the university, and promoted technology assisted instruction.” However, it does not mention she left her position at USM when over half the faculty gave her a vote of no-confidence. The vote did not receive the requisite ⅔ majority to pass, but indicated strained faculty sentiments, as evidenced by a survey conducted of USM faculty union members, which found 77 percent of the respondents disagreed with her management of the university. According to the Portland Press Herald, during her time at USM, “four [members] of Botman’s administrative staff received raises of between 18 percent and 22 percent, while faculty salaries had been frozen for three years.” Similarly, the same article reported that “the USM faculty released a list of grievances they had with Botman.”

There are some very serious administrative concerns running throughout the faculty, and there seems to be very little trust of administrators due to the “lack of transparency.” In a candid interview with The Commentator, one very distressed professor who wished to remain anonymous remarked on how little anybody was saying, and how, “emails just include euphemisms like ‘increase student access to tenured faculty.’ It doesn’t take a genius to know that means firing  as many non-tenured faculty as possible."

The professor continued, “The changes YU will see in the next few years will completely change the entire structure of YU, particularly the 'Yeshiva' aspect and Jewish part of the curriculum.” Current proposals include eliminating the Hebrew department entirely and replacing it with online placement exams, cutting the time allotted to Mazer Yeshiva Program shiurim, cutting the Judaic Studies department heavily, conflating Core courses with major requirements and slashing the English and writing departments significantly. As Liesl Schwab, a Lecturer in Writing, First Year Writing, and First Year Seminar explained, “We have developed a really strong, dynamic, and engaging writing program that will now be lost, more or less in its entirety.”

On the whole the mentality seems to be, in the words of one anonymous professor, “decrease Judaics and increase enrollment.” One professor noted that, “Yeshiva University has one particularly amazing department: Jewish Studies, and they’re trying to slash it down dramatically.” According to one source, the Chairman of the Board, Dr. Henry Kressel has stated that the University is a business and that the number one priority must be to maintain the business.

This plan has obviously produced many changes amongst each individual department. For instance, the chemistry and biology departments seem to be fairly stable and any financial concerns are having little to no impact on class offerings or curricula. On the other hand, humanities departments with already miniscule rosters like philosophy, sociology, or political science could face terrible consequences.

In a lengthy letter that political science department chair Dr. Ruth Bevan wrote to The Commentator, she expressed how hard they have worked to make the political science department as successful as it currently is. She said, “I have written to the Provost and to the Dean expressing not only my confidence in our Political Science faculty, full time and adjunct, but urging stability in the Department.  I argued that it is not easy to find competent faculty beloved by students who work well as a team under very adverse conditions. We have found that faculty team. None of my colleagues in the Department are tenured or tenure track. If the present threats to fire adjuncts and contract faculty are put into effect, will Political Science be reduced to [its inferior] level of Spring 2012?  If so, it seems unlikely that it will be rebuilt – yet again.”

The most striking change though seems to not be educational but to the low levels of morale that pervade throughout departments. Even while the science departments will remain fairly intact, Barry Potvin, a professor of biology said, “It's my impression that morale has been significantly damaged.” One anonymous professor recounted a story in which two tenured professors were having a conversation in an office when Provost Botman entered unannounced and proceeded to sit in the office during the duration of the meeting. There have been accounts by faculty of “feeling intimidated,” just like at USM, and one professor said that it feels “like a noose around our necks.”

The general sentiment going around is that of uncertainty. When The Commentator asked faculty for their thoughts, the most common response was that they’d relate what they could, but unfortunately because of too much uncertainty, there isn’t much to tell.

The financial troubles affect many different departments in many different areas. People are both being fired and leaving of their own volition. However, hope remains the only way to proceed. As Jiangfeng Jiang, professor of chemistry said, “ I personally hope our university can solve all these financial problems asap so that I can concentrate on teaching and research.” Ultimately, that’s what most people believe a university is for.