Interview with President Berman
Editor’s Note: The Commentator was given an opportunity to conduct an email interview with President Berman at the beginning of the new school year. Our questions, with Dr. Berman’s written responses, can be found below.
What improvements have you made to the university for the upcoming school year that should excite the student body as they return to class?
It is an exciting time at YU with lots of new developments.
I am happy to announce the creation of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Through a major gift by Holocaust survivor and distinguished philanthropist Emil A. Fish, the Center will serve as the central hub for the wide expanse of Holocaust education resources throughout the University, and will feature a certificate program and interdisciplinary master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, incorporating history, Jewish studies, literature, law, philosophy, and social work.
We are also excited to launch the expanded and enhanced Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought through a major new gift by Zahava and Moshael Straus. The Center, led by its distinguished director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik, will provide new opportunities for our students to be enriched by our current YU faculty, as well as learn from distinguished visiting faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and guest lecturers, including — on the Beren Campus this semester — world-renowned scholar and best-selling author Dara Horn.
In the areas of science and tech, we are constantly advancing new opportunities for our students, including enhancing our graduate pathways and programs. We have restructured our school of graduate studies into the Katz School of Science and Health and have been opening new Master’s programs in the most attractive fields, giving our undergraduate students the ability to accelerate their studies and leave here market ready, primed for success.
This semester, we are launching a Master’s program in Cybersecurity. This Master’s degree will be distinguished in particular through YU’s deep, unique connections with the culture and industry of the State of Israel. Cybersecurity highlights how leveraging our YU-Israel Superhighway provides our students with a competitive advantage, as some of Israel’s most elite cybersecurity specialists have been working with us to shape a top-flight curriculum. The opening of the Mitrani Digital Lab on the Beren Campus this semester is another expression of our deep commitment to tech in general and Computer Science specifically for our undergraduate students, ensuring they have the skillset to excel in the marketplace of the future.
Our business school is ready to begin its first semester under the helm of leading entrepreneurship expert and first-rate exemplar of our values, Dr. Noam Wasserman. Under his guidance, we are launching a new course in which students have the opportunity to advise the managers of a multi-million-dollar VC Fund which has been established by key supporters of YU. In addition, our newly inaugurated Innovation Lab under the guidance of Dr. Maria Blekher is ready to open its first semester, providing our students from diverse undergraduate and graduate programs hands-on experience helping grow startups in the Israeli startup ecosystem.
For our future educators, new excellent programs are launching across the University. The new fellowship for Constructivist Education in the Azrieli Graduate School of Education primes the next generation of Jewish educators, while the new Special Education Master’s programs at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work will actively equip our graduates to improve the lives of their future students, schools, communities and families.
All of these programs have contributed to the growth in graduate school enrollment, and prepare our graduates to become leaders in their respective industries. These are just some of the highlights of YU’s new forward momentum. Additional wonderful new developments — from major Israeli media personality Sivan Rahav Meir joining our faculty as a visiting professor, to bringing in Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz as a powerful presence in our beit midrash, and more — are continuously underway. We are committed to gathering the top caliber rabbis and academics to best prepare our students for a life of meaning, success and purpose. This is a tremendously inspiring time to become a YU student.
Looking back on your first years as president, are you satisfied with your accomplishments thus far? Do you have any regrets?
The goal since I began my presidency has been to reset YU’s financial structure based on an educational vision which capitalizes on the new opportunities of our changing world and prepares our students to be leaders of tomorrow. This, of course, is a marathon, not a sprint. We have made great forward progress, but there is still much more that needs to be done.
Wins over these past years include identifying and bringing in top caliber faculty and administrative personnel who can help spearhead Yeshiva University's transformation for the next generation; launching a new communications and marketing plan to expand the footprint of the institution, and facilitate the publishing of faculty articles and interviews across media channels; developing a new team and strategy for fundraising, including engaging new potential major donors for YU; shifting YU’s financial model to strengthen our sustainability by identifying new markets of students and new revenue streams. Most of these are in areas that the undergraduate student would not readily see, but are crucial for YU to succeed in the future.
In a short span of time, we have seen these directions pay off with growth in net tuition revenue, especially from our graduate schools, and growth in philanthropic commitments, including several new multi-million dollar, multi-year gifts.
We still have a distance to travel and we are not yet out of the woods. And there are still more areas where we have great aspirations, such as renovating and upgrading our facilities. In sum, we are moving in the right direction and are laying the groundwork for long-term success by working on the fundamentals of the institution. An important element of that long-term success is acknowledging the hard work and dedication of our faculty and staff. As such, we have also begun to redress some of the issues in the faculty and professional compensation lines.
The areas more visible to undergraduate students have been subject to much attention as well. The most important area for us is, of course, our education. Together with our faculty and student body, we are working on growing our educational offerings. A number of successes are already underway, as I outlined earlier. But this is an iterative, ongoing process. Towards this end, some of the questions we are discussing include the way our education gives greater insight into the human condition, transmits values to our students, and inspires them to lead lives of impact and leadership.
Student life and experience has also been an important focus with significant student input. Much work has been done, for example, in developing excellence in our athletics, and in enhancing the Shabbat experience. At the Beren campus, the introduction of Rabbi Jacob and Penina Bernstein as the rabbinic couple has been transformative. These are works in progress and we continue to work on and grow in these areas.
While over the past two years, I of course have made and learned from a number of mistakes, one regret is that I have not yet successfully worked into my calendar time to teach. Throughout my educational career, I have greatly enjoyed my time in the classroom and the relationships that are built upon interactions with students. When I first arrived at YU, I lived in the Morgenstern dorm for three months before I officially began my position, so my conversations with students were very organic. Now it requires more consciousness and scheduling. I hope to return to the classroom, but even before that, we will be scheduling opportunities for me to meet throughout the year with a cross-section of the student body.
What have you found to be the biggest challenges you have faced in your role as president so far, and how do you plan to overcome them moving forward?
One challenge is positioning YU so that its value proposition is correctly understood by prospective students and parents. Many people have mentioned to me that YU is crucial today for it provides a safe and secure place for our next generation to study. As the climate on other college campuses become less comfortable for a pro-Israel public Jewish life and parents come to better understand the obvious risks that other college environments pose to their children’s Jewish future, people are naturally looking to us. But the case for YU is much greater than that. With our distinct model that integrates profound Jewish learning with a top quality education, YU is a place for our students to flourish and be educated with the Jewish values and market-ready skills to lead lives of enormous impact.
Some of the great rabbinic minds, Jewish educators and top scholars make YU their home. There is simply no other experience in the higher education sphere that even approaches what YU offers its undergraduate students. And it could not have come at a more critical time in our students’ lives. These undergraduate years are the most formative years in a person’s life which will shape who you are, what you want to do, who your friends are going to be, who you will marry, and what kind of community you’re going to live in. These are the informative years during which parents’ investment in their children’s’ Jewish future is most critical. So how do we move forward? The first step is spreading our message vigorously — across all channels — that Yeshiva University is the best institution in the world for educating our children to go out in the world, embody the Jewish values we cherish, and achieve great personal and professional success.
We need to showcase our enormous strengths, such as our unparalleled group of rabbinic leadership and Jewish educators, led by such giants in the field as Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi Michael Rosensweig. At the same time, we have a responsibility to give our stellar faculty the tools and resources to develop their departments even further to meet the needs of a new era. This is why, for example, we have been emphasizing key areas like science, tech and entrepreneurship, which will empower our graduates with the skills and competencies they will need to find great professional success in the marketplace of tomorrow. Or, why we have been revamping our Career Services department, fusing it together with our Alumni Affairs department in order to help our students connect to our large network of alumni and friends who will care deeply about them and help them build great, impactful careers. Through these initiatives and many more we are vastly elevating YU’s value proposition.
What efforts, if any, have you taken of late to make YU more affordable for the student body?
I am pleased to say that we have already successfully raised a number of multi-million-dollar gifts towards undergraduate scholarships and we are working on more. Ensuring YU’s affordability is a big issue — not just for prospective students and parents, but for the Jewish people at large.
Our goal is to educate and inspire our students to become people of impact. As our graduates are deeply rooted in Jewish texts and ideas, ardent Zionists, and culturally conversant and successful in the broader world, they are particularly qualified and primed to be the Jewish leaders in the next generation. Our unique integrated education which prepares our students for a life of purpose and service must be open to all qualified students regardless of means. We need them and the Jewish people need them.
Scholarships will continue to be a significant feature in our fundraising efforts. Events like our Day of Giving on September 18th are very important for us to create greater accessibility to our unique and impactful educational model, and we need students to help generate excitement, as well as alumni support to help us ensure its success. These are the events that enable a YU education to shape your lives as students, and can literally alter the lives of future students, and the future of the Jewish people. I encourage our students to participate, and our entire community to give generously, and spread the word when the time comes.
In the aftermath of last year’s coed Shabbaton, will similar events be allowed uptown this year?
When it comes to coed activities on campus, it is helpful to consider them in the context of the YU student body as a whole. Students who come to Yeshiva University have made an affirmative choice to come to this kind of college, which itself demonstrates an inherent commonality amongst our student body. In this very select student community, it is only natural that there should exist some differences in their visions and expectations for their campus experience.
Our goal at YU is for us to cultivate a consciousness of our commonalities and shared values, even while giving space for different kinds of campus experiences. Specifically, when it comes to coed events on campus, the students at YU have done an impressive job in navigating the divide between those who prefer coed activities on campus, and those who prefer a more classic yeshiva and seminary style environment. Every night — on both the Wilf and Beren campuses — there are activities and spaces that cater to both of these groups.
One issue that has been a flashpoint of heightened sensitivity is the concept of a coed shabbaton in Washington Heights. I know the administrative leadership is working on addressing this in a way that considers the interests of the entire student body, and I look forward to seeing positive directions forward.
Can you share any information about how YU plans to handle the child abuse lawsuits it is being faced with under the recently enacted Child Victims Act?
At this time, I cannot comment on these matters as they are the subject of ongoing litigation.
What do you believe the role of the Roshei Yeshiva is, and ought to be, with respect to the university administration?
This is a great question that I remember thinking about myself when I was a student here, and I know is on the mind of many current students. While this is not the forum for a comprehensive presentation, I will sketch out the model.
Responsibility for decisions are naturally placed in the hands of those who are accountable for them, as they have a more comprehensive perspective than others on the full range of factors and ultimately bear the burden of the decision. Somewhat ironically, their very accountability might also slant their views towards the practical, and the Rabbi and moral guide coming from a different perspective serves as an important corrective and source of wisdom. Somewhere within this earnest conversation between the two sides is the right course of action.
This is the reasoning behind the well-known dictum of R. Yehoshua ben Perachiah, aseh lekha rav (Mishnah Avot 1:6), which directs each individual to establish for oneself a teacher, a spiritual and halakhic guide, to whom one can turn throughout one’s life for inspiration and guidance. I myself regularly turn to my own rabbeim for matters of guidance, and I encourage our students and community to do so as well.
Are there any plans to expand or improve Stern College's Judaic Studies program and/or Jewish life on the Beren Campus this year?
Yes. The complete access to Jewish learning for women today is one of great berakhot of our times. We at YU are not only proud to have launched this effort with the first gemara shiur of Rav Soloveitchik in Stern College, but to continue and further it with the ongoing growth of Torah learning and Jewish life on our Beren Campus. We already have a great team in place at the Beren campus and they have worked together with the students to create a vibrant, dynamic Jewish life experience. Some of my personal highlights of being President include the shabbatot I spent on campus and my interactions with our students after delivering shiurim there.
In an effort to advance Jewish life and learning at Beren even further, we are uniting the different Jewish programs, including the Jewish Studies department, GPATS, Office of Spiritual Life and the rabbinic couple, together within a new portfolio: the Associate Dean for Torah Studies. This Associate Dean will be a member of the senior administration of Stern College working in collaboration with the Dean of the College and the Associate Dean for Operations. She will work with the directors of each of the Jewish programs and directly with the students to help galvanize all of the great Jewish resources in midtown and advance the educational and experiential Jewish opportunities for our Beren students. The search process for this position is underway, with further updates to come.
Can you comment on the state of LGBTQ+ inclusion on campus? Is there anything you would like to see change this year in this regard?
I have asked Senior Vice President Dr. Josh Joseph to lead a team of our rabbis and educators to address matters of inclusion on our undergraduate college campuses, which includes LGBTQ+. He has brought in Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, Dr. Rona Novick, Dr. Yael Muskat and Dr. David Pelcovitz to work with him. Over the course of the next number of months, they will be meeting with students, faculty, educators, Roshei Yeshiva and other faith-based institutions of higher education. They will work on formulating a series of educational platforms and initiatives that will generate awareness and sensitivity, and help our students develop a thoughtful, halakhic, value-driven approach to their interactions with the wide spectrum of people who are members of our community.
Photo Caption: President Ari Berman
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University