By: Doron Levine  | 

What Sort of President Does YU Need? President Joel’s Unwitting Advice

Nothing flies higher than a lame duck. Blissfully freed from his ability to effect real change on the ground, a president at the tail end of his term has the opportunity to peacefully soar; to zoom out and survey the landscape of his service from a wide angle; to draw conclusions and proffer advice to those of his subjects who are still willing to listen.

Enjoying this panoramic perspective, President Joel recently published an article in The Huffington Post called “It’s Not Just The Economy; Our Country’s Social Fabric Needs Repair.” The article describes the tear in America’s social fabric in only the vaguest of terms, but its upshot is the distinction laid out in its title: the success of an institution cannot be measured by bank statements alone. The true American experience, President Joel explains, might be contingent on the unfettered pursuit of wealth but is defined and sustained by “core ideals,” “a sense of meaning,” and “the value of values.” And the same, he says, applies to institutions of higher learning. Those familiar with YU’s recent history will find this argument ironic.

Though the interpretation of YU’s recent financial struggles is a matter of considerable debate, the basic facts are well documented. YU’s endowment shrunk from $1.7 billion in 2007 to about $1 billion in 2009. In recent years, YU’s budget deficit has reached as high as $100 million. YU’s Chief Financial Officer Michael Gower resigned in 2013. In an interview with The Commentator in 2014, President Joel blamed Gower for withholding and misrepresenting important financial information. But the shrinkage continued; in 2014, among all universities with endowments over $1 billion, YU was the only one to see its endowment shrink – from $1.18 billion to $1.09 billion.

In May 2014, shallow pockets forced YU to sell ten apartment buildings in Washington Heights for a total of $72.5 million. Desperate to lower its budget, YU recently reached an agreement to transfer financial management of Einstein Medical School to Montefiore Medical Center, and with it almost half of YU’s endowment. Einstein was responsible for two-thirds of YU’s annual operating budget, but also granted YU substantial prestige in the academic community. Administrative positions have been cut and the university has offered employees early-retirement packages. Housing prices increased considerably for the current academic year. For seven of the past eight years, faculty salaries have been frozen.

Whose fault was it? The ensuing blame game was inevitable. But while finger pointing can be exhilarating and fun, it does tend to tire out the fingers. In the spirit of moving forward, let’s set aside the question of culpability and ask instead how this crisis has affected YU’s institutional climate. For the moment, let’s consider the phenomenology of this crisis instead of its ontology.

Here I speak from personal experience and appeal to the collective impression of YU’s studentry. It seems to me that our university’s focus on finances has filtered down to life on the ground and injured student morale. Of course, given the muddle that YU finds itself in, President Joel cannot be faulted for setting his sights on financial solvency. But our obsession with money has taken its toll. As much as our administration wishes to preserve and even improve the student experience despite shallower pockets, we students are not blind to the fallout. We notice that faculty morale is low; we notice when teachers leave and aren’t replaced; we noticed when Moody’s downgraded YU bonds to a B3 rating; we noticed when YU fell fourteen spots in national university rankings.

Of course, it’s not all bleak and gloomy. Many students, including myself, remain proud of YU and optimistic about its future. But morale matters, and it’s hard for students to be as effusive and passionate about an educational institution that appears to be focusing all of its effort on staying afloat. When President Joel was originally nominated for the presidency, he assured students and faculty that “We have to look at vision questions before financial realities,” and that “more and more funding will become available.” In hindsight, though, his presidency seems to have achieved just the opposite. At least from the perspective of the students, it seems that more and more funding has not become available and that financial realities have often taken precedence over long-term vision.

Money is everything and money is nothing. Of course, money is necessary for any institution to do anything at all. But in a vacuum, money is meaningless – financial stability is an entirely instrumental goal. YU is not a bank; its goals include advancing traditional Jewish values, sending young professionals out into the workplace with a sense of integrity and commitment to Jewish tradition, and training the rabbis who will serve as spiritual guides for the next generation. But financial woes have naturally shifted our focus away from our primary values and school spirit has suffered.

Perhaps a strong ideological leader could have preserved morale even in the face of financial adversity. Students in previous generations were led by Rabbi Lamm, a theologian with a PhD in philosophy who penned many articles, delivered countless sermons, and authored books on theology and philosophy including the definitive exposition of our university’s motto. But current YU students arguably have no ideological leader to look up to in the ranks of their university’s leadership. There is a natural tendency of people experiencing crisis to turn inward and reaffirm loyalty to their basic values, but President Joel, with all his strengths and unique talents, was less than qualified to lead this introspective charge.

President Joel’s expertise is supposed to be his financial savvy; his weakness is his lack of rabbinic and academic credentials. Acknowledging the arguments of his detractors, President Joel stated in 2002, “I will not be the leader of modern orthodoxy,” and this prediction has proven accurate: President Joel is no Rabbi Lamm. So while the calculation by the 2002 Board of Trustees to sacrifice ideological vision for financial acumen might have been theoretically sound, President Joel was dealt a terrain that he was under-equipped to navigate. Counterintuitively, a spiritual leader might have been better suited to lead us through financial hardship.

I won’t claim to know whether Rabbi Ari Berman is best qualified to succeed President Joel or whether he would even prove an effective leader of YU. Many have expressed legitimate doubts, pointing to his lack of leadership and managerial experience, the very qualities that President Joel was supposed to exemplify. Moreover, I hesitate to speculate about the search committee’s intentions; in stark contrast to the previous presidential search process, this search has been marked by heavy secrecy on the part of the board with respect to their criteria and decision-making procedure. But their decision speaks for itself: Rabbi Berman would presumably be a fundamentally different sort of president from Richard Joel. A teacher with a PhD in Jewish philosophy and experience as the spiritual leader of a prominent and sizable Jewish community, Rabbi Berman has, at least on paper, the potential to be the “leader of modern orthodoxy” that President Joel was not and to reignite our community’s passion for its holy mission.

So when President Joel criticizes America for focusing too much on its economy and not enough on its values, perhaps here we have an instance of the pot calling the kettle black. We of course do not fault the pot for making this declaration, for it did not choose to be black. Remember, also, that the pot is speaking the truth – its own blackness does nothing to lessen the kettle’s. But even as we praise the pot for its accurate assessment of its companion’s color, we cannot help but notice the manifest irony. President Joel’s argument—his claim about the social reality in the United States and attendant charge to reorient our perspective and prioritize values over capital—while perhaps true and relevant, is even more applicable to the institution that he has led for the past fourteen years.