By: Benjamin Koslowe | Features  | 

Yeshiva University Valedictorians: A Look into Academic Policies and Recent Trends

This May 16, as with recent years’ commencements, Yeshiva University will present valedictorian awards to nine undergraduate men and women. Six of the valedictorian awards go to men of the Wilf campus: one Yeshiva College student, one Sy Syms School of Business student, and one student from each of the four men’s Undergraduate Torah Studies programs—Mazer School of Talmudic Studies (MYP), Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP), Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC), and James Striar School (JSS). The other three valedictorian awards go to three women of the Beren campus: two students from Stern College for Women and one student from Sy Syms School of Business. One Stern College valedictorian award is given to a student of any major, while the other Stern College valedictorian award is given to a student whose major is in the Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies.

This article is divided into two sections: The first section offers a comprehensive look into the policies and processes that determine the nine valedictorian awards. The second section focuses on some observed trends, both historical and contemporary.

YU Valedictorians: Policies

The policies for determining the Beren campus valedictorians are recorded in the Beren campus Academic Information and Policies. The first Stern College for Women valedictorian award is granted to “[t]he student with the highest GPA, regardless of major.” The second Stern College for Women valedictorian award is granted to a Jewish studies major with the highest Jewish studies GPA, “provided she has completed a minimum of 50 Jewish studies credits … at SCW.” Both of these students are required, by the time they graduate, to have completed “84 SCW on-campus credits and 6 semesters full-time.” For each award, if two students tie by scoring the same GPA, “the student with the most credits [or Jewish studies credits, in the case of the second award] taken at YU in NY and listed on the SCW transcript … is designated valedictorian.”

Dean Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Dean Ethel Orlian, the Associate Dean of Stern College for Women, both confirmed that the two Stern College for Women valedictorian designations are made only on the basis of GPA, credits earned, and on-campus residency. “Academic rigor,” wrote Dean Bacon, “is not one of the considerations.”

Such is not the case for the male and female Sy Syms School of Business valedictorians. Though the Wilf campus Academic Information and Policies make no statement regarding valedictorian determination, the Beren campus academic policies, as well as the Sy Syms academic advising website, specify rules essentially equivalent to those for the first Stern College for Women valedictorian award. The only differences are that for these awards, the recipients must “have earned 75 credits on campus at the time of the decision,” and “[r]igor of academic coursework in both secular and Jewish Studies will be considered” (the latter requirement appears on the academic advising website but not in the Beren campus academic policies). Interim Dean of Sy Syms School of Business Michael Strauss explained that academic rigor is judged “by a committee that includes the Dean.” The policies for determining the male and female Sy Syms valedictorians are equivalent.

The rules for determining the remaining five awards—the four Wilf campus Undergraduate Torah Studies valedictorians and the Yeshiva College valedictorian—appear nowhere in the academic policies or on the Yeshiva University website.

Rabbi Menachem Penner, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Undergraduate Torah Studies (UTS), wrote that the MYP, SBMP, IBC, and JSS valedictorian nominees are determined based on GPA, but “many factors are then taken into account by the roshei yeshiva” or “by the faculties of the programs” to ultimately determine each recipient. Rabbi Penner wrote that “it would be difficult to base simply on GPA.”

In similar fashion, the Yeshiva College valedictorian is determined by both GPA and faculty discretion. Dean Fred Sugarman, the Yeshiva College Associate Dean of Operations and Student Affairs, explained the stages of the process.

Dean Sugarman first determines the students with the top 35 or so GPAs in the graduating class and ensures that each student is in a position to complete 94 on-campus credits, demonstrates good academic standing, and proves to be a generally respectable person who represents Yeshiva University values (this involves, among other considerations, making sure that the student is present and adequately participatory in his morning Torah Studies program).

Next, Dean Sugarman narrows the list down to the ten or so students in that set with the highest GPAs, which, according to Sugarman, is typically in the vicinity of 3.92. These finalists then write personal statement style essays on the topic of how they exemplify the ideal Yeshiva College graduate and are worthy of representing the class as valedictorian. They submit the essays to a board consisting of Dean Karen Bacon, Professor Shalom Holtz, Professor Aaron Koller, and Dean Joanne Jacobson (Holtz is Director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program and Associate Professor of Bible, Koller is Chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies and Associate Professor of Bible, and Jacobson is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs).

After the faculty board evaluates the candidates’ essays, Dean Sugarman computes a weighted average for each finalist by assigning a weight of 70% to GPA and a weight of 30% to the evaluated essays. From the new ranking, the finalists are narrowed down to three or so final candidates with the highest scores. Sugarman explained that because of the heavy weight assigned to GPA, the valedictorian is usually a student with one of the highest GPAs amongst his graduating class. The same board that evaluates the essays then interviews the final candidates. The valedictorian award is granted finally to one candidate based upon the board’s and Dean Sugarman’s discretion.

“For myself,” wrote Dean Jacobson, “the hope is to find the candidate whose strengths go deep, and beyond the conventional. I would include among those strengths: integrity; self-awareness; intellectual seriousness, ambition, and originality; a conscious point of view; and fulfilled promise (I would expect an Honors student, for example, to write a thesis and complete the Honors program).” Professor Koller explained similarly that the “essays are often very telling, and that is a really important stage, because there are students who can pull off a spectacularly high GPA but cannot articulate a vision for life, Jewish or otherwise. And that’s not a criticism, but it’s also not what we want in a valedictorian. So the essays enable us to whittle down the list to just a few, and then through interviews we try to settle on one who is both intellectually and academically spectacular and deeply thoughtful and thus reflective of the best YC has to offer the world.” Dean Bacon, too, granted that in the interview process, “inevitably there is an element of subjectivity. Some students present better than others both in terms of their ideas and passions and as well as their style.” She reflected, “All of this has an impact.”

Dean Sugarman explained that the Yeshiva College valedictorian determination policies need not appear in the official academic policies for a variety of reasons. For one, the academic policies are largely intended to specify students’ requirements and rights, such as course requirements and rules for academic integrity, but not students’ privileges, such as the valedictorian award. Relatedly, many awards are granted at graduation to the point where it would not make sense to detail them all in the policies.

Dean Sugarman noted as well that it is standard in many other colleges for deans and faculty, rather than official academic policies, to determine the valedictorian based on their discretion. Indeed, many public and private colleges do not offer explicit rules for valedictorian determination. Several universities that do specify their rules, feature similar policies to those in practice at Yeshiva College. Columbia, Princeton, and Dartmouth all determine their undergraduate valedictorians by a number of factors, including GPA, scholastic standing, and faculty discretion.

YU Valedictorians: Trends

As of the time of publication, the only one of the nine Yeshiva University valedictorians to be announced is Jared Rutner. A Yeshiva College student who majored in mathematical economics, Rutner is the first non-science major to receive the award from Yeshiva College since 2010. The 2011 through 2017 YU graduation ceremonies saw seven Yeshiva College valedictorians, of whom four majored in biology, two in chemistry, and one in psychology. Five of these men were pre-med students set to attend medical school (four at YU-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai), while the other two pursued graduate-level science research after receiving their diplomas. The last Yeshiva College valedictorian who did not major in the sciences was Willie Roth, a Jewish studies major who, following his 2010 graduation, obtained semikhah from RIETS, a master’s degree in medieval Jewish history from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and a J.D. degree from Harvard Law School.

In those same years, multiple Stern College for Women valedictorians were pre-med students as well (several continued their academic studies at Einstein), although at least two majored in the humanities (one double-majored in history and Jewish studies, and another majored in history).

All of those currently involved in the Yeshiva College valedictorian determination offered the same perspective regarding the recent trend of science majors meritting the award. “The fact is,” said Dean Jacobson, “Yeshiva College students do major disproportionately in the natural sciences; and I have a feeling that preparation for pre-med calls upon many of our strongest and most ambitious students to do their best work.” Professor Koller figured that “it has something to do with what it takes to run a 3.98 GPA or higher.” Koller explained that pre-med students are often under considerable pressure to maintain perfect GPAs, whereas this may not be the case for students majoring in the humanities. Dean Bacon wrote similarly that she “can attest to the fact that there is no bias towards science majors. Nevertheless, because there are so many science majors on campus, they may make up a large percentage of those who have the highest GPAs.” The Commentator reported earlier this semester that “biology is the largest declared major on both the Wilf and Beren campuses, comprising 26.0% and 33.3% of all declared liberal arts majors, respectively.”

This year’s Yeshiva College valedictorian determination process, which concluded with the announcement of Rutner this past Wednesday, began a month prior. On Monday, March 12, the Dean’s Office sent an email to “the set of students” who were being considered for the award, for the purpose of determining if they were indeed graduating in May 2018 and eligible to be valedictorian. Two weeks later, on Monday, March 26, Dean Sugarman sent an email to the undergraduate student body announcing the eleven finalists (one later withdrew himself from the running). Of these final candidates, nine spent only three full years on-campus. When the decision was made, most of the candidates were in positions to complete the requisite 94 on-campus credits by graduation, although two were not. Three majored in biology, three in mathematical economics, one in computer science, one in history, one in philosophy, and one in political science. At least two of the candidates were not Honors students.

Dean Sugarman privately emailed the candidates on Tuesday, April 10, informing them that the finalists had been narrowed down to three students. The three students interviewed with the board of deans and faculty on Wednesday, April 11, one after the other, beginning at 1:00 PM and ending at 2:30 PM. Dean Sugarman emailed the three finalists about the final decision at 2:37 PM, and emailed the rest of the student and faculty body at 2:50 PM.

“It is quite an amazing honor,” expressed Jared Rutner, reflecting on his privilege to be this year’s Yeshiva College valedictorian. “I wish congratulations to all the other finalists and I really am just so thankful for being in YU, for my family, and to Hashem.”