By: Commentator Staff 2003-04 | Features  | 

From the Archives (August 27, 2003; Volume 69 Issue 1) — Interview With President Joel

Editor’s Note: Just over fifteen years ago, Yeshiva University welcomed Richard Joel as the institution’s fourth president. This article, which was Joel’s first interview with The Commentator, is being reprinted now alongside President Ari Berman’s recent interview with the student newspaper.

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Title: From the Archives (August 27, 2003; Volume 69 Issue 1) — Interview With President Joel

Author: Commentator Staff 2003-04

Q: So how’s life as president these past two months?

A: It’s wonderfully exciting, it’s overwhelming, it’s somewhat terrifying. It’s kind of amazing because you really get a perspective about how much is at stake, how wonderful this place is, and how much we have to do together, and I look at it and say, “Me?”…

It’s gotten much better since my wife and my children were able to move up to New York which happened in the middle of the third week of July. We’re still in the midst of packing hundreds of cartons. That’s what we’re calling the President’s house. Seriously because it’s and I hope you’ll have the opportunity to be there. It’s one of the facilities of Yeshiva that we get to live in that has to be used as a place where people can come together and ideas can be exchanged…

Look, I’ve been building an office of the President, and I think I’ve only had a full contingent of my support system for two and a half to three weeks. It’s a new presidency, it’s a different presidency than that of Dr. Lamm, he should live and be well, and there are different emphases, and I have to build on what he provided me. So everything, from having a new office to having new staff and having a different kind of operating style and learning about the institution.

I’m a child of Yeshiva, so I know a lot, and I worked here for ten years, and I have three children who’ve graduated from here, and I went to MTA and graduated and I ran Torah Leadership Seminar and all kinds of high school seminars from here. In so many ways, Yeshiva defined my life. My wife got her Ph.D. from here. All my significant friends come from here. I’ve been a part of the YU world, and you know, I’ve done as much hocking at Yeshiva as anybody else has.

I can say that I have the same kind of love/hate relationship. But you know, usually when people are passionate enough to say “I hate it,” we’re in good shape. Elie Wiesel said the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. So we have an enormous amount of goodwill that sometimes masquerades itself as anger. And I think that we can tap into that, and I think that part of the issue is to realize the enormity of the challenge of the whole university…

Q: You’d mentioned before regarding enunciating a vision for the university. Could you comment on, in general or specific terms, what overall your vision for the university is?

A: Please G-d, you’ll be in the audience on Sept. 21… I’ve spent seven months listening to a lot to students. I lived at Morgenstern for three and a half months… I’ve listened to faculty, to different faculties. I’ve been out and around the country and in Israel listening to some of the 40,000 alumni. I’ve been listening - as you might guess, every person I bump into has an opinion about Yeshiva University…

This is a unique kind of institution and I don’t believe, by the way, in consensus. I don’t believe I should come up with something safe that should offend no one. Consensus is a root to death. Consensus is the lowest common denominator. It might be good for doing long division, but it doesn’t work for moving towards the Jewish purpose of being mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh (a kingship of priests and a holy nation). But I also don’t believe in a lonely vision; I believe in a collective vision, which means I can, I’m pretty good at enunciating visions. I think I spent my life, together with my family, dreaming dreams of what we’re supposed to do as Jews…

I think universities in general and Yeshiva University in particular claim its place as an academy for the inspiration of values… I think we have to look broadly at our responsibility as the great educational institution of the Orthodox world, and Modern Orthodoxy, and we say “what are our responsibilities, to ensure that there’s a lifetime of learning, and to ensure that this educational institution transcends its walls, and has a living, continual relationship with the Jewish community, from womb to tomb?”

And, that we take seriously our role, beyond the undergraduate and yeshiva elements, to see how do we make sure that the graduate schools, professional schools that we have will look at the wonders of arts and science and letters and professional training and look at it through the prism of Torah and Torah values that have really been the foundation stone of western civilization.

Q: More on a practical level, how would we go about achieving such a goal, in terms of increasing the awareness of Torah U’Madda and that sort of inspiration?

A: Kavod HaBriyot has to be the cornerstone because it’s also the outcome. What we want to do is help build a world, a Jewish community and a world, based on Torah values. What do we basically do? We engage in the act of imitato dei…

You translate that more into how we continue to build the undergraduate experience so that it’s both personal and excellent. The appointment of Hillel Davis, I joke, I say he’s vice president of kavod HaBeriyos, looking at all the areas that impact on quality of life here, so I’m giving that particular portfolio to a professional, a ben Torah, a talmid chacham and a great professional, who cares deeply about YU, and who’s a product of YU. I think that is making the statement that we want to be serious about this, and we want to be professional about this. Unleashing Dr. Lowengrub as Vice President of Academic Affairs so that he’s not dealing with any focus except working with the dean of all organs of this guf (body), to really look for what the agenda of academic excellence should be at Yeshiva University, so that we can make careful and important decisions…

You know, I think that of course there are issues of what our population is going to be, how we look from an enrollment management and strategic point of view as to what we think our population will be and how we house it. What we do with the Independent Housing Program, what we do thinking about the future of dormitories here. What we do thinking about the eruv that now goes across Amsterdam Avenue. With the gentrification of this area, and the safety of the area. Some people want to make this more of a community. How we make this a community so that on Shabbas it’s alive? How we make this an attractive place where secular faculty might want to live as well, so it becomes a neighborhood, the yeshiva neighborhood. Those are all things that I would love to dream about in week six of my presidency.

Q: Getting back to some administrative things. Speaking practically of Andrew Leibowitz leaving, I can tell you from my experience in talking to many students that there’s a lot of optimism coming into this year, and many students are excited about the possibilities. But as the same time, Andrew Leibowitz was, it’s a little of an exaggeration to say he was the only, but he was one of the few administrators that students really liked and it’s a very big disappointment to many students that he’s gone.

A: It’s a big disappointment to me.

Q: Most of the people I’ve spoken to here said that they really are going to miss him and they’d like him to stay, but he said he didn’t feel like he was really appreciated or wanted.

A: Sorry he felt that way. But I can’t really comment on how he felt…I have regard for Andrew Leibowitz, and I’m going to attend the wedding of his brother this evening. He’s a terrific young man an I think he’s done very fine service to Yeshiva University. And certainly work was invested in his remaining here. I can tell you that Dean Nulman was a very strong advocate for his remaining here. He was not pushed out, he left of his own volition…

So why I’m sorry he left, I think this provides us with an opportunity to review student services, and we’re going to do to make sure that we do it well. I don’t see the Student Services area as one that tries to fix what the rest of the place breaks.

I think that we have to look at the whole culprit of academic advisement and counseling, student life counseling, the whole aspect of hashkafa in the yeshiva and how we make people feel personally valuable and not faceless. That’s complicated, because this is a complicated place… we have to work to do. Some of that’s going to take money that we don’t have. But I’m not sweating the money until we have the right vision and the right plans… How to do it is going to take a little bit of ingenuity and involvement of students.

Q: What perhaps might be your immediate goals, let’s say, for the next several months?

A: Survival (laughter). I want to build a culture of “ivdu Hashem besimcha” (serve the Lord happily). And not by putting drugs in the Kool-Aid. I think it is about everybody realizing that they are together stakeholders in Yeshiva University and in Yeshiva University as a prototype of the rest of their lives and the community that we have to build. This is a time when young people --more than in the last generation, frankly --are looking to say, “How do I build my life in a way such that it works, and that I matter?” I think Yeshiva University will be foremost among universities in saying that values matter, that we will both value students and provoke students to confront the issue of values.

And we’re going to look to make this… a sterling place, where Torah is shining and joyous and rigorous and where Madda is excellent. This should be a place of excellence where we should challenge students --not to see how we can get by. I want people to walk away saying, “Do I really have to leave now? There’s so much more that I want to learn, that I want to give, that I want to contribute, that I want to do, that I want to serve.”

A lot of this is a challenge that I’m going to put out to the student body and to the faculty, to say “Let’s dream serious dreams, and then make them happen.” Part of this also depends upon the leadership that hired me, being open to a challenge, to say “we’re going to go to the next step.” What we have here, when we put all our cynicism aside, is pretty darn good. I inherit a healthy university. This is the defining force in Modern Orthodoxy…

We have a responsibility to be able to pinpoint achievements. Right now I’m saying that we took the word “only” off the entrance and exit doors is an achievement, we can make jokes about it, but it’s an achievement; that the president has an office that people can be proud of, and hopefully will be in, is an achievement, but that it’s not only the president’s office, but the whole floor is inviting to the whole YU community; that the conference room I’m going to have here is a conference room that will be used by all; it’s not the President’s conference room, it’s a conference room for the university. That the café here is made more attractive, and that we’re looking to do that not only in that way, that we’re starting to make the Wilf Campus a more open and welcoming place, that we’re maximizing the space we have by doing good things, I think, will be shown over time to be part of a new culture of building on what I have been entrusted with.

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