By: Shai Berman  | 

The Search for YU's Next President: Exclusion, Priorities, and (Limited) Progress

On September 10 2015, Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel announced his decision not to seek the renewal of his contract, set to expire in less than 2 years.  President Joel stated that The Chairman of the YU Board of Trustees, Moshael Straus, had been charged to “begin the process of transition and to identify and recruit” his successor.  While many began to wonder who might succeed President Joel, there was another, related, subject on people’s minds: the search process itself. As outlined in The Commentator’s article on September 10th, the last presidential search, which began in 2001, was a protracted endeavor, spanning almost 2 years, often mired in conflict and controversy.  Now, five months after President Joel’s announcement, it appears that the University’s Board of Trustees created for itself a rocky terrain through which it is now navigating in an effort to avoid repeating the events of 2001-2003.  

Part I: A Turbulent Beginning

The story, this time, begins with the search committee.  The first step in any process of hiring a new university president is to form a search committee tasked with creating a job description, setting priorities, identifying and interviewing appropriate candidates (often via the help of a professional search firm), and ultimately, whittling the list of potential candidates to one or two (or more) finalists.  

A little research reveals that, nowadays, search committees for university presidents are typically comprised of a combination of trustees and faculty, and sometimes include students, alumni, and university administrators as well.  (For example, the current search committee for Colgate University’s next president includes eleven current trustees, five faculty members, three current students, and one member of Colgate’s senior leadership team.)  In the case of YU, one might think it appropriate to add Roshei Yeshiva to the above list.  

Thus, a couple of months ago, faculty members across Yeshiva University were shocked to hear that the Board of Trustees had decided that the search committee for YU’s next president would be entirely comprised of Trustees (10 to be exact).  No YU faculty, no RIETS Roshei Yeshiva, no students, and no alumni (aside from those Trustees that happen to be alumni as well); those major stakeholders would be excluded from the committee.  Interestingly, the selection and appointment of the members of this search committee was not (and still has not been) publicized outside of some internal University communication.  

In explaining the Board’s decision to The Commentator, Dr. Selma Botman, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs of Yeshiva University, emphasized that the Trustees are ultimately the ones who “have fiduciary responsibility for the University” and thus must always be those most intimately involved in “hiring and firing presidents.”  She also stressed that the Trustees on the search committee are people who take their responsibilities very seriously and will consider all views.  Moreover, she said, the Board wanted to be able to get “broad input” from all YU constituencies and believed that “hearing from one person” representing a constituency was not the best way to get that input. Dr. Botman also mentioned that the Board’s concern for the confidentiality of the search process led them to limit the size of the committee since “the larger the committee, the more apt it is to breach of confidentiality.”  Mr. Moshael Straus, the Board’s Chairman, denied The Commentator’s request for comment.

Many, however, did not seem to share the Board’s view.  Dr. Shalom Holtz, Associate Professor of Bible at Yeshiva College, said he found the Board’s decision “highly irregular.”  Similarly, Rabbi Yosef Blau, senior Mashgiach at The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, expressed his skepticism for this decision stating that the search committee “should reflect the broader constituencies” that make up Yeshiva University which include “Rabbis, University faculty, students, and administrators, not just board members.”  

People across the University echoed this sentiment of the importance of including representatives from of the various stakeholders of the University.  When reached for comment by The Commentator, individuals affiliated with various University constituencies stressed that, it was not only their constituency that should have representation on the search committee but other constituencies as well.  For example, Student Organization of Yeshiva President Tuvy Miller said he believes that “students and faculty” should be included on the committee, and Yeshiva College Student Association President Joshua Nagel added that both students and faculty can provide “a unique and necessary perspective to the conversation” regarding who should succeed President Joel.  

Similarly, Yeshiva College Professor of Bible and Jewish History Dr. Moshe Bernstein commented that, in addition to University faculty, “Roshei Yeshiva should certainly be represented on the committee” and that it would “not be unreasonable to have student representation” as well. Though she was not certain that students should be on the search committee, Talia Molotsky, President of the Torah Activities Council, said she was nonetheless “surprised” to hear that there were no faculty members on the committee, stating that “it’s important to have people on the committee that interact with students on a daily basis.”  

 This last comment highlights a common theme that seems to run through criticism of the original decision to include only Trustees on the search committee: the important perspectives that would be missing from a search committee of only Trustees.  Dr. Holtz emphasized that “students are the closest thing the University has to ‘the consumer’” and therefore it would be appropriate to include them on the search committee.   With regards to faculty, Dr. Joanne Jacobson, Professor of English and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Yeshiva College remarked that “faculty know the most about what it means to be an educator at this institution,”  and thus “the faculty’s direct input would be invaluable in making a decision about the next president” of YU.   Similarly, Mr. Miller added that “faculty and Roshei Yeshiva have important institutional memory and are going to be the ones at YU to deliver the education and experience in the future” and therefore it would only make sense that they have “a significant role in choosing who should lead the institution.”

With regards to the role that faculty (and representatives from other groups across the University) should play on the search committee, if included, Dr. Jacobson said that they would be involved in “evaluating and interviewing applicants and making recommendations” when anything would be put to a vote, adding that “faculty presence at interviews is crucial in sending the right message” to prospective candidates.   Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, Professor of Physics at Yeshiva College, emphasized that’s “it’s not about power” but rather about giving the search committee “what the faculty has to offer.”   “We recognize we are not the ‘top’”, said Dr. Holtz, but the faculty’s voice should be heard nonetheless.   Though the search committee would schedule meetings to hear input from the various YU constituencies, Dr. Silke Aisenbrey, Associate Professor of Sociology at Yeshiva College, stressed that these  sporadic meetings would “not be sufficient” to produce an optimal search.  The search committee should hear “the voice of the faculty whenever it meets,” said another YU professor.

When news of the Trustee-only search committee reached the faculty, the YU Faculty Council, the highest body in this university’s faculty governance apparatus, reacted quickly.  They made an appeal to the Board of Trustees to reconsider their decision and add faculty to the search committee; the appeal did not meet with success.  The Faculty Council, led by its executive committee comprised of representatives from all Yeshiva University graduate and undergraduate schools, then made a second appeal.  This appeal was accompanied with extensive documentation that attempted to impress upon the Board that faculty inclusion on search committees is a norm among universities in the 21st century and is recommended by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  This not only underscored the fact that faculty inclusion seems to be agreed upon as an important element of presidential search committees, but also that if faculty are not represented on this committee, YU may come to be seen as an outlier among other universities.  

The decision of the Board of Trustees to not include anyone but Trustees on the search committee appears to have caused a further deterioration of the relationship between the University and its faculty  When asked about the symbolic significance of this decision not to include any faculty members on the search committee, one YU professor opined “The higher echelons at this university seem to be marginalizing the faculty yet again, reinforcing the sense that they view the faculty, not as an asset, but as a liability.”  Similarly Mr. Miller stated that “not putting faculty or Rabbis on the search committee likely perpetuates a feeling of distrust between the faculty/Rabbis and the University.”  It should be noted, though, that the Board recently added two faculty members to its Academic Affairs Committee (which is a separate committee of the Board of Trustees which focuses on tenure decisions and other academic matters).  While these two faculty members will not be able to vote on any business that comes before this committee, Dr. Cwilich pointed out that this move indicated that “the administration is starting to listen a little bit more” to faculty.

Concurrently with the Board’s ongoing back-and-forth with the faculty, the search committee selected and hired the professional search firm Korn Ferry to assist with the search.  More specifically, the committee tapped Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former President of George Washington University, the man behind YU’s search for a new provost 2 years ago, and a consultant at Korn Ferry, to serve as chief headhunter.   The search committee, with the assistance of the Office of the Provost, also arranged for Dr. Trachtenberg to meet with and gather input from different groups at Yeshiva University.  These meetings were scheduled for February 2nd-5th.

In the days leading up to these meetings, the Board decided that it was going to “reconsider” its decision to only include Trustees on the search committee.  However, the Board did not successfully communicate this decision to those who would be meeting with Dr. Trachtenberg, an oversight that ensured that Dr. Trachtenberg would have a very eventful visit to YU.

Part II: Dr. Trachtenberg Visits YU

On February 2nd, Dr. Trachtenberg’s arrived on YU’s Wilf Campus for his first day of meetings.  The day began with a meeting with the Executive Committee of the YU Faculty Council.  At this meeting, the members of the Executive Committee relayed to Dr. Trachtenberg the basic qualifications they believed the next president of YU should meet.  These qualifications included being a respected academic and having experience as an administrator in another major university.  Furthermore, they once again explained the importance of faculty inclusion on the search committee and requested and insisted that one graduate and one undergraduate faculty member be added to the committee.  At a certain point in the meeting, the Executive Committee was told that the Board was reconsidering its decision to exclude faculty from the search committee.  Thus, at the meeting’s end the members of the Executive Committee were hopeful that the Board would soon rectify the situation. “I found the meeting very useful” said Dr. Cwilich, Yeshiva College’s representative on the Executive Committee.  

Once the Executive Committee concluded its meeting with Dr. Trachtenberg, a “town hall” meeting, open to any University faculty (or staff) who wished to meet with Dr. Trachtenberg, began.  This proved to be the day’s most tense meeting.  Many of those who attended were disappointed when they realized that Chairman Straus would not be attending.  These faculty members saw Chairman Straus’ absence as an affront to both faculty and proper process and therefore considered the meeting incomplete and ill-planned.  This fact, combined with their already standing indignation for the faculty’s exclusion from the search committee, led some faculty members to walk out in the middle of the meeting. According to one YU professor, before the walk-out, “a majority of the room” seemed irate. The nature of the discussion at this meeting was similar to that of the meeting with the Executive Committee, with the faculty expressing their views regarding their expected qualifications for the next president of YU as well as their displeasure with their exclusion from the search committee.  A common theme that was expressed at these first two meetings was that the next president must be somebody who respects academia and understands the central role academics play at any university, YU included.  

Next on Dr. Trachtenberg’s agenda was a lunch meeting with six students: the four Wilf Campus student council presidents and two head resident advisors.  As one might expect, the meeting began with introductions. Dr. Trachtenberg then proceeded to ask the students what qualities they thought he should look for when searching for potential candidates.  

After around 15-20 minutes of this conversation, the meeting took a somewhat peculiar tum.  Dr. Trachtenberg began to tell the students some of his life stories, stories which were at best marginally related to the topic of YU and its next president.  Only after around one half hour of this rather one-sided dialogue did Dr. Trachtenberg and the students return to the task at hand, with the students using the last 15 minutes of the meeting to make a push to Dr. Trachtenberg to do his best to ensure that students and faculty be added to the search committee.  Dr. Trachtenberg said that he understood the students’ concern and that he would bring it to the Board but that it might be impractical and pointless to add more people to the committee.

After leaving the meeting Mr. Tuvy Miller said he felt “confused and disappointed;” to him, it seemed, the meeting was held only “to check off the box” of getting student input, but that that the input itself was less important.  Mr. Josh Nagel expressed a somewhat more ambivalent view, stating he was “not sure what to make of” the meeting.  According to Mr. Nagel, “Dr. Trachtenberg seemed to be attentively listening to our ideas” but “did not take any notes.”  

 After the student lunch, Dr. Trachtenberg met with University Deans, and then with President Joel’s cabinet.  He then concluded his day with two RIETS meetings, one with Roshei Yeshiva and other RIETS faculty and one with the RIETS board.  The meeting with RIETS faculty took a slightly different course than Dr. Trachtenberg’s meetings with University faculty; rather than engage with Dr. Trachtenberg on the subject of their lack of inclusion on the search committee, the RIETS faculty instead chose to impress upon Dr. Trachtenberg the importance of the “Yeshiva” to YU.  

According to Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, a RIETS Rosh Yeshiva, the discussion centered on how, in their view, the Yeshiva is much “more than a centerpiece” to YU; the Yeshiva, the RIETS faculty told Dr. Trachtenberg, is the “identity of this institution, its raison detre.”  They also spoke about the how the Yeshiva’s role and influence is central, not just to the YU student population, but to an entire Modern Orthodox communal movement.  

When asked why the RIETS faculty chose not to focus on their lack of inclusion on the search committee, Rabbi Blau said that the RIETS faculty believed that that it was much more important to take as much time as they could to stress the importance of the Yeshiva. This was especially important since that Dr. Trachtenberg is a relative outsider to the YU community, though he does consider himself robustly Jewish and deeply committed to the future of Modern Orthodoxy. Although he led the search for the Provost, that position is far more limited in its scope and its relevance to the greater Modern Orthodox Community.  

Rabbi Blau added that, ever since YU officially became a secular institution in the early 1970s and RIETS (and its Board) became a separate, religious legal entity,  there has always been a latent “concern that YU would go the way of Harvard and other colleges,” who though, they began as divinity schools are now hardly recognizable as centers of religion.  Thus, every time the University searches for a new president, who will serve as the leader of both YU and RIETS, the RIETS faculty must protect against that possibility that the University will see its Orthodox Jewish character diminished.

Dr. Trachtenberg’s next day of meetings began at Cardozo where he met with some faculty and staff.  He then made his way to the Beren campus where he met successively  with a group of alumni, a handful of graduate and undergraduate students, some community leaders, and finally with faculty members in a similar “town hall” setting as he had the day before.  In these meetings, Dr. Trachtenberg was joined by Kenneth Kring, another Korn Ferry consultant, and by Chairman Straus, who, on the previous day, had only been able to attend the RIETS meetings.  At his meeting with students on the Beren Campus, it seems Dr. Trachtenberg made a better impression than he did at his student meeting on the Wilf Campus a day earlier.  Ms. Talia Molotsky reported that she felt that “the students were listened to” and was “impressed with the way Dr. Trachtenberg led the discussion and provided feedback to the suggestions he heard.”  

Over the next two days, Dr. Trachtenberg held a couple of more meetings, mainly with donors and trustees.  All in all, Dr. Botman, who attended most of Dr. Trachtenberg’s meetings, said she thought there was a “consensus of opinion” regarding what qualities the next president of YU should possess, although, expectedly, the constituencies varied in the priorities they set.

Part III: Recent Developments

Since these meetings, the search process has begun to further develop along two fronts.  First, Dr. Trachtenberg has begun working with the Board and the search committee to assimilate all the input he gathered in his meetings in order to create a job description for the next president.  This job description will be released to the public once complete. In addition  to the information gathered at the meetings, the search committee plans to release an online survey, open to all YU students, faculty, staff, and advisory boards, in an effort to gather more ideas and have a better sense of different constituencies’ priorities.  

As part of this prioritization process, Dr. Trachtenberg and the search committee are splitting sought-after qualifications into two groups: “imperative and desirable.”  According the Dr. Trachtenberg, among those qualifications deemed “imperative” are that the next president of YU be “Modern Orthodox, and committed to Torah and Jewish scholarship” and possess some sort of “advanced secular learning.”  Additionally, it would be desirable for the next president to “have Semicha, a Ph.D. and experience working in the world of academia.”  In terms of specific candidates, Dr. Trachtenberg reported that the search committee has not yet “considered any names.”  

Secondly, it appears as if some progress has finally been made in terms of the inclusion of other constituencies in the search process in a serious and permanent way.  Just last week the Chairman of the Board met with a faculty representative to discuss the outcome of the Board’s reconsideration of their decision to only include Trustees on the search committee.  Though the exact content of the discussion at meeting was not disclosed, The Commentator has learned from Dr. Trachtenberg that the Board of Trustees is open to the formation of a “parallel” search committee which will be comprised of faculty representatives of all of YU schools.  This committee will provide its advice and opinion to the main search committee, as the search process progresses.  Though faculty will not be added to the original committee, this parallel committee will give faculty a more regular and established role in the search process than one-off meetings, such as those described above, would provide.  This two-tiered system will yield “a better process,” said Dr. Trachtenberg, in part since there will be two “smaller, manageable committees” as opposed to one larger one.  Additionally there will be multiple faculty representatives on the parallel committee as opposed to just having one or two added the original committee.  

Though the main search committee will remain composed of only Trustees, Dr. Trachtenberg emphasized that this two-tiered system is “perfectly appropriate according to AAUP guidelines.”  A little research in to the guidelines posted on the AAUP website proves Dr. Trachtenberg to be correct.  Though it points out that a single committee of trustees and faculty “is the most common standard, [as] such a committee provides an opportunity for shared perspectives and broader understanding,” the website nonetheless stipulates that “there may be a two-tiered committee structure” one of trustees and the other of faculty (and perhaps other constituent groups).  

However, if one looks more closely at the steps outlined by the AAUP and compares them to what has thus far transpired at YU, they will notice that the processes do not entirely match up.   The guidelines stipulate that the search should be “initiated either by separate committees...or by a joint committee.” Additionally, the guidelines list “Institutional Analysis and Leadership Criteria” as one of the main roles of the search committee(s).  This analysis is “needed in order to determine the type of leadership qualities” the university requires and what the institution’s “priorities” are.  In the case of YU, however, the search committee openly began this process of institutional analysis and priority setting when it arranged for Dr. Trachtenberg to visit the various YU campuses in early February, before the formation of the second, faculty search committee was even given the green light.  Moreover, Dr. Trachtenberg and the search committee have already moved on to the next step of assimilating that information and beginning the prioritization process, as detailed above.  Thus, judging the case of YU using the AAUP’s standards, it appears that the search process here was not jointly “initiated” by the two committees.  Rather the first, Trustee search committee alone initiated the search process and now, over two months since the Trustee search committee’s creation, and after sustained protest from the faculty, the Board has decided to allow a second, faculty search committee to be formed.   

All things considered, though, Dr. Shalom Holtz said that he would be content “if the Board is now coming to include faculty in a serious way.”  In general, the faculty interviewed for this article expressed a similar view, indicating that they would be significantly less perturbed by the events of the past months if the search process going forward was, in their assessment, conducted properly.     

The main concern for the faculty, and all YU constituent bodies for that matter, seemed to be that the search be done in a manner which ensures that the best candidate will be selected and that the candidate can expect to enjoy widespread support upon being chosen.  Furthermore, the next president should be able to learn a great deal about the intricate character and makeup of YU before arriving on the job.  To these ends, many of those interviewed believed that the serious and regular inclusion of all constituent groups in the search process to be of paramount importance.  

Interestingly, while the faculty seem to be on their way to obtaining that regular inclusion, students’ standing in relation to the search process remains the same; they have relatively little.  To be sure, students’ opinions may continue to be sampled by the search committee(s), but students will have no assurance that their input will be seriously taken into account.  For students and those who may be skeptical of the weight of the faculty search committee in light of its late arrival to the scene, then, it seems they will have to trust the Trustees to seriously consider all viewpoints and have faith in President Joel’s conviction that “the search will yield a fine successor.”