By: Avi Hirsch  | 

What Do We Owe YU?

As YU students, we ought to feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the university for the services it has provided us. Many of us depend on scholarship money YU has granted us for an education that we otherwise would not have been able to afford, and we all utilize the countless other services that YU offers its students. Needless to say, these services have had a substantial impact on YU’s student body, and the proper response of its students should be one of appreciation and indebtedness to the university.

But no institution is perfect, and YU certainly has its share of flaws. It is inevitable that at times the administration will fail its students in one way or another. At these moments, our response as students cannot be one of blind loyalty based on the gratitude we rightly feel. We cannot stand aside as YU’s values are neglected by an administration that is blind to the impact of its policies on the student body. We ought to respond appropriately, whether through meeting privately with administrators to urge them in the proper direction, pressuring YU through newspaper op-eds or public protests, or even withholding donations that YU depends on. The tactics ought to vary based on the severity of the offense, but no course of action can be ruled out prematurely.

Almost two months ago, several days before YU’s Giving Day fundraising campaign, a public Facebook group was created by YU alumni called “#PledgeNotToPledge.” The group’s description states that it consists of “proud YU alumni” who pledge not to donate to YU until the university implements its five demands, the same demands issued by those who protested at the LGBTQ March that morning.

The group, which as of the time of publication consists of over 350 members, generated controversy and discussion among students and alumni of YU over the days following its creation. Popular YU Facebook groups such as “YU and Stern Confessions” and “The Official YU Memes Group” reflected this, with posts critical of the movement garnering over 100 comments from students and alumni, including many frustrated responses from those disturbed by the tactics deployed by “#PledgeNotToPledge.” Group members who agreed on their support for the cause debated the merits of the group’s extreme approach among themselves.

Although the group itself has been dormant now for over a month, the fundamental questions it raised that caused so much controversy live on: What, if anything, do we students and alumni of YU owe the university that has given us so much? The benefits we have received from YU surely exceed the education that our tuition has paid for. Our experiences here do not reduce to an exchange of services for tuition money, and our sense of gratitude to YU should correspond to the services it has offered us that often go beyond what is strictly owed.

But how should that gratitude be expressed? Should it compel us to refrain from supporting any activity that could financially or otherwise damage the institution that has provided for us? Do we owe it to YU to support it through thick and thin, helping YU continue to provide for future students because it has provided so generously for us? YU is surely capable of violating our trust, in the most extreme sense by supporting causes that run entirely counter to its own value system. If YU were to reject its ideal of Torah Umadda outright; if its administration decided to abandon its support for truth, kindness and justice as central tenets of the Judaism it upholds, then there would be nothing meaningful left for us to support. The mere words “Yeshiva University” cannot demand our absolute loyalty to an institution divorced from its values.

The same sense of gratitude and shared values that leads us to support YU, then, should also cause us to care about the continued success of the university in upholding its mission. As members of this community, we all have a stake in its future. Our desire to see it provide a welcoming environment for all its students should compel us to speak out against problems we perceive in its administration. And to truly effect change at the highest levels of YU’s administration, our demands must be backed up by concrete action that will pressure those in charge to fix what is broken instead of merely shrugging it off.

Putting aside the specific demands of the “#PledgeNotToPledge” movement, the tactic deployed by the group — withholding donation money until specific policies are implemented — can be viewed not as an absolute betrayal of YU but as an extreme avenue of change, a last ditch effort when all else has failed. If YU’s finances will be hurt by the effects of such a movement, it is a price that must at times be paid for the sake of the institution itself. Certainly a different, less painful path to accomplish the same goal would be preferable — “pledging not to pledge” should only be considered a last resort. But when a serious problem is ignored by the administration despite student protest or behind-the-scenes pressure, then the tragic result of the situation may leave no other path available to fix what is broken.

At the same time, other questions must be carefully considered before any action is taken. Are the demands being made of YU reasonable, could the university conceivably implement them, and would they truly be in the university’s best interest? Will withholding money from YU affect only the “guilty party” — the university itself — or will innocent students suffer financially when they receive less scholarship money due to a lack of donations? Could an aggressive stance toward the university generate resentment among those in charge, making change even less likely? And if the pressure is too severe, could it potentially lead to an outcome that nobody wants: the financial collapse of YU?

These questions have no easy answers. The right thing to do will always depend on the specifics of each situation, how pressing the issue is and whether it can be effectively handled in a sensitive manner. But as students with a stake in YU’s future, our gratitude ought to be more than symbolic. The loyalty we feel toward YU should be directed to the values that YU claims as its defining mission, and should be predicated on YU continuing to uphold those values. We should always be cognizant of the potential danger that comes with absolute fealty to YU: a future in which we continue to support an institution we no longer recognize, following an administration blindly simply because it asked us to.