By: Doron Levine  | 

Beloved English Professor Leaves YU After 15 Years

At this pivotal juncture in YU’s history, the students are sadly bidding farewell to one of their most beloved professors. Dr. Gillian Steinberg, Yeshiva College professor of English, Director of First Year Writing, and Coordinator of First Year Seminars, has announced that Spring 2015 will be her final semester at YU.

Dr. Steinberg studied English literature at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received her PhD in English literature from University of Delaware in August 2000. Soon after, she joined YU’s faculty as a full-time lecturer in English and has been a popular English professor ever since, being named YC’s 2011-2012 Lillian and William Silber Professor of the Year. In the past few years, she has published two books: the first discusses Philip Larkin and the supposedly misanthropic themes in his poetry, while the second, published in 2013, is an introduction to the poetry of Thomas Hardy.

In Fall 2015, Dr. Steinberg will begin teaching English at SAR High School in Riverdale, teaching 12th grade AP English among other courses. Though high school English courses are different than college courses—they are generally yearlong and they aim to integrate literature and writing as opposed to college courses which tend to be theme-based or topical—Dr. Steinberg intends to utilize the techniques and activities that she has honed over her fifteen years at YU and channel them in her new position.

Dr. Steinberg currently serves as YU’s Director of Undergraduate Summer School and her impending departure will not decrease her commitment to that program. She expects this summer to be one of YU’s most successful ever, and she will not step down from her post until summer school winds down. Dr. Steinberg’s current classes are also continuing as planned, with her steadfast commitment to her teaching as evident to her students as it ever was.

Knowing that the current semester is her last, Dr. Steinberg been taking strides to ensure that the academic programs she runs will continue to flourish in her absence. Professor Liesl Schwabe will succeed Dr. Steinberg as the Writing Program Director and the two have been speaking regularly to ensure that Professor Schwabe’s job description is clear and that she transitions smoothly into the position with all the requisite information and guidance. Dr. Steinberg expressed unrestrained confidence in Professor Schwabe’s capabilities: “This is a really great move for the program; it couldn’t possibly be in better hands.”

When asked about her motivations for leaving YU after so many years, Dr. Steinberg was reticent. She has been relatively outspoken about YU’s recent financial decisions, and at this point, she said, “it’s probably best…to focus on the future and have a positive attitude about the changes YU is making to try to become more sustainable.”

But she did note that morale is low among faculty and she explained that decisions to cut core classes and other aspects of the curriculum were made without the full inclusion of the faculty. She granted that “we’re all realists and understand that sometimes programs must change and should be dictated, at least in part, by budgetary considerations.” But while some administrators claim that faculty was appropriately included in academic decisions, Dr. Steinberg begs to differ. “As a faculty member,” she said, “I dispute that narrative: the decisions of the faculty to cut programs were made under duress.” Despite her frustrations, though, Dr. Steinberg remains optimistic. “I’m hopeful,” she said, “for my colleagues’ and students’ sake that things will improve significantly in the coming years.”

Budgetary adjustments are necessary to ensure a brighter future, but one proposed change is particularly concerning to Dr. Steinberg. President Joel announced at the semester’s Town Hall Meeting that the university plans to let go of a number of full-time faculty members and to replace them with adjunct instructors. These adjuncts are paid based on the number of classes they teach; an adjunct who teaches six classes per year makes approximately $21,600 with no benefits, almost qualifying him or her for food stamps.

Though many universities rely on cheap adjunct faculty, Dr. Steinberg feels that YU “has a special ethical responsibility as a Jewish institution” to compensate employees appropriately. Teachers are on the academic front lines, interacting with students daily and directly determining the quality of their education; however, many administrators collect substantial six-figure salaries while adjuncts hover upon the poverty line.

So strong is Dr. Steinberg’s disapproval of this wage disparity that she refused to hire adjunct faculty to staff the writing program. She explained that this was one of the primary reasons that the program was cut. Administrators might be comfortable with the university thriving off of cheap labor, but Dr. Steinberg refused to condone such exploitation. She said, “I personally don’t want to be part of a system that perpetuates those levels of inequity and unethical labor practices.”

Some have construed Dr. Steinberg’s recent criticism of YU as cynical disparagement of an institution she has no qualms about abandoning. But, she insisted, “nothing could be further from the truth.” In fact, she feels a deep connection and sense of gratitude towards YU.

When she joined the YU faculty fifteen years ago, Dr. Steinberg was not religiously observant. She was “knowledgeable about and committed to Judaism,” but she “didn’t keep Shabbos” and “followed a sort-of half-hearted version of kashruth.”

But the YU community inspired her. She said, “Seeing my students—so committed, knowledgeable, ethical, thoughtful—prompted me to learn more.” Rabbi Blau paired her with her first chavruta, and she and her husband’s “whole lives changed for the better.” She has since moved to an Orthodox community, her kids are now in a Jewish day school, and her family has been keeping Shabbat for thirteen years. “Whatever I have managed to give to this institution over the years,” said Dr. Steinberg, “it has undoubtedly given me much more.”

Thus her recent criticism, far from vitriolic or derisive, is motivated by “a profound desire to see the institution set on a healthier path.” She is driven by her “love for this institution” and her “belief in its centrality to the future of Modern Orthodoxy.”

Professor Steinberg’s colleagues will surely miss her. Professor Joanne Jacobson, Co-Chair of the YC English Department, called Dr. Steinberg “a wonderful colleague: talented and generous, and in every way a contributor to the life of the English Department and the College. It’s still difficult,” she said, “for me to imagine the YC English Department without her, but I wish her every happiness at her new job.”

When asked what she will miss most about YU, Dr. Steinberg expressed deep appreciation for her students and colleagues. Her words are powerful: “I will miss my students so, so much. They have inspired and motivated me every day, and I am so grateful to have been part of their lives and had them as part of mine. And, of course, I will miss so many of my amazing colleagues: Dean Barry Eichler, who is a paragon of virtue and a role model for me in myriad ways; Dr. Aaron Koller, who models academic rigor and ethical sensibility in equal measure; Dr. Joanne Jacobson, who has taught me so much about grace under pressure; the rest of the English department, all wise and devoted and caring; Drs. Chaviva Levin and Rachel Mesch and Silke Aisenbrey and Moshe Bernstein and Ari Mermelstein, who have been friends and sounding boards and inspirations; Syms Deans Moses Pava and Michael Strauss, who have been wonderful partners in student education; and the hundreds of other people I have worked with across the university in so many different capacities.” She also expressed heartfelt gratitude towards “the many writing lecturers who have sustained the program over the years and worked very, very hard for little recognition and less money.”

After her departure from YU, Dr. Steinberg hopes to keep in touch with her colleagues and students, and to stay “updated on their many successes and their post-YU journeys.” As the YU community bids Dr. Steinberg farewell, we similarly wish her continued success, both professional and personal, in her post-YU journey.