By: Avi Hirsch  | 

On the Absence of Leadership at YU

In mid-October of 2017, barely a month following Dr. Ari Berman’s investiture as president of Yeshiva University, a bold new initiative called “YU Ideas” was launched by his new Office of the President. Its goal, in President Berman’s words, was to “equip people with the knowledge they need to form educated, nuanced opinions and think more critically about some of the most important issues in the world of the future.”

A month earlier, students had reacted to the new president’s investiture with anticipation of the major changes that would be arriving. “I don’t know what he is going to do,” remarked one student, “but I feel like there is already a sense of change in the air.” In his speech at the event, President Berman listed his now famous “Five Torot” as the centerpiece of his vision for YU, encompassing the values of “truth, life, humanity, compassion and redemption.”

These values, according to President Berman, define the core of YU’s identity. And who could possibly disagree with these principles? No reasonable person would argue that “truth” is not important, that “life” or “humanity” ought not to be valued or that we should not strive to be compassionate people. As incontrovertible as these principles were, they defined a vision that had the potential to revitalize YU and bring about a new era of value-centric leadership to guide YU’s students.

Over the last two years, the student body has anxiously awaited the change that seemed inevitable as a new leader emerged for YU. Students have wondered how President Berman’s sweeping pronouncement of YU’s values would be implemented in practice and what changes would come as a result of YU’s new mission.

But in the years since President Berman’s investiture, the administration of this university has seemed disinterested in engaging with real issues plaguing the student body. In a Commentator survey of YU’s undergraduate students in the spring of 2019, a plurality of students expressed dissatisfaction with the YU administration. Most students also had negative views of cafeteria prices — likely not helped by the recent changes to the Dining Plan system — and disapproved strongly of the poorly functioning elevators on campus. Defensive statements from the university responding to these issues have failed to placate a frustrated student body.

Meanwhile, YU has found itself beset by controversial issues that have left the student body divided. Controversies surrounding the Klein@9 minyan, a YU-sanctioned coed shabbaton denounced by a YU rosh yeshiva and, most recently, a student-led protest of YU’s handling of LGBTQ issues have been met with resounding silence from the president and the university administration, leaving students without moral guidance on how to navigate these issues. A university like YU, with its supposedly value-centric mission, ought to be outspoken about how students can apply those values in their own lives.

Since his investiture, President Berman has managed to write a Letter to the Editor for the New York Times and participate in panel after panel on Jewish thought and YU’s values, while paying little attention to his own university’s student body. In our spring survey, we found that around half of female respondents were unable to say whether or not President Berman’s job performance had been satisfactory. Since discontinuing President Richard Joel’s semesterly town halls, President Berman has rarely given students an opportunity to engage with him, and his voice has been absent from the controversies that have affected the student body over the last two years.

Why has President Berman, and by extension the YU administration, stayed silent on the issues that matter most to students? Public relations are important to every institution, and YU’s statements discussing critical issues seem to be meticulously crafted with the goal of preserving the university’s noncontroversial public image. Appearing to support a cause with which some parents disagree runs the risk of a drop in the number of applicants the following year. Donors who disagree with YU’s stated position might stop contributing to YU, which could cause further financial damage in the long term. A risk-averse approach is a savvy way to protect the institution from further financial trouble after YU’s last financial crisis left it reeling. An administration that doesn’t react to controversy is protected from possible backlash on either side of contentious issues — a statement that leans too far to the left leaves YU at risk of losing the support of the right-wing; too far to the right, and those on the left may well abandon it.

In avoiding these potential pitfalls, YU has lost something far more essential than donors or a large student body: its identity. There are many dangers that result from a vague and ill-defined central mission with virtually no practical relevance, but chief among them is the sense that YU as an institution does not stand for anything meaningful. For all of President Berman’s lofty talk of values, those values have not led to any discernible concrete mission since his tenure began.

On a purely practical level, it might well make sense for YU to avoid being too specific in addressing student malcontent, with the ultimate goal of surviving as an institution. But YU should not exist merely to survive. President Berman himself seemed to recognize this when he spoke of our shared values driving this institution forward into its future. As a pillar of Modern Orthodox Judaism in America, YU has a unique responsibility to lead by our values not just on a conceptual plane but in practice.

Last week, as a result of the Berman administration's continued lack of action in addressing LGBTQ issues despite ongoing student pressure, discontented students organized an LGBTQ march on YU’s Wilf Campus. When reached for comment prior to the march, YU’s response amounted to a lukewarm statement that while the march “didn’t follow the protocol for events on campus,” YU had a responsibility to ensure all students “feel safe and welcome” — with no mention of the specific demands of the march or the issues students were calling on the administration to address. Days later, over 300 people joined a Facebook group pledging not to donate to YU until the university addresses its demands for LGBTQ rights.

In an interview with The Commentator a year after his investiture, President Berman summed up his threefold role as president: to articulate the “vision” of the future of YU, to form partnerships with leaders and institutions external to YU and to lead the administration of YU. In practice, the first of these has been watered down to the point where speakers at the LGBTQ march co-opted President Berman’s own “Five Torot” to justify their demands and rebuke YU in the process. The administration should not be surprised that such broadly conceived values are being used to critique its own actions.

What we need now is a leader to establish and promote a value system that can guide the student body when faced with challenging situations. This moral compass might well be based on the president’s beloved Torot, and will certainly incorporate the values of Torah and Madda that have guided YU for decades, so long as it has real-world implications. It’s time for the administration to stand up to its constituents and take a side, for its own sake and for the sake of the student body it serves.