By: Benjamin Koslowe | Editorials  | 

Looking Backwards as YU Enters President Berman’s “World of Tomorrow”

President Berman’s message to the student body this past week fits an historical pattern of new Yeshiva University presidents. This pattern, which has to do with investiture speeches, interaction with students and practical innovations to the institution, all but leaps out of the oxidized papers that chart this institution’s proud history.

Perhaps a few quotes can begin to illustrate some similarities:

“It is our intention to give to secular education a higher purpose and make the Yeshiva and Yeshiva College a living symbol of intellectual and moral activity.” (—Belkin; May 23, 1944)

“We are committed both to unfettered scholarship, and to the quest for transcendent values, norms, and the wisdom of tradition.” (—Lamm; November 7, 1976)

“The time is now to re-emphasize our commitment to quality and excellence in education, sacred and secular, to challenge the Yeshiva, the undergraduate, and graduate schools to take ownership of Torah Umadda.” (—Joel; September 21, 2003)

“We know that there are great truths to be discovered in the study of the human mind, the physical world, literature, legal interpretation and more. Our belief in the higher purpose of education is true for all of humanity.” (—Berman; September 10, 2017)

The above words from the investiture messages of Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Dr. Richard Joel, and Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman are, no doubt, intentionally and conveniently-selected lines from much longer speeches. But the entireties of the four speeches, even when read only surfacely, beg any reader to associate them together in one set.

The connections are both thematic and rhetorical: Four afternoons in the history of Yeshiva University when a new president addressed an overflowing audience from Lamport Auditorium’s podium for his first time. Four presidents, each expressing awe at the heavy burden bestowed upon his narrow shoulders by preceding giants, as well as confidence with his abilities to carry the institution forward to a more promising future.

Each new president articulated his vision of what Yeshiva University stands for. Each discussed tensions between conflicting modern and Jewish values. Each invoked iconic terms—a call for “synthesis” of secular knowledge with sacred wisdom, a fervent proclamation for the virtues of “Torah Umadda,” an ethos to “ennoble and enable,” or an outline of “Five Torot,” five values, that personify Yeshiva University—each vision as career-defining and as perfectly hard-to-precisely-explain as the next.

But the presidential similarities run deeper yet.

In 1944-45, President Belkin’s second year as YU’s second president, he announced a major university expansion of new graduate and undergraduate programs for the university, financed by a $5,000,000 drive. That same year, after a gaffe where the administration banned all Yeshiva College dramatic activities, Belkin responded to student complaints by penning a nearly 1,500-word prospectus in The Commentator, articulating a vision and rationale for the administration’s actions. He discussed Yeshiva College’s growth, pointing to a strong budget, a growing faculty and efforts to “add more fundamental courses.”

President Lamm met with student leaders for formal discussions and interviews on several occasions in his first year as president. In late 1977, at the beginning of his second year, Lamm appointed new deans to several of the institution’s undergraduate and graduate schools (including Dean Karen Bacon, who remains at YU these four decades later). At the time, Lamm explained that his appointments were part of “an intensive effort to keep pace with the rapid changes taking place in higher education.” YU’s third president also addressed problems of declining enrollments and inherited fiscal problems by closing the Belfer Graduate School of Science.

In President Joel’s first few months in office he offered an interview to the undergraduate newspapers as well as a town hall meeting where he announced a strategic plan for the undergraduate schools. In 2004, at the start of his second year, Joel hired 15 new professors, raised roshei yeshiva salaries, and renovated several Yeshiva University buildings. That same semester YU saw the appointment of a new chairman of Yeshiva’s trustees (Mr. Morry Weiss), a new dean of Yeshiva College (Dr. Fred Sugarman), a new Advisor on Israel Affairs (Mr. Howard M. Weisband), and a new dean of the newly-established Center for Jewish Future (Rabbi Kenneth Brander).

In short, YU’s presidents—to some degree in their first years in office, but certainly by their second years in office—established themselves as engaging leaders for students and strong edifices of innovation for the institution.

The year is now 2018. Students find themselves once again on the cusp of a nascent new president and, perhaps, even a new era, of Yeshiva University. Is the man of the hour living up to earlier models?

Consider first the realm of interacting with students. Like his predecessors, President Berman has been a presence on campus. Like President Joel, President Berman lived in Manhattan during the months leading up to his presidency to familiarize himself with student life. President Berman spent several Shabbatot last year at both the Wilf and Beren campuses. He also showed up to student activities, such as Swag Day and a Project START! Science module, and opened at yemei iyun and other Torah events on several occasions.

The new president was at times reserved with his potential authoritative voice. In his first year, Berman discontinued town hall meetings and spoke only once on record to a student newspaper. Readers of YU student newspapers will recall that the president’s shyness was a topic of considerable student criticism by the end of Spring 2018. President Berman’s recent interview, of itself, along with his apparent openness for more discussions over the course of the year is a positive development. It fits the pattern of YU presidents who offer students the transparency and interaction that they deserve.

And finally, there is the realm of practical institutional changes. For what it’s worth, President Berman has now announced the formalization of new educational pathway programs that he called for in his investiture. This is certainly something. And there is the optimistic “market-ready” attitude that the president strongly emphasized, which, although not particularly tangible—it isn’t backed yet by much—is no small matter to scoff at, either.

So, on the eve of a new president’s second year for the fifth time in Yeshiva University’s history, the community should read President Berman’s words once more. They should evaluate them carefully in themselves and assess them in historical context. Then, the question may be repeated: Is President Berman living up to earlier models?

This broad question entails derivative questions, too: Is the new president beginning to instantiate abstract ideas and philosophy into real, practical, necessary change? Do the president’s appearances at events and discussions with student newspapers suffice, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of quality, as substantive interactions with students? If those topics that the president articulated are real changes, are they of the variety that Yeshiva deserves to see? How exactly will YU in the “world of tomorrow” resemble and stand up to the institution’s impressive past? Are these even fair questions to be asking?

Are students, faculty and alumni witnessing the beginnings of a strong leader who is articulate in action and in vision?

Time, if it has not already begun to do so, will surely soon tell.