By: Doron Levine  | 

Special Presidential Section: Interview with Outgoing President Richard Joel

For this year’s final issue of The Commentator, we sat down with outgoing YU President Richard Joel and asked him to reflect on his fourteen years as president. President Joel will step down on June 5, and will be succeeded by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman.

Doron Levine: What are some of the most important changes you’ve made to YU during your presidency?

President Joel: First of all, nothing was me. It was we. I think maybe one of the most important changes was that it became a place of “we.” In other words, the people I worked with bought into a vision. It was a time of really going to next. The first appointment I made before I even started was Dr. Hillel Davis, who was to serve as Vice President for Kavod HaBriyos. Because my mandate was to increase the warmth, friendliness, and student-service orientation of our community.

A small cultural example is, when I arrived,  the entrances to all the buildings read either “enter only” or “exit only.” And within a month every door said “Welcome to Yeshiva University.” From the beginning, the aspiration was to make YU an environment that ennobles and enables. That’s not a slogan. The quality of the education would be premier, both Torah and secular, and the quality of the environment would be noble, would be kodesh. If there’s one thing that yeshiva is supposed to do, it’s to have us develop a sacred self consciousness, a consciousness of kedusha; the notion of being mekadesh the chol – that’s why we’re here. And I think that’s the most important thing.

It has been fourteen plus years, and I think the faculty is far stronger than it was, there’s a larger tenured faculty than there was, the yeshiva has never been more formidable and in its own way diverse, and I think the degree to which yeshiva lives beyond its walls, the degree to which the community sees YU as the vouchsafer of a movement, is better than it ever was. This is manifest by who the musmachim are, how they’re equipped to learn and lead, how many teachers and administrators for the day school system have been produced; we have services that continue a relationship not just with the klei kodesh, but with the lay kodesh. You go to the communities, and people have a real awareness of the YU idea, whether it’s through the Pesach To-Go, shabbatonim, webcasts, or guest speakers. And if there’s one thing I regret, it’s that we don’t have enough of it.

Academically, you look at all of the schools and I think they’re all in a better place. Part of this is the rise of Syms and its entrepreneurship. I think we have a sense of responsibility to the world because, of course, core to my beliefs is the fact that if we don’t view ourselves as or lagoyim, then we are not doing what we’re supposed to be doing. I also think that we are learning to play together better and to figure out how to negotiate the fact that this is a big tent with boundaries. Often you have people in the big tent who think that they really should be here but other people in the big tent shouldn’t be here; that happens on the left and on the right. I think we’re better now at not blowing it up and at figuring out how to grow together.

DL: If you could do anything differently during your presidency, what would it be?

PJ: I’d like to say that I would’ve done more with Israel, but I can’t tell you what it is. The reason that there’s not more programming is because what we should be doing in Israel has eluded me. The accreditation program that we’ve done has been transformational, and the relationships that we have with the yeshivas is terrific. But everyone asks how could we have YU in Israel, and I haven’t figured it out. I’m really confident that Rabbi Berman will look at this matter more than I did. But that’s tangential.

I think in some personnel ways I would’ve been tougher. There are some jobs where it’s not three strikes and you’re out, it’s one strike and you’re out. And I think I might have been in some cases less corporate in terms of saying ad kan, till here. I think generally my colleagues really feel like they’ve been enriched by me, but I think that with some of them I should have had a shorter leash.

DL: Can you give any specifics?

PJ: Oh no. Look, anything for which there should be blame is on me. I’m the one responsible – some of my judgment, in some of my timing or trust, that’s on me. I don’t think that there was anyone here who didn’t want to do their best. I really don’t. I think that of all the people who I’ve been working with, nobody was coasting along cynically. During the first several years I really was COO and CEO. And then I backed away and empowered people, but kept control because I needed to know things. So you can ask, did I wait too long to do that more? I don’t think so. I think we were beset by all the blessings of this decade economically, and by some issues that we faced that had to be dealt with. So I’m very proud that during the last couple of years I was the CEO but not the COO. Because when you have people of such quality as we’ve had as your senior partners in this enterprise, you’re being criminal if you don’t let them be all they can be. Of course I’m always out there, but I wasn’t as focused on fundraising as the needs of a twenty-first century university now are, and I think we built the kind of place where my successor can run this and put his imprint on it but also be able to spend a lot of time on external relations.

DL: You mentioned personal responsibility. Under your leadership YU experienced some deep operating deficits and saw its endowment shrink significantly.

PJ: Can I stop you? You tend to do this. You make your questions into statements of facts that aren’t fact. So can I just challenge you there?

DL: Can I just finish the question, and then you can correct me if I’m wrong?

PJ: Sure.

DL: Under your leadership YU experienced some deep operating deficits and saw its endowment shrink significantly. In the past, you’ve blamed this on poor financial management. Do you take personal responsibility for the financial troubles that YU has experienced under your leadership?

PJ: No, I’m not blaming anyone, I never said that, I said that I’m responsible. And there was not poor financial management the way you say it. So first of all let’s understand. If you look at the university’s endowment, after fourteen years, after what’s happened to most universities in terms of the market after 2008, the non-Einstein part of Yeshiva’s endowment is in the high 600’s or maybe a little higher. Fourteen years ago, when we started, the non-Einstein part of the endowment was about the same or a little less. I don’t want headlines on this one – look, a lot of the problems are that you say something and it goes all over. People take a little snippet of it and that becomes the headline, and I still have to have relations with Montefiore Hospital and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine since I’m awarding the degrees there.

But I have to tell you, with regards to the terrible loss of the endowment, don’t read that guy Weiss’s piece because, I wouldn’t say he was intentionally lying, but he put together different things and it came out wrong. The Einstein endowment went from $1.1 billion to somewhere under $400 million. And not because of financial mismanagement, but because of the fact that, as they were aspiring to be larger and larger in terms of their research capacity, with my blessings…first of all there was the sequester, and then there was the fact that fundraising for Einstein was not what they anticipated, it was less. And when you get more money from NIH, you have to raise 40 cents for every dollar of grant that you get, and if you don’t do it then you end up having a deficit. Einstein also invested heavily in having a new facility, the Price Center.

And the decrease in the endowment, aside from some of the bumps that you speak of, some of it was not mismanagement – some of it was skullduggery. The Madoff thing hit everybody. But that wasn’t mismanagement – that was a sociopath. The vast majority of the “decline” was a decreasingly large Einstein endowment that Einstein knowingly had. And, by the way, the Einstein endowment was always the property of Einstein. It wasn’t money that Yeshiva gave away. We couldn’t spend it except on Einstein and how Einstein determined we should spend it.

Now, there were other losses, because of spending on things that we didn’t have money to cover. When I talk about financial mismanagement, it’s that, like many universities, the financial systems that we had were so antiquated that I don’t know how anybody could know what we had or not. I am the beneficiary of what I inherited, litov, but Yeshiva University, to my knowledge, never did not have an annual operating deficit. And that’s not a workable financial model. So that’s why, in the second year, the trustees and I decided that we had to invest in a major management system so that the data was available. And I will tell you, it took eleven years to get it done. So it wasn’t that you had scoundrels here who lied; it was that you couldn’t get a handle on the data. I do know that now, if I need to know anything about what we’re spending up to date, what our liquidity is, or anything like that, I’ll know it within the day because it’s mechanized and we have a premier fiscal team.

One last thing about this. With the approval of the board, I spent money. I spent money thinking we were spending into accumulated gains that we had the right to spend. Look, we hired 100 more faculty members, we beautified the campus, and we built the Glueck beis medrash, which was not fully paid for when we built it. We invested heavily in student life, the career center and student counseling, in mashgichim and madrichim and mashpiim. This required a lot of money, and maybe we spent too much. The systems were never good enough to know exactly what we were doing. But if I had it to do again, I’d do it again. Because I think Yeshiva, had it not invested in its quality, in the honors programs, and I can go down a whole track of things, I think it would’ve been in deep jeopardy. And now it’s profoundly not.

DL: You served for significantly less time than each of your predecessors. How long did you originally expect to serve for, and why did you decide to step down at this point if your contract ends in 2018?

PJ: I planned to serve for ten years. At the ten-year mark, I, together with the trustees, decided that it would be damaging to Yeshiva University to make a change at that time. So at that time I agreed to another five years. And I made it clear to the Chairman that I would by all accounts not serve beyond another five years. When I thought Yeshiva was stable and in a good trajectory, I would ask him if I could step down. About two years ago, before the Einstein deal was consummated, I said that when we get this Einstein thing done it will be time to start looking. And that’s why on September 9th, my birthday, at the board meeting, I announced that I would be stepping down upon selection of a successor. I gave them enough time that if worst came to worst, I would serve through 2018. I actually assumed it would be a little sooner than it has been.

Esther and I would do this again in a second. We just don’t want to do it anymore. It’s 24/7. It’s a very public hard job, and I’m not hard, I’m soft. So that’s the answer. I think five years wouldn’t have been enough, because I think I had to do some major things to make my four-point vision become real – just getting the attitudes with Israel correct was a lot. So I thought it needed more than five years, but I didn’t want more than ten years. I think that vibrant institutions need new leadership. I think I’m good at this. I think I’m really a good president. And I think that I could stay on and it would be good. But I think that my leaving will make it better.

DL: You’re not a Rabbi, and your presidency was originally opposed by a number of the Roshei Yeshiva. How has your relationship been with the Yeshiva? Do you feel that you were eventually accepted by the Yeshiva community as the president of RIETS?

PJ: Again you have me bragging. I think you should ask the Roshei Yeshiva, or the ones who were opposed to me. By the way, they weren’t opposed to Richard Joel; they had a concept of a rabbi-president who would be a Rosh Yeshiva. They wouldn’t have wanted just a pulpit rabbi coming in, they wanted a Rosh Yeshiva li-shita. I don’t believe to this day that the manner in which they expressed themselves was appropriate. But they had felt marginalized so I never held that against them.

I believe that the Roshei yeshiva would tell you that this was a wonderful period for them, that they are very happy that I’ve been the president of RIETS, that they think they were treated with enormous respect, and that they learned that in fact it’s ok and maybe right to have a lay president. There was not one time in fourteen years when I had Roshei Yeshiva coming to me saying, “you gotta do this, we paskin this way.” There’s tremendous respect. I think part of it is that I’m a true ben yeshiva, or ben Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon. My philosophy is very much what most of them teach and all of them respect. And I think it was fine for them when I would say that every Rosh Yeshiva and faculty member is entitled to their views and to free speech but only the president speaks for yeshiva university. I think that gave them some comfort. And I think that’s completely consistent with how a university should be.

So I think they celebrated my presidency. I think they’re looking forward to the future, but I think that, as most of them have said to me, they’re sorry to see me go. I was not cowed, not that they tried to cow me. In other words, I didn’t come thinking “oh my God, I can’t do anything in Yeshiva, I’m gonna have to ask shaylos.” I said, “I have some expertise to offer here.” No Rosh Yeshiva was appointed without me being one of the two or three people who appointed them. And I think it was wonderful. I’ve come to appreciate them, each of them. We have an incredible gathering of incredible ramim.

DL: You oversaw the founding of first YU Global and then the Katz School. How does this move towards more online classes and vocational degrees affect YU’s status as a university, and will this help to shrink our operating deficit?

PJ: Number two, absolutely. And number one, the question was, in these modern times, are you going to be less of a university or more? I believe that the mission of the university, which is undergraduate education and the yeshiva and serving the Jewish community, could never be of high quality and operate in the black. So as we were reaffirming that this is our purpose, we understood that the cost of that has to be a greater commitment to fundraising and developing quality programs that will be revenue generators. And we started first with YU global. After the first year and a half of that, we realized that what YU Global was had to be encapsulated in a school, like a school of continuing education, that would offer quality masters degrees or quality certificate degrees but that would be for a larger population and could make money. And that’s how YU Global evolved into the Katz School. Over the next several years, Katz will have a reputation, and it will generate a serious amount of revenue for the university, permitting the core and our graduate schools to fly. I would also tell you that if there were in the area of “vocation” ways that we could be of service to our community, do it in quality, and not lose money, I wouldn’t have been opposed to doing that. It’s about taking the mission and the business, and saying how do we have a model that can strengthen the business while strengthening the mission.

DL: When you started as president, YU was ranked 40th by US News and World Report. Now we are ranked 66th. What is the reason for this fall?

PJ: Various rating systems have their criteria that they base achievement on. As you know, we haven’t pursued, necessarily, the same criteria. My only response to this will be that Yeshiva has the highest rates of success in placement, professional attainment and achievement than we have ever had. I think the education is unique. We are about as large as we have ever been. The satisfaction level I hear from students is very high. “Nowhere but here” is real, because what you get at Yeshiva University you don’t get at Harvard; there are no measurements for that. We’ve created a model for an integrated life and, through Torah U’Maddah, an integrated approach to education where we have a faculty of excellence, and the Torah is nonpareil; and the students are wonderful.

DL: You pride yourself on hosting students for Shabbos on a regular basis. Do you feel that you’ve built relationships with students during your presidency? Do you expect these relationships to continue going forward?

PJ: I certainly feel that about 1,400 students have been home-fed for one Shabbos. But I will tell you that for Esther and me it has been one of the great joys of my presidency. There have already been students from 13 years ago with whom we have maintained wonderful relationships. I think it has been a meaningful experience, both for my family and the students, and for me, and I hope these relationships continue. As I take an expanded role teaching, I hope that I will be able to have terrific relationships with the students who will be in my classes.

DL: Originally you were supposed to step down on July 1. Then it changed to June 5. What is the reason for this change?

PJ: There was no set-in-stone date for me to transition, and Rabbi Berman and I decided that the most opportune time would be when he was ready, after the commencements. Commencements end May 25th, Shavuos is May 31st and June 1st, when I finish counting the Sefirah and I reach 50, I get to go on to “next.” That is June 5th, and Rabbi Berman is ready and prepared to move forward, and therefore I am happy to end at that time.

DL: Do you have confidence in your successor? Do you have any wise words for Rabbi Berman as he takes over your position?

PJ: Of course I have confidence in my successor. I have shared many words with Rabbi Berman, and it is for him to determine whether or not they are wise words. Every president is unique and distinct, and hopefully every President advanced the institution, and I am confident the same will be true with my successor. Needless to say I wish him every success in the world.

DL: Broadly speaking, what do you want your legacy as president to look like? What would you like to be remembered for?

PJ: Personally, I would like to be remembered for my children and grandchildren. But my legacy professionally, as that of my predecessors and successor, is that Yeshiva University continues to inform the world with values and purpose, and success. That it is a smile to our community and to the greater world. That we have enabled and ennobled our students and continue to do so with a healthy and great institution.

DL: What is your plan for after YU? Will you miss being president?

PJ: I have a one year sabbatical, and I remain the Bravmann family University Professor. During the sabbatical, Esther and I will get to breathe freely a little bit. We will spend time with our children and grandchildren. I will prepare courses for the following academic year and will hopefully start work on a book. And I look forward to spending lots of time smelling the flowers and praising the L-rd.