By: Tzvi Levitin  | 

From the President’s Desk: YCSA -- On Politics and Partnership

Between hours spent on buses to the Bronx and what felt like eons glued to a microscope counting zebrafish vertebrae, I spent an inordinate amount of time this summer listening to the soundtrack of Broadway’s hit musical Hamilton. Written by and, until recently, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical tells the story of the titular founding father struggling to rise above his station and earn his own spot in the history books alongside our fledgling nation.

The American Revolution presented a young Hamilton with the perfect opportunity to distinguish himself. Seizing that opportunity, Hamilton managed to elevate himself far above his station as an immigrant orphan, morphing from a “son of a whore and Scotsman” into a decorated war veteran, Washington’s right hand man, and perhaps the most influential voice in the public forums of the time. However history has judged Hamilton’s dubious motivations, his list of accomplishments would impress even the most zealous overachiever: writer of most of the Federalist Papers, Secretary of the Treasury, founder of the New York Post, creator of the Coast guard, the list goes on and on.

How did Hamilton do it? How did a bastard from the Caribbean beg his way to the mainland and fight his way onto our ten-dollar bill? Using a certain degree of creative license (as fans of Hercules Mulligan will tell you), Miranda provides the answer through 143 enrapturing minutes of hip-hop and rap. The play extensively explores Hamilton’s tense relationship with his (SPOILER ALERT FROM 1804) eventual murderer, Aaron Burr, emphasizing the contrast between Hamilton’s staunch resolve and Burr’s timid indecision. While Hamilton rises through the ranks with bold strokes and political risks both during and after the Revolution, Burr waits patiently for the dust to settle before taking any political stances. According to Miranda’s narrative, Hamilton’s strong conviction and outspoken nature in a time and place of political turmoil contributed to his success as a founding father.

But while developing and sharing ideas rather than indecisively waiting on the sidelines certainly contributes to success (see Doron Levine’s brilliant editorial for more on that front), candor and genius alone are not sufficient for success.

Hamilton could never have succeeded in the war without the tactical support of his friend Marquis de Lafayette. The Federalist Papers would not have been written without the partnership of James Madison and John Jay. Yet Hamilton, both historically and through Miranda’s eyes, refused to recognize the value of his partnerships, instead holding on to his convictions so tightly that he ended up alienating those around him. In the end, Hamilton’s steamrolling personality and desire for personal glory led to his demise. He fell out of grace and ultimately was killed in a duel by his incensed rival Aaron Burr.

While deadly duels over political beliefs are somewhat uncommon these days, Hamilton’s mistakes can teach us certain lessons about ambition and collaboration. Knowing your convictions and your strengths is the first step, but knowing how to harmonize them with the convictions and strengths of others is how the real work gets done.

In my three years as a student here, I’ve learned that YU is exceptionally dedicated to creating partnerships between the students and those who can help them enhance their college experience. The Office of Student Life, for example, led on our campus by Josh Weisberg and Linda Stone, does an excellent job of empowering student leaders who in turn empower the student body. Whether it’s the Israel Club turning Rubin Lobby into a lunchtime dance party or Sharsheret raising money for breast cancer research with the supreme combination of frosting and rivalry, student life is shaped almost entirely by the joint efforts of our tireless faculty and determined students.

The Office of Housing and Residence Life exhibits a similar dedication to student partnerships. Jonathan Schwab, associate director of the office, works nonstop with his team of resident advisors to constantly improve the housing experience. When you walk by his office you regularly find an RA bouncing ideas off of him or a student seeking his counsel. The office radiates a commitment to improvement unparalleled by any other department in the institution.

The final and perhaps most valuable partnership dynamic I’ve seen at YU occurs in the offices of the deans. Deans Bacon, Jacobson, and Sugarman are always open to discussing course offering and academic policies with students. Last year, Dean Jacobson held meetings open to all students to discuss changes to the core curriculum and the future of the Natural World requirement, and those discussions led to the development of science and non-science sections of the requirement. Deans Bacon and Sugarman brought in students to discuss cheating issues on campus, and committed themselves to making sure students were on equal footing with their peers.

Of course, partnerships can sometimes be hard to come by in large institutions where people have diverse goals and priorities, and YU is no exception. In the second act of Hamilton, a song titled “The Room Where it Happens” describes the game of political chess Hamilton engaged in against Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to secure congressional votes for his revolutionary financial plan. They manipulated each other ruthlessly, playing to their opponents’ weaknesses instead of to their strengths to service their own ambitions. Sometimes, differences in ideology become insurmountable, and people must resort to “politicking” and closed-door negotiations where personal agendas can sometimes trump institutional goals. Which isn’t to say that the decisions made behind closed doors with dubious political tactics aren’t the right decisions; in fact, oftentimes these decisions prove invaluable to the institution. They do, however, disenfranchise those who were blocked out and denied agency. They leave people wondering what has been redacted from the narrative and what motivations fueled the decision-making process.

So I encourage you to ask yourself: What am I in the context of Yeshiva University? Am I a constituent? A consumer? A tiny piece of the puzzle? Or am I a stakeholder? A driving force? A partner? Be a go-getter, but remember that listening to and working with others will make your success much more attainable. I can assure you, when it comes to student life and the academic experience at YU, there is no “room where it happens;” your student leaders, your professors, your deans - all of them want to work with you to improve this place, and that’s not an outlook I’ve seen on any other college campus. Take a page from Hamilton’s book: you don’t have to be a president to take control and inspire change. Forget about the politics; choose to become a partner instead. Choose to play an active role in sowing the seeds of Yeshiva University’s legacy.