Former Student Leaders Detail Past Efforts for LGBTQ Inclusion
Over the course of last year, the presidents of the undergraduate student councils repeatedly met with President Berman and other university officials to discuss the issue of LGBTQ inclusion on campus. Amitai Miller, Shoshana Marder and Nolan Edmonson, last year’s presidents of Yeshiva College Student’s Association (YCSA), Stern College for Women Student Council (SCWSC) and Yeshiva Student Union (YSU) respectively, were heavily involved with these discussions. Miller, Marder and Edmonson believed that LGBTQ inclusion was a serious issue that needed to be addressed in YU student life and tried to initiate discussion with the administration on the matter.
“Our approach to addressing LGBTQ inclusion was to collaborate with the YU administration to better understand and practically address LGBTQ students’ needs,” said Miller.
In the fall 2018 semester, the three student council presidents had a series of meetings with the staff of the Office of Student Life (OSL) and Dr. Chaim Nissel, University Dean of Students, to discuss ways to make LGBTQ students feel more welcome on campus. With growing support among the student body for some form of an LGBTQ club, they discussed, among other things, the creation of a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) on campus. During their discussions with the OSL and Dean Nissel, they came to believe that an application for a GSA during the spring 2019 semester could be approved in some form.
An application for a GSA was submitted for approval under SCWSC on Beren Campus and under YSU and YCSA on Wilf Campus in spring 2019. The club sought to “provide a safe space for students to meet, support each other, and talk about issues related to the intersection of sexual orientation and Jewish identity.” Miller, Marder, and Edmonson were contacted during the club application process by members of the OSL, who told them that the GSA could not be approved. They were informed that a club addressing tolerance in the university community would be allowed to form, but a club specifically addressing LGBTQ inclusion would not. The club application was denied.
After this, Miller, Marder and Edmonson had additional meetings with Dean Nissel discussing the issue of LGBTQ students’ experience on campus. “We know that some of the student leaders were frustrated last year,” said Nissel about the meetings. “But the conversations helped provide more insight into the LGBTQ+ students’ experience on campus and pave the way for additional conversations this year.”
Earlier, in December 2018, Miller, Marder and Edmonson had emailed the President’s Office, asking to meet with President Berman regarding the club approval process and to discuss the importance of the creation of a space for LGBTQ students on campus. In the email, Edmonson wrote, “It has happened in the past that events proposed by students and clubs are rejected often without a clear reason as to why or a clear determination as to who rejected the event.” They hoped that in meeting with President Berman, they could create more open communication regarding club and event approval, especially concerning the creation of a space for LGBTQ students on campus. They also hoped that he would have the authority to make decisions on the issue that other members of the administration lacked.
In February 2019, they met with President Berman, who argued that the issue of LGBTQ inclusion on campus should be solved through student-facilitated discussion, not administrative decisions. He did not articulate a standard by which LGBTQ-themed events could be approved. He also did not express support for the creation of a GSA but thought that student input from the diverse community of students at YU was vital in the discussion of LGBTQ issues.
Miller, Marder and Edmonson left the meeting frustrated. “I felt as though the administration generally, and President Berman particularly, regarded the issue of LGBTQ inclusion on campus as not important enough to merit serious thought or consideration,” said Edmonson. “Additionally, it seemed that the school just did not value the input of its student leaders.”
Following the meeting, Miller, Marder and Edmonson decided to arrange a conversation between a diverse group of students, hoping to create the type of dialogue that President Berman had requested. They invited LGBTQ and straight students, men and women, students who spent their day in the beit midrash and others who did not. They also invited Dean Nissel and a representative from the President’s Office to sit in on the discussion. They hoped the meeting would facilitate communication between the spectrum of students at YU and members of the administration regarding LGBTQ issues. “We were optimistic that this would not only start a dialogue but would reach practical solutions for President Berman to consider,” said Miller.
In March, while the meeting was being scheduled, President Berman responded to them via email. “Although the format you’ve described is not really what I had in mind,” wrote Berman, “I appreciate you taking the initiative.” To facilitate further discussion, President Berman invited Dean Nissel and the seven student council presidents, including Miller, Marder and Edmonson, to another meeting “to talk about how best to facilitate discourse around important issues that matter to our students and the campus community.”
According to the three student council presidents, more conversations with the administration led them to feel that the administration would not pay attention to the results of the conversation they had previously arranged between students. Consequently, they abandoned the idea and focused on the new meeting scheduled with President Berman.
At the meeting, they were disappointed to find that President Berman tried to discuss other topics, such as women’s involvement on campus, while giving limited time to the discussion of LGBTQ issues. “We had very different agendas in the meeting,” said Marder. “It was clear that President Berman wanted to talk generally, while we tried to prioritize the issue of dialogue around LGBTQ inclusivity, the reason we felt we were having the meeting to begin with.”
Throughout the semester, Miller continued to meet with other prominent university officials, including Dean of RIETS Rabbi Menachem Penner and Senior Vice President Josh Joseph, regarding the issue. “Through these meetings, I was hoping to find support from leaders on campus who have the influence and power to implement meaningful policy changes. These individuals have valuable perspectives and I believed that pursuing one-on-one conversations would be conducive to reaching the solutions needed to better our campus community,” said Miller. He hoped through the meetings to convey to these offficials the necessity for LGBTQ students to feel more accepted on campus.
“Most people we spoke to genuinely wanted to help but felt they didn’t have the power to do so,” said Marder. “Our influence as student leaders felt like a facade. And it seemed that administrators felt similarly shackled by a system of hazy processes, deflections of responsibility, and crippling stagnation.”
In April, Miller met with President Berman again, this time without Marder and Edmonson, to discuss solution-oriented approaches to issues related to the LGBTQ student experience. At the meeting, Miller advocated for the formulation of clear criteria by which LGBTQ-themed events could be hosted on campus. He also spoke to President Berman about the need for LGBTQ students to be able to create some sort of community or club, as well as the need for the administration to break the silence on LGBTQ issues on campus by creating a forum for the discussion of these concerns.
President Berman redirected Miller to OSL at the meeting, claiming that they were better equipped to deal with the issues Miller wanted to discuss. He again did not express support for the creation of a GSA and stressed the importance of student discussion on the issue. Miller had already met extensively with members of OSL throughout the year, who said they did not have the authority to discuss solutions to many LGBTQ issues on campus.
Miller, Marder, and Edmonson left at the end of the year feeling frustrated with the process of communication with the administration. “Yeshiva University claims to encourage its students to be leaders within their communities. Yet, when their students try to lead in effective ways, they are consistently deterred and met with intense opposition,” said Edmonson.
They also stressed that their efforts were only one part of a greater struggle for increased LGBTQ inclusion on campus, noting that many LGBTQ students created dialogue with the administration and submitted requests for events regarding LGBTQ issues.In a September 2019 interview with The Commentator, President Berman said that he had formed a committee, led by Senior Vice President Josh Joseph, to “address matters of inclusion on our undergraduate college campuses, which includes LGBTQ+.” They were tasked with formulating “a series of educational platforms and initiatives that will generate awareness and sensitivity,” by meeting with students, administrators, and other institutions over the course of a number of months. “I know the team is working to continue to learn more and has already met with various individuals and groups, both within YU and outside of YU,” said Dean Nissel on the issue. “I am hopeful that their work will provide additional guidance to help identify ways for our campus to be more inclusive and respectful.”
Photo Caption: The Wilf Campus plaza, with Furst Hall on the left and the Gottesman Library and Glueck Center on the right.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University