By: Karen Bacon  | 

Special Presidential Section: A Road Traveled

In the Fall of 2003, surrounded by the colorful banners of the various Yeshiva University schools and affiliates, I sat on the stage of Lamport Auditorium along with my fellow Deans and other University administrators and faculty to pay tribute to the incoming President of Yeshiva University, the 4th in the University’s distinguished history. Richard M. Joel is a talented speaker, and he put that talent to good use on that day by painting a vision of his presidency and his priorities. His rhetoric created a soaring picture of a great university destined for even further greatness. He also shared with us his inner emotional turmoil. “For me this is a moment of hope and joy, of fear and trembling.” As I reflect back on almost fourteen years since that inaugural speech, the evidence is clear. There were moments and events that I am certain brought President Joel much joy and others that caused him to doubt and to wonder. The list is long, but I will choose only a few as illustrative examples.

One of the central duties of a President is to encourage supporters to come forward to invest in the University, its faculty and its students. Mr. Ronald Stanton, of blessed memory, responded early on to the President’s call and made an historic pledge to the University. Announced as the Stanton Legacy, it would enable President Joel to jump start initiatives even before permanent funding could be developed. The possibilities of such a gift were enormous, the President's joy almost boundless. This commitment not only spoke to one donor’s belief in our University, but it potentially foretold of others who would similarly invest. Unfortunately Mr. Stanton passed away. The President lost one of his strongest boosters and the hoped for others, who might have filled this void, did not come forward. Joy turned to doubt.

But President Joel never let doubt stop him from dreaming and from believing. The Glueck Family supported the construction of the first new building on the Wilf Campus in decades. The Jacob  and Dreizel Glueck Beit Midrash stands proudly on the place that was formerly a nondescript parking lot and quickly became the showpiece for the campus, followed by Nagel’s Bagels and most recently the renovation of the Gottesman Library. Those were joyful times.

In the early years the investment in faculty was substantial. Academic departments expanded, curricular innovations were encouraged and supported, facilities were modernized, research was valued  and recognized. We were a University on the move and President Joel’s restless spirit was spearheading that movement. Stern College invested in the sciences. Yeshiva College took on the formidable task of revising its curriculum out of which emerged a new CORE Program and new faculty to deliver it. The Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies recruited a substantial number of emerging young scholars in Bible, Jewish History and Jewish Philosophy. The Economics major took on new significance, The Albert Einstein College of Medicine  moved into the exciting field of translational medicine and faculty in all divisions of the University were recognized for their excellence in concrete ways.  President Joel relished every opportunity to talk about “his” faculty and to praise the academic leadership that partnered with him in this period of growth. But just as the Biblical years of plenty were followed by the lean years, so too the University experienced a financial downturn and with it things started to tumble.  Concerns and unhappiness spread as the President confronted both the substance of the problem and its fallout for faculty.

Yet despite the ups and downs, in the early years and until the very present, President Joel literally crisscrossed the United States to bring his vision of the University – a place that “values values”, a place that “ennobles and enables” – to communities large and small. For President Joel it was insufficient that the five NY boroughs know about Yeshiva. He wanted the whole country to know us, to respect us, to support us. Go to any major city in the US and you are likely to meet dozens of people who remember his visit to their community and his inspirational presentations. In the words of one such individual, he always “hit a home run.”

On campus his priority was to empower students to think big, to think about leadership, to feel connected to each other and to a larger mission. A man of action, he walked the campuses engaging with students, inviting them  to his home, telling them to reach higher and further. And the students listened. Today campus clubs, activities, and student initiatives are at an all-time high. In the choices our students make – whether helping communities struck by natural disasters or tutoring public school students so they may aspire to go to college – we see reflections of President Joel’s hopes.

These few reflections of mine are not just memories. I believe they are the foundation upon which President Joel built his presidency – the academic enterprise within, the community without, and the student body as the bridge between the two. This model feels right and will surely endure, even as conditions and challenges mandate course corrections, and lingering problems demand immediate attention and answers. We are not the same as we were in 2003. We are decidedly better. And for this I thank the 4th President of Yeshiva University, Richard M. Joel.