By: Tzvi Levitin  | 

On Showing Up

Eager for a brief respite from the frigid and gloomy but not-yet-cozy atmosphere of early December in New York City, I spent last weekend visiting some friends at Yale University. As I explored the Gothic campus on Friday afternoon, with all its arches and quads and reading rooms brimming with students, I couldn’t help but compare it to Yeshiva University.

As students chatted about their professors, perused the seemingly endless stacks of the Yale Library, and wove through courtyards and cobblestone pathways with resolve and purpose, I found myself thinking, on more than once occasion, “Wow, this is what a real university feels like.” I caught myself immediately and convinced myself that any new campus I visited would feel the same – energetic, bustling, and fresh – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the students at Yale were somehow better at absorbing their academic experiences, more concerned with the values and mechanics of higher education, than my peers at YU.

This delusion was short-lived. While relaxing on my friend’s couch after dinner on Friday night, I picked up a copy of The Yale Daily News. Splashed across the front page, the headline practically screamed at its readers: “Yale College Council Faculty Diversity Town Hall Attracts Few.” YCC, the student council that “provides students with an opportunity to influence both their academic and social experience,” is Yale’s equivalent of the Yeshiva College Student Association at YU. They hosted a town hall with a university dean to discuss institutional plans to devote funding to increasing faculty diversity on campus. The open meeting was a natural outgrowth of the torrent of student concerns that have surrounded the issue since the administration announced last November that it would be dedicating $500 million to diversity across an array of disciplines. However, only sixteen students showed up to the town hall. From an undergraduate student body of over 5,000 students, sixteen attended a meeting that was intended to ensure the right people heard student voices. According to The Yale Daily News, YCC President Peter Huang “wished more people attended the event, especially in light of student skepticism towards the University’s existing faculty diversity initiatives.”

As President of YCSA, I relate intensely to Huang’s sentiments. In fact, if I could swap out “faculty diversity” for “core curriculum” or “adjunct faculty” or “academic experience” (and as a side note, I’d love for faculty diversity to become a hot-button issue on our campus as well), Huang’s words would perfectly capture  my current feelings about the Yeshiva College student body.

Let me be clear about one thing: I am not that guy who sits around complaining about apathy at YU, and I’m among the first to rise to its defense when students from other universities bash our academics. For a college of our size, the caliber and personal attentiveness of our faculty and the opportunities we have to really immerse ourselves in the liberal arts are truly unparalleled. And, on paper at least (or the virtual equivalent thereof), students here really are passionate about their academics and the future of the institution. Scroll through YU Marketplace, check your ystuds; this school overflows with people quick to point out weaknesses in course offerings, recount struggles with specific professors, or debate about partisan speakers on campus.

But for all of the skepticism and critique, very few students seem interested when opportunities arise to enact change. A few weeks ago, YCSA started publicizing a group discussion with Dean Joanne Jacobson where students would be welcome to voice their concerns and questions relating to academics and engage in a productive discussion with a Dean who has direct oversight over our curriculum. I, along with the other members of my council, sent out three ystuds and multiple posts in YU social media groups over the past three weeks. To ensure cohesive and natural conversation dynamics, we limited the meeting to 20 attendees, noting that if demand exceeded that number, we would organize a second meeting at the beginning of the Spring semester.

Do you know how many people showed up? Five. Two of whom were YCSA councilmembers, and one of whom was a professor enticed by the smell of free pizza. (I should note that Professor Kimmel actually ended up contributing significantly to the discussion, and I thank him for his presence and wise words.)

Percentage-wise, attendance was about on par with the town hall at Yale, but this was of little comfort. Where was the guy who emailed me to complain about NAWO? Where were the students who were unable to continue with their Spanish or French education when courses were cut? Where was the student who was thinking of switching out of the philosophy major because there weren’t enough courses that fit his schedule?

We talked about some very pertinent issues at the meeting. Dean Jacobson introduced an array of new interdisciplinary minors, and we strategized ways to maximize student interest in these exciting new areas of study. We discussed the dwindling foreign language curricula and the widespread extinction of Classics at institutions across America. We asked for Dean Jacobson’s opinion on the persistent and concerning replacement of full-time faculty with adjuncts and how these choices affect our liberal arts education and the prestige of the university. But so few people were there to listen, and, even more importantly, so few people were there to contribute.

Our campus, along with others across the country, contains a dangerous cocktail of skepticism and apathy. Consequently, our students are shaken, not stirred.

Why, though? Why do we care enough to doubt and berate and complain, but not enough to take action when opportunities present themselves?

The answer, of course, is rather elusive, but I think there are several contributing factors. First, an acutely utilitarian approach to undergraduate education, particularly on our campus, promotes an input/output attitude toward the college experience. So even if we recognize the values of a liberal arts education - diverse modes of thought, interdisciplinary exposure, critical thinking, etc. - we don’t rise to the defense of these values when they are challenged. We might care enough to complain to our friends or sign a petition, but as long as we still get the degree and GPA necessary to pursue whatever comes after YU, be it medical school or a coveted job at a consulting firm, we can’t be bothered to show up at the Dean’s office when three full-time professors leave the Biology department.

I don’t mean to sound like an old man here, but I think the way we use technology promotes apathy when it comes to taking action (and turn down that music, you whippersnapper!). Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine about dating etiquette. He felt strongly that excessive texting is dangerous, especially at the beginning of a relationship, because it’s easy to develop two distinct relationships with a person, one of which exists in the real world, and the other in the virtual world. When the virtual connection develops more quickly than the face-to-face one, you’re left with an illusion of a great relationship that quickly deflates when you realize you don’t have much chemistry when you spend time together.

I think my friend’s point isn’t entirely unrelated to the lack of student involvement with academics at YU. When we can rant about the Core on Facebook and get 60 likes on YU Marketplace, it’s easy to feel satisfied that we’ve “done our job.” But it’s important to remember that simply putting your opinion out there is not sufficient. Our relationship with our academic experience isn’t forged in the virtual realm; only real conversations and united voices can bring about change in this institution. Sometimes you have to log off, roll up your sleeves, and knock on some doors in Belfer and Furst.

So let us keep the skepticism spirited and the complaints ceaseless; let us promote student appraisal and demand administrative accountability. But let us also step down from our pixelated soap-boxes; let us turn away from the vacuous abyss of the internet and instead turn to our peers and our institution when the question presents itself in that little white box on Facebook: “What’s on your mind?”