YU’s Event Planning Process is Outrageous
Not everyone is familiar with the event planning process at YU. That unique privilege belongs to student leaders and those heavily involved in student clubs. Unfortunately, the covert nature of the system allows it to go unchecked by the masses. The system is extensive, bureaucratic, obstructive, outrageous and riddled with incompetence. But the frustration of dealing with it rests with a handful of club leaders, dejected from dedicating their time and energy to enhancing student life only to fail at the hands of the Office of Student Life (OSL).
Let’s say you run a club and would like to have an event with a speaker. What must you do? There’s an Event & Fund Request Form on the OSL webpage, but don’t think about filling that out just yet. First, you need to fill out a Speaker and Film Request Form. That’s right, despite the current national culture wars over freedom of speech on campus and the lip-service paid to it in our community, there is not even a presumption of free speech at YU. All student-run events with speakers (or films) must go through a two-step approval process. The form also asks “that you do not invite or confirm any speakers prior to receiving a speaker approval confirmation code from the Office of Student Life.” Despite not being able to invite the speaker until they are approved, you are expected to know the topic of the event, the title and which campus it will be on. Discrepancies on those points between the original speaker request and the final planned event can be (and have been) used as grounds to cancel or significantly curtail an event.
How long does this all take? When must you submit your Speaker Request Form? The Event Request Form that you must eventually submit asks for submission at least three weeks prior to the date of the event. The Event Form currently even mandates that you check a box confirming it is being submitted at least three weeks in advance. How long before that, though, must you submit the Speaker Request Form? The instructions on the Event Request Form say to submit a Speaker Request Form at least four weeks prior to the event date, while the Speaker Request Form says to allow two weeks to process. In any case, this means you must submit a Speaker Request Form four to five weeks in advance. Forget about having an event during the first month of the year or getting one in after Chanukah or Pesach.
To review, you must submit a speaker request four to five weeks before your event, before inviting the speaker, but you must know the title, topic and campus for the event. Only after you receive a confirmation for your speaker can you submit the Event Request Form, which you must submit at least three weeks prior to the event.
But this obscene timeline is of course only the case if OSL actually meets its own deadlines and processes requests within the frame it says it will. In my experience, this is almost never the case. In fact, without follow-up, OSL usually doesn’t respond to any request at all. For most speakers I’ve requested I’ve had to follow up by email and in person at least two or three times before actually receiving confirmation, even when requesting YU professors. If my club didn’t follow up, we would usually receive no response ever. Approval within the one-week timeframe is exceedingly rare. On one occasion, it took my club nearly two months to get approval for a speaker, despite persistent reminders to OSL. At this moment, we have several speaker requests from last semester to which we never received a response of any sort.
Response to event requests is even worse. As with speaker requests, OSL only ever responds if you pester them repeatedly. The week or two before the event you must stop by the office constantly to make sure the process is moving along (not that their guarantee is terribly meaningful). Sometimes event requests aren’t responded to before the proposed date three weeks later, and sometimes it’s approved only a day or two in advance, giving you little time to advertise (advertising an event is forbidden until it is officially approved and added to the university events calendar). Conversations I’ve had indicate that this experience isn’t unique; many clubs have issues getting confirmation from OSL in time. Not only is the process an affront to student autonomy and unnecessarily bureaucratic, but the facilitators of the process are frankly incompetent at their job.
In addition to the process being extensive and typically hindered by bureaucratic incompetence, there’s also zero transparency, nor are there clear policies. Consequently, no one knows what happens behind the scenes of the approval process or who makes the decisions, and there’s no accountability for the frequent abuses that the system allows to flourish. What happens during the four to five weeks it takes to approve a speaker and an event? We know that OSL needs to approve them, and the sponsoring Student Council(s) need to approve funding the event. But is there anybody else involved? Who does OSL consult if they think there might be an issue? How much jurisdiction does “The Yeshiva” have over student events and activities? All decisions are made on an ad-hoc basis, and nobody knows where the buck stops.
One time, while being subject to many delays with event approval, I asked the Director of OSL what was taking so long. He responded that he wanted to do his “due diligence to make sure everyone is on the same page.” Upon inquiry, he refused to elaborate as to who “everyone” was. Another time I was told two days before a requested shiur we had been attempting to plan with OSL for months that they “feel that the proposed topic (tza'ar ba'alei hayyim and factory farming) is not a good fit.” In this case too, the Director of OSL refused to elaborate on what the specific issue with the topic was or who precisely took issue with it.
Several people in OSL, as well as the Dean of Students, have indicated to me that there’s a lot of coordination behind the scenes, especially for religious events. But no one knows what this entails, and it is therefore impossible for the students to have a voice in the process or be a check on the administration.
The abuses aren’t rare. Nearly every event I’ve been involved in planning this year for Kol Hamevaser has received pushback of some kind. An event with Chochmat Nashim on the erasure of women in Orthodox media and a shiur with Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak about the thought of Rav Shagar both received further inquiry. Rabbi Dr. Shai Held was only allowed to speak about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel if it was in conversation with a YU faculty member, and the title of the event was closely scrutinized and limited. The aforementioned shiur on tza'ar ba'alei hayyim had to eventually be run through an alternative channel.
Both this year and last, shiurim with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper were met with resistance and obstruction. His shiur last year, after already being forcibly postponed, required me visiting OSL nine times during the week prior to its anticipated Monday date. Despite constantly being assured the process was moving along, upon visiting OSL on Thursday, the event was marked canceled in OSL’s system. OSL only approved the event on Thursday at around 3:30, after which I still had to wait for the YU Office of Events to process it and add it to the calendar before I could publicize it. On Friday morning, I personally called the YU Office of Events (undergraduates are not supposed to do this), who informed me that they request two days from OSL to process requests, and could therefore only guarantee me that it would be added to the university events calendar at some point on Monday, which would give me only a few hours to publicize it.
These happenings aren’t limited to Kol Hamevaser events either. Other clubs I’m less involved in have faced similar obstruction. Events about LGBTQ issues are frequently hindered. On multiple occasions in my time at YU, such events were only allowed on the downtown campus or had their titles coercively altered to obscure their nature. Last year, a film request by The Poetry Club for “Dead Poets Society” was rejected.
These are only a subset of the OSL abuses I happen to know about. There are presumably more with clubs I’m not as involved in. It’s very hard to imagine this sort of obstruction at other college campuses, where students often protest over far lesser censorships. The problem is that people don’t know about it here. OSL thrives on the obscurity of their process. And due to the ad-hoc nature of event approval, a handful of individuals in OSL have too much power. Many student leaders I’ve spoken to are frustrated with OSL, but they are afraid to speak out against them for fear of retaliation. This shouldn’t be how our institution treats its most active and engaged students.
It’s generally understood that undermining student expression and autonomy is an affront to the values of a university. Yeshiva University’s Undergraduate Students Bill of Rights states that students have the rights to citizenship, expression and association, as long as they don’t interfere with the mission of the university. Are the above events inconsistent with YU’s mission? If so, they should say so publicly, and be held accountable by the community that supports them.
Encouragingly, when there is coverage of YU engaging in censorship or undermining student autonomy, there is generally widespread condemnation from the YU community and Modern Orthodoxy at large.
Event planning as it exists now needs major reform. The process needs to be expedited and actually adhered to diligently. Events already require approval, there’s no reason to require another drawn-out layer for speakers — this just allows for more censorship and incompetence. And most of all, the system needs transparency. Institutions require accountability. Event requests and their responses ought to be public. The people who attend and support YU have a right to know what it deems inconsistent with its mission and whether they are serving their students properly. Without transparency, incompetence and abuse go unchecked.
Until this happens though, students are the only source of accountability. Instead of resigning ourselves to OSL’s tyranny and incompetence or frustratedly disassociating from student activities, we must speak out. It’s the only way the system will ever change.
Photo Caption: The OSL Event Request Form
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University