Will the Real President Berman Please Stand Up?
Following his appointment as Yeshiva University’s fifth president, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman quickly became a presence on campus. For much of the Spring 2017 semester, Rabbi Berman lived in the Morgenstern dormitory and was regularly spotted chatting with students in YU’s cafeterias, libraries and hallways. Rabbi Berman convened meetings with varied student focus groups in which he listened to students as they expressed their ideals, concerns and general thoughts about the institution.
President Berman’s penchant for listening and brainstorming extended into his first year in office, which saw the creation of the “YU Ideas,” an initiative that hosted seminars and lectures about themes related to education, leadership, values and “the world of tomorrow.”
President Berman’s transition period, as one would expect from any new leader, was defined by abstract thinking and planning. However, his transition did not end after only one semester. It did not last two semesters, nor even three semesters. Arguably, one and a half years after President Berman’s investiture, he is still functionally serving a primarily transitionary role. Aside from a handful of examples, President Berman has not publicly instantiated his accumulated knowledge into practical, tangible leadership.
Though the dearth of practical presidential leadership is evident in several capacities, it is perhaps most evident in President Berman’s public addresses.
In his recent interview with The Commentator, President Berman described the most crucial role of his presidency as the responsibility to “formulate, articulate and represent the vision of the future for Yeshiva University” to the student bodies, faculties, alumni and other groups. Yet even a particularly creative reader would struggle to identify substance within President Berman’s 45-minute interview. President Berman referred to vague notions like “market skills,” “the world of tomorrow” and “leaders of the future,” while avoiding direct answers. When asked about LGBTQ events on campus, President Berman not only pivoted to his vague and amorphous “Five Torot,” but proceeded to spend several minutes reciting a full exposition of those values, a hackneyed account that he has delivered countless times to different audiences.
President Berman’s habit of appealing to broad truisms — not only in the recent interview, which was one of a very small handful of his public interactions with the student body, but also in many of his other addresses to the broader community — is, in itself, unobjectionable. Such catchphrases and idioms appeal to basic institutional and communal values that all but demand a head nod from anyone in the extended YU community. This approach is not so different from those so often exemplified by politicians who speak in vague generalities to maximize unity of minds and minimize disagreements.
At a certain point, though, a politician must actualize generalizations into real substance if he is to have a practical impact as a leader.
Throughout the interview, President Berman exemplified his substance-aversion with his refrain that “students should speak to each other with the right administrators and come up with the right vehicles.” “I have confidence in our student body that if they work together, they can find the right directions and vehicles for these kinds of issues,” he asserted. In these and similar expressions, President Berman effectively shifted the blame for issues related to women’s Torah learning, the undergraduate Shabbat experience and LGBTQ events on campus to students rather than to administrators.
Not only is such an articulation tone-deaf to the facts on the ground — YU’s recent history is replete with instances of students presenting solutions and pitching ideas that have been ignored or warped by administrators — but it also avoids the very role that President Berman claims to serve: articulating and representing YU’s vision. Students so often reach bureaucratic impasses — whether in trying to secure approval for events, create clubs or simply express themselves — due to YU’s vague positions on its values. By avoiding any concrete stance regarding campus politics, President Berman allows preventable inefficiencies and dissatisfaction to persist.
President Berman’s ongoing transitionary period is evident not only in his recent interview and other public addresses, but also in YU’s innovations, or lack thereof, during his presidency.
For all the talk of “building tomorrow, today” and “the world of tomorrow,” there have been few new programs and minimal infrastructure improvements over the past year and a half. President Berman initiated new pathway programs between YU and Israel, whose nascent impact is still unclear. President Berman’s administration also brought a revamped Career Center, which was no doubt a positive achievement, as well as a moderate expansion of the Katz School, an initiative that began during Richard Joel’s presidency. But faculty morale and salaries remain low. Enrollment and course offerings are in decline. And the institution still maintains its speculative grade B3 rating from Moody’s Investors Service.
Perhaps institutional innovations and improvements take more than two years to roll out and to actualize. However, there is no reason for any further delay in the president stepping up as a substantive visionary.
President Berman might begin showing substance by articulating institutional stances on some core issues: Where does YU draw the line regarding permissible speakers and clubs on campus? What is YU’s precise position on the current state and the desired future of women’s Torah learning? Where exactly does YU lie on the continuum between Yeshiva and University?
Taking substantive stances will inevitably alienate some and generate criticism. However, the role of a university president, and certainly a YU president, yields criticism regardless of what vision the president articulates. From President Berman’s perspective, there is not much to lose by beginning to articulate direct messages. His experience in education and his extended transition period of listening and meeting with constituents certainly enable him to take on such a role.
A vision of only obvious clichés unites the community in vague values while championing nothing. It is time for President Berman to stop talking about “the world of tomorrow” and start articulating substance today.