By: Yechiel Schwab  | 

Examining the New School of General Studies and Re-Imagined YU Global

After multiple years of hundred-million-dollar deficits, Yeshiva University recently started “right-sizing” its budget. The biggest moment of this difficult process came in September when Yeshiva completed an agreement transferring financial responsibility of Einstein to Montefiore Medical Center. A myriad of other cuts, small and large, have been instituted in various areas of the University, perhaps most infamously to the academic budget of Yeshiva College and the university’s wrestling team. Despite these cuts, President Joel says much right-sizing still remains to be done, noting that Vice President Josh Joseph is spearheading a team working on efficient streamlining in thirty-four distinct areas, though he assures that the faculty and academic budgets are not on the hit list.

But even after all of these cost saving initiatives, Joel says the budget will still remain unbalanced: “we cannot cut our way to financial sustainability.” To achieve an effectively balanced long-term budget the University needs to increase its revenue-generating operations, partially through more rigorous fundraising but also largely through the University’s new School of General Studies and Continuing Education.

General Studies and Continuing Education
This new school, whose dean will be announced in the coming days, will hopefully generate revenue through career-oriented degree programs, both in classrooms and online. The school caters to professionals looking to shift their career trajectories or even to totally change careers. To this end, the University used market research and Department of Labor Statistics to identify degrees that match these needs. The findings indicated that degrees such as Speech Pathology, Occupational Therapy, and possibly Data Analytics and Health Administration are best suited for this type of program.

Though this school is primarily aimed at generating revenue and most of its programs are profit-oriented, or, as Provost Botman prefers, “entrepreneurial,” small segments of the school, including the new Associate’s Degree in Management, are mission-driven initiatives. Featuring face-to-face courses completely separate from courses in the other colleges, these degrees will be offered both uptown and downtown and will open the Yeshiva University experience to students whose high school performance would not earn them admission to YU’s standard college programs. After completing this two-year program, students will then be able to either use their degrees to enter into professional fields or transfer their two years of credit to a mainstream baccalaureate program at Yeshiva University. Though Provost Botman predicts that the program will serve only a small number of students (around 15 on each campus) during its first year, she remains optimistic about the growth of the new program, noting the success she saw when she created a similar model at a University she worked at previously.

YU Global
The mission of the revenue-focused school of General Studies closely resembles that of YU Global, the University’s online education provider, and, indeed, YU Global will soon be subsumed under this school. Along with this organizational shift, the goals and methods of YU Global will once again change drastically -- as the online arm for the School of General Studies, YU Global will mainly focus on creating new degree programs. In order to accomplish this mission of increasing the quantity of degrees, YU Global is partnering with an external instructional design company.

YU Global’s Past
As reported in The Commentator in December 2014, YU Global originated in 2014 under the leadership of Vice Provost Scott Goldberg. The program whose staff was “a young cohort, some of them recent graduates from YU” quickly identified itself as a “startup” with a constantly-shifting mission and logistical structure. The 2014 vision of YU Global encompassed two main focuses: one was revenue-generating certificate programs, while the other offered cost-saving measures and possible educational benefits through blended learning experiences. Each represented something new and different for the University, and thus elicited fear and hesitation from the student body.

The program’s revenue-focused operation sought to market online certificate programs across the world. “Much of its focus is on finding partners in China, but Dr. Goldberg and the team are also looking at potential opportunities to partner in Poland, India, Israel, and Brazil.” Many questioned the efficacy of this plan, and its possible effect on Yeshiva’s reputation. Will we find a market in these international countries of students searching for a YU education? More generally, many have pointed out that certificate programs, due to their limited educational and professional value, don’t particularly further our mission of being a “quality University.”

More immediately, many students were concerned about YU Global’s venture into online education for Yeshiva College and SYMS courses. In an effort to both increase the efficiency of course offerings and improve the student experience, YU Global has helped professors integrate online components into their courses creating “blended” courses. These courses only meet once a week in a classroom, with the other class session taking place online. Despite generally positive reviews for these courses and YU Global’s promise that these offerings will remain limited and partially face-to-face, some students fear that these courses signal the beginning of the end for their beloved classroom experience. With just one course in the Spring 2016 Yeshiva College scheduled listed as “semi-online,” these fears appear unfounded.

Less than a year into the program, true to its startup form, YU Global changed its leadership and direction. Two senior executives, took charge of the program from Vice Provost Goldberg, and reported directly to Provost Botman. Under these executives, YU Global has moved away from certificate program offerings and focused more intensely on summer school offerings, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), and, recently, on creating high school courses.

Summer school at Yeshiva University this past summer featured ten fully online courses offered through YU Global. Enrollment in summer school nearly doubled this year, including an increase in students from other institutions. These online courses allow students much-needed flexibility -- many students spend their summers outside of New York, but through online courses they can nonetheless enroll in YU’s summer classes. In addition to fully online courses, some of these summer courses featured blended learning experiences, also provided by YU Global. These summer courses are perhaps YU Global’s greatest accomplishments during the 2015 year, with some of the courses receiving awards for excellence in online education.

In addition to creating and offering online courses through YU’s summer school, YU Global established a partnership with Coursera this year, a platform for MOOC’s. Coursera houses almost 1500 online courses and through this platform students around the world can enroll in high quality and extremely inexpensive online courses from many colleges, including Yale, Stanford, Penn, and now Yeshiva University. Working with Dr. Steven Fine, YU Global created a course about the Arch of Titus which they take great pride in and which will be offered on Coursera. Dr. Covitz presented a lecture at a recent Honors luncheon along with Dr. Fine detailing and explaining the process behind this course. In many ways, this course reflects the change of vision for YU Global from 2014 to 2015. In 2014, YU Global focused on creating certificate programs and generating revenue, with limited regard for these programs’ benefits or how they might reflect negatively on the University. In contrast, this course, and much of the work done in 2015, sought to generate profits while spreading both the YU name and YU values through quality courses. Dr. Fine’s course focuses on Judaism and Torah, allowing YU to further spread these values and ideas throughout the world. In line with this course that involves Jewish education, YU Global also received a grant from the Avichai Foundation this year to create online courses in Judaic subjects for high school students.

YU Global’s Future
Over the last month, with the creation of the new school of General Studies, leadership and direction changed again for the “start-up” YU Global. Mirroring the mission of this new school, YU Global’s focus now lies in revenue-generating degree programs. Contrary to YU Global’s original vision of international certificate programs, Provost Botman emphasizes that the new School of General Studies will focus on degree programs. Further, despite YU Global’s title, the targeted market now seems more nationally focused, with some reliance on Yeshiva’s brand-name within the Orthodox Community itself.

Though YU Global will not completely abandon its other programs, its increased attention to revenue-oriented courses represents a significant departure from its emphases in the past few months, both in the structure of its staff and in its programs. In terms of MOOC’s, Provost Botman noted that while they might do another MOOC at some point, the main focus and goal will shift towards non-MOOC, regular online education within degree programs. Similarly, YU Global’s role in blended courses, based on the limited offerings in Spring 2016’s schedule and Provost Botman’s attention to the revenue-generating sections, appears to have taken a backseat role as well.

In terms of staffing, the current model features a team of in-house employees, always available to talk with faculty and students, who coordinate heavily with faculty in creating courses. This ensures that courses easily reflect the wishes and ideas of faculty, an idea which Botman pointed out when distinguishing between two types of online education. The first resembles this model and focuses on faculty content. The second model focuses on the way students learn, specifically the process of online learning, and ensuring that students meet those goals. Though all attempts at online courses obviously involve a mix between the two, the staffing switch to an external instructional design team represents a shift further towards this latter model.

Beyond a shift in the method of learning, the courses also necessitated a change in staff. Provost Botman noted a need to “scale up” and produce more revenue-generating degrees. President Joel mentioned a similar urge, pointing out the important role that YU Global and the school of General Studies play in the YU budget, and how they must contribute significantly and quickly. While the current staff produced one such online degree program in the last year, Provost Botman wishes to increase that number to three. Achieving this goal requires hiring a new external team, even though Botman and Joel both expressed appreciation for the current staff's work. This new external staff will produce degrees quicker, while also focusing greater efforts on revenue programs instead of mission-driven programs.

Various concerns arise with this new shift in tone and focus. Some are curious why YU Global will seemingly abandon effective mission-driven initiatives, like MOOC’s. Others worry about the quality of these new degree programs. Though Botman assures these degrees will maintain their excellence, speeding up production process and increasing the quantity of degrees often coincides with a decrease in quality. Most troubling to many, employees from outside the University will now play a large role in creating Yeshiva University education.

Yet the goal of the School of General Studies, and YU Global specifically, lies in strengthening Yeshiva’s core Torah-U-Madda mission. In a narrow sense, this mission remains the undergraduate dual curriculum education, so if this new model produces greater revenue and helps sustain and strengthen this curriculum, many of these concerns will disappear. Its success in this area remains to be seen, though it may prove vital to our University’s survival.