From The President’s Desk: SOY -- Eyes Wide Open
Imagine the following scenario: You’re brimming with idealism, all these great, optimistic ideas that you’re just waiting to implement. After a solid two hour meeting with other members of student council, you’ve come up with a plan for moving a particular idea forward. So far so good. With their characteristic professionalism, the Office of Student Life staff shepherd the event through the planning process. You’re feeling really great about the progress you’ve made. You sent out your first ystud two weeks before the event and get lots of positive feedback from your fellow students. Later that day, emails from several administrators appear in your inbox. Are the speakers you’re bringing to campus really appropriate for our school? Have you thought about how this event will be perceived by certain elements within the campus community or within the broader community? Why were we not consulted about this ahead of time?
You sit there stunned. But this speaker is the expert in her field and the other speaker is really dynamic. You don’t care about what other people will say. This is your event and you’re going to run it however you see fit. You may even put this in an email (though hopefully you’ve at least shown it to someone else first), to which the administrators respond that they would like to set up a meeting with you, other students council members and the Office of Student Life. At this meeting, you receive a tutorial on institutional and communal politics and are told why this event runs afoul of this rabbinic figure and that community organization. Finally, you see that fighting for your original speakers will not get you anywhere so you go with the speakers suggested by the group of administrators. They have fairly good name recognition but predictably will not say anything remotely controversial and will stay in the middle of the road. You contact your original speakers, apologize profusely and explain to them they you will be unable to host them at Yeshiva University. After reaching out to the new speakers, you redo the publicity, hold the event and are pleasantly surprised that it turns out well, though definitely not to the same degree that you had originally imagined.
This exact situation did not occur in real life, but I’ve experienced many of the elements over the course of the year. And I would crystallize the problem like this: how does a student leader, or any leader for that matter, maintain their idealism in the face of political considerations while at the same time realizing that these considerations often require serious attention? The answer is not clear cut and won’t be the same in every situation. But one of the lessons that I’ve learned this year is the importance of realizing that tension and having to accomplish goals despite it. That isn’t always easy. The need to negotiate between different constituent groups can be exhausting and deflating. Maintaining idealism is not the easiest when you see other people whom you perceive as having abandoned theirs.
What I’ve come to is an understanding that the tension can be creative and that the political maneuvering, when done right, can work in service of the ideals. Sometimes, it might just be a question of branding and presentation, while at others I might choose a speaker who will perform just as well, but with fewer feathers ruffled in the process. When planning an event or initiative, I need to take into account the potential responses from different groups within the university. If I ignore that, I might get away with it, but it will likely backfire in most cases. There may be times when having a particular speaker on campus won’t cause any internal turmoil, but will send a counterproductive message to the wider community. As long as I recognize this from the outset and set my priorities in a clear and deliberate way, I can ensure that the politics don’t muddy the ideals.
I’ve adjusted over the course of the year and spent many long hours thinking about how to balance these two forces. One thing I still wonder about is the burden that this tension places on the school administration. Often, I’ve found that while university administrators are excellent at navigating the political considerations and mentoring student leaders to do the same, they do not always take the idealism of student leaders seriously. There should be more give and take in this dialogue between student leaders and administrators. Unburdened by the daily political calculations, student leaders often have a clearer, more forceful vision for a particular cause.
While admittedly older and more experienced, university administrators could learn just as much from student leaders as we have learned from them. One way to facilitate this dialogue is to expand the offerings for student leader training. In addition to the excellent sessions already run by the Office of Student Life, there should be opportunities for student leaders and administrators to have open group discussions about how to best balance these two important realities. These initial sessions can serve as springboards for further conversations held in smaller groups over the course of the year. This will foster a continued culture of respect and mutual understanding that is so crucial to accomplishing our goals.
I feel lucky to have begun learning some of these lessons while still in school and look forward to thinking about them as I graduate and move into the world of Jewish communal service.