By: Avi Hirsch  | 

YU’s Problematic Power Dynamics Leave Its Students Disenfranchised

The undergraduate students of YU have been disempowered by an administration that enacts policies on our behalf without giving us a say in determining what those policies will be. We are disenfranchised citizens of YU, lacking any substantive power to determine what laws we will be compelled to follow. These laws impact every aspect of the student experience; they define the classroom experience, affect student life on campus and ultimately influence virtually every aspect of the three or four years most undergraduates spend at YU.

There are practical reasons why this is the case. Students only attend YU for a few years before moving on with their lives, and it would therefore be unfeasible to enact any sort of democratic system that represents the will of those who happen to currently be students. Replacing administrators every few years to ensure that they accurately represent the will of the students would certainly be impractical.

Others will argue that college students are at a point in their lives when they are not yet full-fledged members of society and therefore not ready to make important decisions for themselves. At this stage in their lives, perhaps it is helpful to put those with more experience in charge of their day-to-day lives to help guide them to make informed decisions. The administration seems to have taken this approach, with the result that YU’s students are often treated as children who are too immature to make meaningful decisions for themselves. Instead of empowering students to take charge of their own lives, the administration makes policy decisions for them, insisting that they have their best interest in mind.

But the fact is that administrators don’t always have the students’ best interest in mind. There are countless other priorities that YU’s administrators juggle when deciding how to react to pleas from the student body, including the impact their decisions will have on the university’s image, monetary matters such as how admissions and donations might be affected as well as their own job security.

In theory, student government should be the remedy to this problem. An elected governing body consisting of student representatives with real power to influence decisions made by the administration could empower YU’s students and help them take back some semblance of control over their own lives.

But the student government as it currently exists does none of these things. Although nominally representing the 2,000 undergraduate students at YU, the councils that comprise YU’s student government spend much of their time planning events and divvying up money between various club events. When they do represent student interests to administrators, they are given no real power to affect change. Instead, after arguing their case in meetings, they are forced to await whatever decision the administration will make on their behalf.

And yet administrators seem utterly unaware of — or unconcerned by —  how little say students have over the policies that affect their lives. In a Dec. 2018 interview with President Berman, the president was asked his thoughts on women giving divrei Torah on Shabbat, a controversial issue at the time. “A lot of this has to come from the students, meaning the students need to speak to each other, work with the right administrators and identify the right forums,” he replied. “But it seems to me that there are vehicles that exist, and if they don’t already exist, could exist.” Elaborating, he explained that “the students should speak to each other with the right administrators and come up with the right vehicles ... I have confidence in our student body that if they work together, they can find the right directions and vehicles for these kinds of issues.” Whether President Berman was simply unaware of the powerlessness of the student body or was deflecting the uncomfortable question, he was right that “a lot of this has to come from the students.” But we are sorely lacking “vehicles” for student-driven change.

In fact, one of the only avenues that students currently have to exert any degree of power over the policy decisions that affect their lives are the student newspapers on campus, The Commentator and The YU Observer. These newspapers are unique in their independence from the university, which means that the administration has no say in what we decide to publish; our budget comes exclusively from our own advertising in our paper, not the school itself. Reporting on YU events from an independent student perspective is so valuable because it is perhaps the only method of undergraduate student self-expression that can have (and has had) a real impact on the university, regardless of whether the administration wants it to or not. When student journalists publish stories on safety violations or problematic dining plans, for example, it subjects YU’s administrators to the harsh reality that fundamental flaws within their operations can have consequences. When those flaws are exposed and publicized, the administration knows that they have the potential to impact the decision-making process of those considering attending or donating to YU. The voice of the student body as expressed in the student newspapers empowers YU’s students to change policies at YU when other means are ineffective.

Perhaps the most significant time this year that students tried to wield power over policies at YU was regarding LGBTQ issues. From the Sept. 15 student-organized march to a petition signed by over 50 student leaders, student activists have been primarily arguing for five demands, including the formation of an LGBTQ club. But more than five months after President Berman announced that he has put together a team of rabbis and educators to address these matters, no word has reached YU’s students about what progress, if any, this committee has made. And the many student efforts on this front have thus far been unsuccessful, at least insofar as zero of their five demands have been implemented — or even addressed — by YU’s administration.

The recent abstention of YU’s student council presidents on the question of whether or not to approve an LGBTQ club demonstrated just how powerless they are. The statement they released after meeting with Vice President Josh Joseph effectively surrendered their decision to the administration. Since the administration has the ability to veto any decision made by YU’s student government on this or any other front, the abstention was not practically significant; it did, however, underscore how little power the student councils at YU have.

The remedy to the powerlessness of YU’s students must take place in stages. First, the student government ought to take its primary responsibility of representing YU’s student body to the administration seriously, even while its power remains limited. It should spend less time on event planning and club activities and more time working with the administration to do everything in its power to enact student-driven change at all levels of YU.

But ultimately, change will have to come from those in power, namely the administrators themselves. In order for the problematic power dynamics to shift, YU’s administration must cede control instead of exerting it. It needs to empower YU’s students by not only speaking with them but listening to them, and not only listening to them but empowering them by giving them a say in determining the policies that affect them. Complaining about problems in a student newspaper should not be the only available recourse of YU’s frustrated students, and the only way to change this is through a student government that is given the power to govern.