By: Avi Strauss  | 

YC Students, Council Gather to Organize Response

With rumors and reports swirling about how financial instability is rocking Yeshiva College’s Core curriculum, student leaders and organizers have been working diligently to rally the student body to have their voice heard. Rumors and hearsay have created an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety amongst the student body, with many wondering what Yeshiva College will look like in the coming years. In efforts to quell some of the unrest and encourage student involvement during these formative and important times, student groups have started to take more concrete action.

The most significant action taken thus far has been by the Yeshiva College Student Association (YCSA), whose leaders organized an unprecedented forum to inform and attempt to unify the student body. A Tuesday night meeting drew over seventy concerned students to hear from YCSA leaders, learn about some changes that are actually being proposed, offer their thoughts and join together for a united student voice.

As YCSA President Shai Berman put it, the meeting was organized “to effectively inform students as to the situation in which Yeshiva College currently finds itself.  We thought it was important to address the proposed cuts as well as the deep-seated issues which underlie them. Much of the angst and concern revolves around the fact that the recommended changes for the YC Core originate strictly from the financial concerns of the administration and YU’s financial consulting firm A&M and are not taking academics into account.” Of course, it must be noted that the consulting firm, whose suggestions and advice are based strictly on numbers, often propose cuts that are intentionally blind to the academic ramifications.

The meeting began with Berman detailing the cuts rumored to be most likely. He explained that it appears the bulk of the cuts will target contract faculty - those who are not tenured and tenure-track faculty. More specifically, this means ending First Year Seminar, staffed mostly by contract faculty, and combining it with First Year Writing. Similarly, contract faculty cuts would result in the complete gutting of the Hebrew department, as well as the removal of professors that are integral to the functioning and success of the Philosophy, Political Science and Spanish departments.

Berman explained that he “unearthed [that] cuts weren’t being initiated by faculty or the Dean; they were coming from proposals and decisions pushed through by A&M, [the] President’s office and [the] Provost’s office.” This only solidified the fear that those making the cuts were not prioritizing education when considering the University’s future.

Student Organization of Yeshiva President Jacob Bernstein then spoke specifically about the rumored downsizing of the academic Jewish Studies departments, which represent a hallmark of YU education and what he called “an important bridge between two parts of YU.” He explained that academic Jewish Studies speak to what YU is all about, connecting our Judaic intellectual pursuits with our secular ones. “It is important everyone walks out of this university with an experience in [academic] Jewish studies,” he said, while detailing the crucial value of studying Judaism outside of seder and shiur and approaching it from new angles, which truly exemplifies Torah U’Madda. He concluded by fervently asserting that “it would be a failure on the part of this institution for students to leave without a proper understanding of Jewish History, a failure if they couldn’t understand and speak the Hebrew language and a failure if they didn’t experience Jewish studies from the academic perspective.”

The reduced morale of the faculty was also addressed. Berman, based on discussions with professors, described plummeting attitudes and spirits amongst YC professors, which he feared would translate to courses being harmed both individually and on a large scale. He recounted how professors have been told “your hiring was a costly mistake” and have been directed to accept job offers elsewhere. This would cause YC to lose some of its best and brightest young professors which can breed a talent-drain as qualified professors would be replaced with overworked, less-qualified, adjuncts.

With faculty less excited to work on at YU, some may even opt to leave altogether. Berman cited the case of Dr. Gillian Steinberg, a longtime professor well-liked by the student body and faculty alike, making the abrupt decision to leave YU given the financial and academic turmoil. Dr. Steinberg carefully designed and crafted the First Year Writing program, one which all YC and Syms students must participate. With unilateral changes being made by those who appear unconcerned about the academic reputation of the University, Steinberg simply couldn’t see herself being here any longer.

Another concern outlined by Berman was the value of a YU degree. Should the administration’s priorities or budgetary constraints render the curriculum inadequate or deficient, the reputation of the university could suffer along with the value of its diplomas. Consequently, this could reduce recruitment efforts and be a detriment to the makeup of the student body and the campus environment as a whole.

While Berman also seemed to indicate there was a semblance of callousness directed at faculty and student concerns, he shied away from directly accusing the administration of completely neglecting academic concerns. However, he believed that a unified front by the students on behalf of maintaining academic standards could influence the final curricular and budgetary decisions.

After the crowd was briefed on the proposals and the general concerns of faculty and student leaders, Berman opened up the forum for questions and comments. Some students asked if the cuts will ever be reversed or if requirements would be replaced, but there was too much uncertainty for student leaders to be able to confidently answer either of those questions. Others openly expressed concerns over the potential loss of opportunities for research and increased class sizes, fearing both would harm student-professor relationships and intellectual growth.

However, there did seem to be some disagreement within the student body itself. One student openly wondered if it was reasonable for the students to comment on financial concerns before having a better understanding of the behind-the-scenes work being done by the administration and suggested meetings with Senior Vice President Josh Joseph or Vice President for Legal Affairs Avi Lauer to enhance transparency. Another suggested that not all the students were in agreement about the current Core requirements and that some would be open to changes and reduced requirements to enable them to choose more of their classes.

Berman, however, rejected the notion that fewer requirements would enhance YC education, countering that “we stand for synthesis; we stand for shleimut.” He continued by reiterating the ideas expressed earlier in the meeting that academic Jewish Studies and Core classes were vital to expanding and enlightening students to the expanse of intellectual ideas meant to be pursued in any college and specifically here at YU.

The council then shifted the focus of the forum to discuss a more formalized presentation of the student body’s perspective on changes and developments to the academics in YC. Berman presented a draft of a document which officially laid out the student body’s fundamental beliefs when it comes to the curriculum and academics. Dubbed the “Statement of Principles,” the document presents five main points the student body hopes will be taken into account and addressed during these turbulent times.

Firstly, the document stresses the importance of high academic standards for an academic institution and highlights the need to maintain the character of Yeshiva College. Secondly, it urges all proposals and recommendations to be discussed with faculty and those with the most involvement in the actual education process on campus and without unilateral decisions. The document continues by emphasizing the need to maintain high standards in Judaic Studies as well, citing the nature of Yeshiva University’s mission and the unique character of the campus. Another point mentioned is the need for transparency and proper communication when changes are made on campus. Lastly, the document concludes declaring the ultimate concern of the University should be its students. Quoting directly from Yeshiva University’s mission statement, the document notes the general goal to “ennoble students in purpose…enable them in capacity…[and] make possible achievement of nobility” implores the administration to always prioritize the needs of the students above all else.

Elsewhere on campus, students organized a separate letter writing campaign as a grassroots way to encourage as many students as possible to express their feelings on potential changes to the university. An organizer of the campaign, who wished to remain anonymous, stated: “The campaign is at least intended to ensure that open and frank discussion takes place between the administration, the faculty, and the students, opening the door for significant changes to current proposals.” He also added that he believes “the campaign has already succeeded in making it clear to the administration that students expect a voice in the college's proceedings and for their interests to be taken into account.”

Going forward, students are hoping for more transparency and consideration for budget cut effects both in the short and long-term. Student leaders are also hoping that the recent student rallying and petitioning is only the start of something bigger. When asked about organizing the student body going forward, YCSA Vice President Ben Kohane said, “This is definitely just the start of what I hope will be an invigorated student body who cares about their quality of education, having an influential hand in the future of our university.” Indeed, this new unified front will hopefully ensure the students end up with a say in the restructuring process during these times of change.