By: Shai Berman  | 

The Rocky Road to Sustainable Excellence: Details of a Student Campaign and Reflections on a Turbulent Semester

Perhaps it is best to start this story at the same place where it began for many students in Yeshiva College:  Yadin Teitz’s March 3rd Commentator article “Administration Proposes Damaging Cuts to Our College Education.”  While the topics discussed in this article were not necessarily news to me or the other members of my council, the fact that these proposals were considered publishable to those who spoke with Teitz signaled to us that they had substantially progressed from the drawing board stage.  Additionally, the level of faculty dissatisfaction the article portrayed, as well as the indiscriminate nature of the cuts reported, surprised us.

Given this, I, along with my council and other student leaders, began to dig deeper into these proposed changes.  What is the logic behind them? Who suggested them? How will they save money? Is there really going to be a mass exodus of faculty as described by the article?  We uncovered the following:

1)      First Year Seminar: By Purim, the fate of First Year Seminar had basically been sealed.  The move from a two semester writing program to a one semester writing program was suggested by A&M (the restructuring firm YU hired last summer) and the Provost, and was said to save $400,000 a year.  Professor Gillian Steinberg, YC’s outgoing Director of Writing, had begun working on a plan to revise the First Year Writing curriculum and to develop guidelines for writing, in an effort to salvage the writing program she had built.

2)      Academic Jewish Studies:  The faculty was being asked to vote on an administration-driven proposal, which would cut the AJS requirements from 14 to 9 credits (excluding Hebrew) and officially turn Hebrew into a competency based program that would have a significant online portion.  The curious thing about this was that almost every AJS professor (outside the Hebrew department) is tenured or tenure-track, meaning filling their classes with fewer students would not save the university money, since those professors were going to be retained no matter what.  So where was this coming from?  There were those who believed that this was motivated by an admissions concern. Reduce the AJS requirements; remove the barrier to “unlimited” enrollment.

3)      Contract Faculty: Contract faculty are full time professors who are neither tenured nor on tenure track; they do not have, and are not on their way to, a lifetime appointment.  They are working with a contract, usually ranging 1-3 years, which is subject to termination or extension.  When seeking to reduce faculty and save money, contact faculty are easy and lucrative targets. They receive full salaries, and letting them go does not violate any taboos of higher education.  At YC, there were over 20 contract faculty members, and on March 10, faculty concern centered on trying to secure the positions of key contract faculty, necessary to sustain the viability of their departments.  A cut to all contract faculty would mean that YC would lose its writing specialists (hence the change to the writing program), almost the entirety of the Hebrew department, and ten professors spread across other departments, many of whom are absolutely integral to their respective departments.  For example, Professor Daniel Kimmel is a contract professor; aside from being a student favorite, he also constitutes half of the full time faculty in the Sociology department.

Having uncovered this, our concern for the student body was twofold. First, if there was, in fact, going to be a total exodus of contract faculty, this would mean the decimation of many departments, students losing some of their favorite professors, and a significant reduction in the quality of faculty in the university (as the contract faculty would be replaced by adjuncts, who are paid on a per class basis and often need to teach multiple classes at multiple universities to make a living, greatly diminishing their time available for research and attention to students).

Second, while the curricular changes on the table may not have, on their own, led to student backlash, the way in which they were being carried out made us believe that students needed to speak out.  On the whole, we believed that Yeshiva College students appreciate their faculty and Dean and trust them with their education.  Of course, this does not mean that students do not disagree with aspects of the academic experience and expect (rightly so, I believe) the faculty to give weight to their concerns. In the end, however, if changes are going to be made to our education, students, we believed, would like it to be a result of calculated deliberation amongst that faculty--those who are charged with delivering that education.  The fact that both the faculty and student leaders with a close view of the situation felt that these changes were being forced on the faculty by financial consultants in an effort to achieve a certain version of “sustainable excellence” was worrisome.

Once this picture started to form, we, The Yeshiva College Student Association (YCSA), decided that we needed to act.  To be bystanders in all of this would be to neglect our duty as the elected representatives of the Yeshiva College student body and their academic interests.  We decided to call an open meeting where we would present the current goings on, as we saw them, to any interested member of the YC student body.  In preparation for this meeting, we, and a handful of other students, drafted a Declaration of Principles, which we believed effectively encapsulated what we saw as the fundamental issues at play.  We highlighted the importance of academic standards, of communicating to students as much information as possible, and of ensuring the faculty have, and feel like they have, the central role in shaping the YC education.

We avoided attempting to propose our own plan for “sustainability,” as we did not have the gall to claim that we knew enough about the University’s finances to make such suggestions, and because we felt that our duty as students was first and foremost to stand up for our education.  Thus, the Declaration did not oppose any specific changes, but rather focused on the process in which changes were being carried out and on more general expectations regarding matters that are essential to a YC education.  Getting as many students behind this declaration, which would be subject to emendation based on the reactions we would receive at the meeting, would send a loud, clear, and unified message to the administration as to what students demanded and felt they deserved  in this process.  While this was all happening, President Joel decided to schedule two open meetings with students (perhaps in response to a letter writing campaign initiated by a different group of students).  This gave our student meeting another purpose, to help prepare students for these meetings with President Joel, and make sure they have all available information so they could carefully form their opinions and prepare questions for the President.

On Tuesday, March 10,th at 5:45, we held our open meeting. Over 80 students chose to take an hour out of their busy day to hear about the future of their education, and many more told me that they felt badly that they could not attend.  This confirmed that a significant portion of the YC student body is serious about their education.  At the meeting, we reported what we heard (which I delineated above) and took comments from the attendees.  At the end of the meeting, we presented the Declaration we prepared and listened to students’ reactions.  Then I had to make a judgment call.  Were the people in the room supportive of the Declaration, or not?  Did we do an adequate job of highlighting the concerns most important to the student body (or at least to those in the room)? I had the sense that we did, and, therefore, decided to circulate the declaration, asking each person there to sign it (if they agreed with it).  Around 50 of the 70 remaining students in the room signed the Declaration.

The next day, Wednesday, we continued collecting signatures for the Declaration, which was partially amended based on the feedback at the meeting, and sent copies of it to the faculty, Provost, and President.  In the end, we collected over 125 signatures for the Declaration and presented them to the President.  We also used the Declaration as the basis for developing talking points for students to use, if they wished, at the President’s two open meetings on Thursday, March 12.

So what happened?  By Monday, March 16th, we learned of the following developments:

1)      First Year Seminar: Professor Gillian Steinberg had been able to secure what she needed to implement the new writing program, which involved only one semester of writing, supplemented by writing intensive courses.  81% of the faculty voted in favor of the program, and thus it was accepted, which meant the FYSM would no longer be a required course for all students.

2)      Academic Jewish Studies:  The administration decided to give the AJS faculty some time to deliberate changes to the AJS curriculum, and thus there was no immediate vote regarding this issue.  The AJS faculty is currently engaged in these internal discussions regarding the requirements.

3)      Contract Faculty:  At the open meetings on Thursday, March 12, President Joel announced that six contract faculty members would not be retained.  This number, while very unfortunate, was lower than some were expecting.

Given what we were hearing at the beginning of the week of March 9, what we beheld at the beginning of the week of March 16th was far from our worst nightmare. The hammer did not come down on AJS.  FYSM was replaced with a curriculum that, in our view, will still deliver good writing instruction and will not be significantly more/less to the liking of the student body than the old one.  Yes, losing even one full time faculty member is painful, but those departments that would have been devastated by a cut to all contract faculty seemed to receive a reprieve.  Finally, the President’s open meetings certainly fostered an air of increased transparency on campus.  Though the relationship between the administration and faculty was in a state of disrepair (that weekend brought us the faculty’s publication of their 80% no confidence vote in President Joel, as well as the YU Board’s public statement in support of the President), as of March 16th, the immediate changes to the college did not seem so grave, and thus, feeling cautiously optimistic, we decided to not take any further actions in relation to the campaign we had been spearheading.  While we most certainly had opinions regarding the faculty-administration debacle and their competing narratives, we felt that it would be inappropriate for us to publicly step foot further into that arena.

In the time since the student campaign came to a close, many people have asked me:  “Did the student campaign accomplish anything?  Did it have any impact?”  I cannot genuinely answer these questions, as it is impossible for me to ascertain what thoughts were going through the minds of the administration both before and during the campaign. What I can assert, however, is that changes occurred during the week of March 9th.  Some examples: On March 9th, the plan was for the faculty to be told to vote by the end of the week on an administration-driven change to the academic Jewish studies requirements.  That vote never happened.  On March 9th, the future of Yeshiva College’s writing program was uncertain.  By the end of the week, Dr. Steinberg was able to secure what she needed from the administration to enable her to put forth her plan to the faculty for a vote.  On March 9th, those most immediately involved with Yeshiva College were trying to secure the positions of key contract professors; on March 12th, the President announced that only a handful were being let go.  While I do not know if these changes had anything do with the student campaign or were purely a result of other factors and ongoing conversations, what I do know is that the state of affairs at Yeshiva College on March 16th was most certainly different than the plan was on March 9th.

Before moving to more general thoughts on the events of this semester, I would be remiss not to address a major development that occurred since the end of the student campaign.  On March 18, the University announced that, starting July 1, it will begin merging the faculties of Stern College and Yeshiva College into a single faculty, with Dr. Karen Bacon serving as its Dean. What the exact implications of this merger will be remain to be seen (though it will almost definitely mean an increase in online and blended learning), but there is definitely much good that could come from it.  However, in order to avoid the pitfalls similar to those that have occurred in the past few months, it is essential that the process through which the merger is carried out be one that both gives significant weight, and clearly demonstrates that significant weight is being given, to the faculty’s opinions when making important decisions.  Only time will tell what will come of this unification, though Dean Bacon’s decades of decanal experience and the support she enjoys among the Stern faculty suggests that we are in good hands.  Still, at the same time, I am very saddened to see Dr. Barry Eichler conclude his service as Dean. In working closely with him over the course of the year, I have been continually and increasingly impressed by his efforts and absolute dedication to maintaining and improving the Yeshiva College academic experience.

In general, my greatest frustration in the past few months has been my (and I believe many other students’) growing disillusionment with the nature of certain statements made by the administration.  I do not mean to suggest that the administration has some kind of subversive agenda that is inimical to students and academic achievement.  I wholeheartedly believe the Provost when she says that students are her top priority.  What I am frustrated with, rather, is the administration’s tendency, which comes across as condescending, to attempt to sugar coat the changes that will be coming to academics at this university.

“Sustainable excellence,” it seems, has become synonymous with “excellence.” Words like “right-sizing” seem to be intended to be contrasted with “down-sizing.”  Staff and faculty are no longer let go but are rather “separated” (a word that does not even make it into Google’s eight-word-long list of synonyms for “fired”).  According to the President and Rabbi Josh Joseph, around six million dollars will be cut directly from undergraduate academics in the next three years, with an equal amount being cut from academic services.  This amount represents a significant percentage of the undergraduate academic budget.  This being the case, I cannot comprehend how the administration can constantly insist that there will be no significant recognizable change to our education. To use the metaphor that has been conveyed to the faculty: if you thought you had enough money for a Porsche and then found out that you really have 20% less, you cannot buy a Porsche. You will have to put your resources towards something like a Toyota, a good car, but certainly not what you were expecting or hoping for before.

Members of the student body range in age from approximately 18-23 years; treat us and address us like the adults we are.  We all understand that the University needs to cut 50 million dollars, and I think we can even accept that a portion of that has to come out of academics, but do not expect us to believe that this process will not take a recognizable toll, small as it may be, on the nature of our education.  Perhaps students would be more receptive to a press release that acknowledged that the coming changes will make YC academic experience less robust, but in a way that ensures it remains strong.

So what does the future hold for Yeshiva College?  Though these are turbulent times at the University, I am fairly confident that, even after we have finished trudging down the path to “sustainable excellence,” Yeshiva College will continue to deliver a quality education, albeit not as robust as once hoped and planned for.  To put things in some perspective, under the tutelage of former Provost Lowengrub, and with the support and investment of President Joel, Yeshiva College has seen vast improvements since the turn of the century.   Considering the high caliber of our tenured faculty, students in YC will continue to learn a lot and learn it well as they prepare themselves for a fulfilling life and productive career.  Moreover, not only will a strong faculty ensure a strong education, but a strong and dedicated student body will only serve to strengthen the academic experience at YU.

When reflecting above on the student campaign, there was one question that I did not address: “was it all worth it?”  My answer to this question is a resounding yes. Even if the campaign was not responsible for any of the changes that occurred between March 9th and March 16th, the fact that students came out in high numbers to express their opinions about the future of the YC academic experience demonstrated to me, and many others, that students in this university feel passionately about and are truly invested in their education.  With these ingredients, a strong faculty and a strong student body, the product Yeshiva College offers will continue to be a strong education.

Shai Berman is the President of the Yeshiva College Student Association.