By: Will Lee  | 

Special Presidential Section: The Joel Years from the Perspective of One YC Faculty Member

Ever since Richard Joel delivered his investiture address on September 21, 2003, I have regarded him as the heir of YC’s founding president Bernard Revel. Both men eloquently expressed and furthered the mission of Yeshiva College, now Yeshiva University: the mutually reinforcing harmony of Torah Studies, Jewish Studies, and the liberal arts. Both men recognized and nurtured the historic uniqueness of the institution they loved. Both men realized that for the education they supported to succeed, they had to encourage the strengthening and multiplication of modern Orthodox Jewish communities by training rabbis and leading  a religious movement. Both men reached out beyond Centrist Orthodoxy to other religious Jews, all Jews, America, Israel, and beyond.

I have been asked to represent the faculty of YC through this article on the Joel era. Although I serve on the Manhattan Campus Faculty Council as one of the representatives from YC, and although I have thought long and hard about YC and YU since arriving on campus over thirty-three years ago, I will be presenting my own perspective on issues especially relevant to faculty members. No doubt many of my colleagues will disagree with many of my points. Thanks go to several colleagues who responded to earlier drafts and guided me toward some beneficial revisions.

Full disclosure: I have enjoyed a good personal and working relationship with President Joel, though of course I have not supported all of his practices, positions, and decisions, as you will see. As the director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program in its early years, I asked him to host one of our annual dinners, at which graduates of YC and the program briefly present their research each year. He and his wife acted as wonderful hosts for an especially memorable evening in their home. My longest and most substantive interaction with him helped prepare both of us for the almost entirely successful visit by the Reaccreditation Team of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in 2012. I say “almost” because the visiting team concluded that we needed to professionalize and systematize our assessment of academic programs, a goal we have accomplished thanks to Rachel Ebner, Director of Student Learning Assessment, and the cooperative efforts of deans and faculty members.

The financial recession that struck the country in September of 2008 divides the Richard Joel years into his first six versus his last eight plus. After a long search process, the Board of Trustees elected him on December 5, 2002 as the fourth president of Yeshiva University. He lacked rabbinic qualifications, but he had served early in his career as a YU administrator, he had successfully expanded Hillel on campuses across America, and they considered him highly qualified in ways they valued. In his investiture address he called for a commitment to four “areas of concentration: nobility, excellence, Israel, and community.” He also called on the university to develop a “culture of caring” in which “every student counts,” a student-centered approach that has served as one hallmark of his presidency, reflected for instance in the dominance of student questions in his Town Hall Meetings over the years. Notably, buoyed by YU’s financial health, he called on everyone —  students, faculty, administrators, and the community — to “dream” collectively of a better YU.

Under the “excellence” heading President Joel anticipated the interdisciplinary centers he soon began to institute, among which the Center for the Jewish Future, the Center for Israel Studies, and more recently the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought remain prominent. He pointed to a faculty “overburdened with high course loads and inadequate research support” and to “unmet curricular needs.” Institutional support for research has only recently improved, but the YC standard course load did drop to three rather than four courses a term — a major upgrade accompanied by higher expectations for research. In September of 2005, he appointed David Srolovitz Dean of Yeshiva College and called for the hiring of 100 new faculty members in the three undergraduate programs, a reduction in the number of adjunct professors, and a thousand new students, all within five to seven years. In turn Dean Srolovitz insisted on upgraded classrooms with multimedia capabilities, a new Dean’s Office complex, and better, more private faculty offices in Belfer and Furst that would facilitate collegial and student-faculty interaction and facilitate research. Within those early years, undergraduate enrollment did expand, and by 2007, 56 additional appointments had been made to the undergraduate faculties (from 147 to 203). Some departments, including Math, Jewish Studies, and Economics, are still benefitting from what we might remember as the Great Expansion. The Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program, which predated his presidency, greatly expanded and remained strong with his support. Honors programs within Torah Studies and SSSB were established.  Both merit- and need-based financial aid became a focus for fund-raising. Many new appointments including  a new vice-president for university life, new directors for the interdisciplinary centers, new university professors, a new chair for the English department, a new director for the YC Honors Program, and a new head of Torah Studies including RIETS, undoubtedly had a significant impact on YU, as did the continuing academic leadership of Provost Mort Lowengrub, whom President Lamm had appointed.

From 2002 through 2011 (!) YC undertook its first significant curriculum revision since its founding in 1928. The college invented the interdisciplinary Core Curriculum to replace the old distribution requirements under which students took rather standard introductions to various academic fields. Under Deans Norman Adler, David Srolovitz, and Barry Eichler, the YC faculty reviewed curricula in comparable institutions with the aim of preparing students for the current century by redefining a broad liberal arts education. At the same time, many majors grew stronger. President Joel did not direct these efforts from above, instead delegating them to the Provost and the Deans, but he supported them, and he welcomed the results. In retrospect, those early years look like an academic Golden Age.

Unfortunately, the increasing expenditures depended upon some questionable assumptions:  more students, more tuition dollars, more support from donors, and continuing growth. About a year before the 2008 stock market “crash” on October 11, 2008, YU was already looking for ways to rein in spending by making some modest cuts and hitting the pause button. After the crash significantly reduced the value of university investments, YU began to experience the long and often painful years of budget cuts, constraints on spending, and tabling of further improvements: the Great Contraction. President Joel, Provost Lowengrub, and later Provost Selma Botman deserve credit for postponing and reducing the educational impact of budget cuts. Above all, faculty members continued to achieve tenure and promotions based on the merits; I know of only two exceptions, both quite recent. At first cuts in personnel exclusively targeted non-academic staff positions, while other cuts targeted “other-than-personnel” (OTP) expenses, thereby protecting the jobs and educational contributions of current faculty members.  But as of 2009-10 the university froze faculty, administrative, and staff hiring and salaries, and in January 2012 reduced the maximum university match for retirement funds from 7% to 2%.  President Joel reduced his own salary by $100,000. The salary freeze has now lasted eight years with three exceptions: continuing modest raises upon promotion, a one-time 2% raise to the base salaries, and a one-time $2000 “bonus.” The pension matching fund reduction has now lasted over five years. Other universities suffered, of course, but most cut less deep and bounced back faster. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not question the necessity of cuts in salaries. Personnel costs represent by far the dominant expense for any university. What I do question is the depth and longevity of the freezes and reductions, still with no end in sight.

Why does all this matter? Excellence in education depends on a superb, robust faculty as well as motivated, talented students. To attract and retain an excellent faculty, YU has to pay salaries competitive with those of comparable institutions. Falling behind translates to the erosion of competitiveness and of faculty morale; less willingness to volunteer “extra” time over and above absolute professional responsibilities like teaching, research, and service; and an exploration of options by faculty members, some of whom departed for greener or at least other pastures.  Somewhat fewer courses are offered, average class sizes have grown somewhat larger, and on average students receive somewhat less individual attention. A few years ago YU offered retirement incentives to longer-serving faculty members, causing the faculties of the various programs to contract further.  Because of the hiring freeze, the departing and retiring faculty members were replaced only if absolutely necessary. In a few cases such as Biology and Computer Science, the administration has approved replacement positions despite continuing deficits. By now at least one YC major and one YC minor have disappeared, and other majors and minors need attention. The contraction of departments, in some cases to the minimum possible for a program to continue to exist, reduces the variety of courses and viability of a major or minor. To ensure the educational strength and excellence of YC and to add new academic fields and subfields, the administration needs to begin approving more replacement and new positions, obviously with one eye to strategic planning and the other  eye to the impact on the budget. The sooner the better. This major transition will probably depend on additional sources of income in the form of profitable programs and rising donations.

Why didn’t we bounce back faster? The infamous Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which came to light in December 2008 soon after the crash, played a role thanks to inadequate conflict-of-interest policies, a major failing quickly remedied by the Board of Trustees. While many faculty members blame President Joel for the financial crisis because the tribulations occurred on his watch, I mainly blame the financially immature history of YU. Until the past few years, astonishingly, YU never had a proper budget, one which would have enabled administrators to track how much money had been spent of the money budgeted for a given year and to plan ahead for future years. For far too long, we didn’t take advantage of new software for budgeting, financial planning, and strategic planning. It took Toby Winer, an experienced financial administrator who came to YU with a fresh perspective, to discover in 2013 the extent of the annual deficit: over $150 million. No wonder our endowment dropped so far below its peak around $2.3 billion. After that, outside consultants and new administrators have helped us develop functional budgets for the various schools and programs and for YU as a whole. Recalling the crisis under President Revel, the university had to sell considerable real estate holdings in Washington Heights —  fortunately for a profit — to re-establish a healthy cash flow. Most recently, the financial separation from Einstein reduced the deficit by around $100 million annually while also reducing the endowment. In financial terms we know by now where we are and where we need to go. The deficits have fallen toward manageability, bringing sustainability within view.

We have largely come through to the other side of the third worst financial crisis in YU history.  Money worries almost certainly exacerbated President Revel’s heart problems, which led to his far too early death in 1940. Only much later did the college climb out of debt after selling off a sizable chunk of land. Early in President Lamm’s years, the university almost went bankrupt but was able to renegotiate its debt and work its way back to the solvency President Joel at first enjoyed. Now we’re once again “stable” according to Moody’s and, we hope, headed toward 100% sustainability.

President Joel, like his predecessors, has been a top-down administrator. Both in his early years and thereafter, policies deeply affecting faculty members were all too often announced from on high without prior consultation or input. Only in recent years has systematic and institutionalized faculty input begun to make a difference. Faculty representatives participated in the searches for Provost Selma Botman and, at one remove from the Board of Trustees, for our incoming president. The Faculty Council for the Manhattan Campuses successfully represents faculty points of view. Provost Botman and occasionally other top administrators attend our meetings and make presentations, and Provost Botman submits new and revised policies for comment, though she merely announces some significant changes. The Council sends non-voting representatives to the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees and has asked to send representatives to the Financial Committee. It participated in the lengthy process that led to the new Strategic Plan, which calls for improvements at long last in faculty members’ lives.  The President, Provost, other top administrators, and the Board of Trustees determined the final form of the plan; faculty members merely advised. Yet some of our points made it into the plan that wouldn’t have surfaced had our voices not been heard. Finally, led by President Joel and Provost Botman, Yeshiva University was at long lost taken off the AAUP censure list on June 5, 2015, restoring us to full membership in the American Association of University Professors, the most important American organization representing faculty members.

It would be presumptuous of me to assess the legacy of Richard Joel’s presidency. Future historians will need to do that based on documents, interviews, archival research, and thoughtful analysis. What I can do is put some key questions on the table. When YU had to transition from expansion based on unsustainable spending, much of it for admirable goals, to contraction based on budget cuts, what aspects of the expansion survived? In recent years, what new initiatives to increase income and to give graduating students additional options such as Master’s Programs and Certificate Programs, will prove successful, promote sustainability, and enhance YU’s mission? Will President-elect Ari Berman, both a Ph. D. and a rabbi, mirroring the credentials of the first three presidents, maintain some or all of President Joel’s priorities?

While central to educational excellence in Yeshiva College, to the academic experiences of generations of students, and to the “Madda” portion of YU’s mission, faculty member sometimes feel undervalued and neglected compared to students, rabbis, deans, and higher administrators.  In my view, any university exists mainly to foster interactions between faculty and students as well as to further knowledge; in our case, most students understandably value their interactions  with rabbis even more highly than those with faculty members. Will Rabbi Dr. Berman help restore faculty confidence, ensure competitive salaries and pension benefits, and raise faculty morale to the heights it reached in President Joel’s early years? Certainly, like all his predecessors beginning with Revel, he deeply believes in the unique mission of YU. But will he retain the commitment to teaching and research in the liberal arts and sciences that have served from the beginning as a source of identity and strength for Yeshiva College?