The Coronavirus Pandemic has Highlighted YU’s Communications Failures. Now is the Time to Fix Them.
Yeshiva University’s administration has a responsibility to communicate frequently and candidly with its students to keep them in the loop whenever possible and informed of developments that will affect their lives. But over the last few years, communications failures have resulted in a lack of transparency time and again. Although we have no doubt that university administrators have been working behind the scenes to help lessen the extraordinary burden weighing on the student body and broader YU community during this time, the communications deficiencies that have plagued the university in the past have only become more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the most pressing challenge the university has faced in its existence. With the stakes so high, YU cannot afford to continue to fail in communicating with its students.
In the early morning of Tuesday, March 3, several Jewish day schools in the greater New York area canceled classes, as they had just learned that the parent of a local student had contracted the coronavirus — the second reported case in the state. Realizing the exigent risk to public health, these schools immediately crafted an email to parents and sent buses back home mid-route to protect students and their families. Meanwhile, Yeshiva University said nothing, despite the fact that a son of this parent not only dormed on campus, but also eventually contracted the coronavirus himself.
Even as news crews converged on campus and the university became the subject of media attention, the university remained open for business as usual. FDNY ambulances arrived early the next morning to take students to the hospital as rumors continued to spread. In fact, midterms were held on both campuses that day, and students found themselves in a state of worry and confusion as they looked to the YU administration for guidance. Finally, only shortly after 8 a.m. on Wednesday, March 4, did the university decide to cancel classes uptown for the day.
Nevertheless, students were hesitant to leave campus for what some assumed would be a one day closure. As the university remained silent, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced via tweet that the Wilf Campus would be closed through the end of the week at a midday press briefing, an announcement the university echoed later that evening. Likewise, students first learned from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tweet that two “close contacts” of the infected YU student were taken to the hospital for testing. When President Berman finally informed students and the greater YU community on Thursday, March 12 that all undergraduate and graduate classes would be held online until the beginning of Pesach break, international students were left to fend for themselves as they hurried to book flights before their home countries issued travel bans. Many domestic and international students spent Purim alone on campus instead of returning home that week, under the mistaken assumption that class would resume after the holiday.
The university’s poor communication and lack of transparency have become an endemic characteristic of an institution that puts its own image above the welfare of its students far too often. The Commentator has reported on these fundamental flaws numerous times, and our editorial board penned a piece on it last month. Be it the litany of elevator rescues, botched security protocol updates, the bevy of fire and building code violations or December’s dorm break-in, transparency has been little more than an afterthought time and again, as public relations efforts take precedence over student safety.
Furthermore, one of the most important vehicles of communication that YU has at its disposal — its website — has been a tremendous source of confusion and misinformation for students over the years; during this turbulent time, its flaws have become more noticeable and harmful. As of the time of publication, the Registrar page on the website states that “all Yeshiva University classes will move to online instruction until April 20, 2020 when classes will return using their original delivery method (face to face or blended).” This is simply not true: classes have already been moved online for the remainder of the semester. But this fact will come as no surprise to most students, who have grown accustomed to disregarding information on YU’s website, knowing that much of it is out of date, inaccurate or incomplete.
Making matters worse, the university failed to respond to The Commentator’s frequent inquiries regarding when the university was first notified that a YU student was being tested for the virus, why it took so long to communicate the information, as well as a host of other questions. Indeed, The Commentator posed dozens of questions to the university’s Office of Marketing and Communications over the last few weeks, asking for insight into how the university has approached this crisis and what it plans to do moving forward, in order to share that information with the student body. We have yet to receive a substantive response to any of them.
President Berman laudably held two “COVID-19 community calls” in the early days of the crisis, perhaps sensing that communication had been sorely lacking and wishing to get ahead of the curve. On the calls, he promised to “overcommunicate” with the student body regarding the complex situation. But the president’s promise turned into little more than a pipe dream, as students have been the last to know about vital updates ever since. Insofar as the university aims to prevent “panic” amongst the student body, its concealment of information has fostered further worries, as students are left to rely on rumors while administrators keep tuition-payers in the dark as they scramble to release an official statement. Is this what President Berman meant when he vowed to “overcommunicate?”
It is important to acknowledge the areas in which some administrators have managed to step up to the challenge of the current situation to communicate effectively with the student body. The Counseling Center, Academic Advising and various other student services continue to operate virtually, and the OSL has transformed student events into video conferencing shows with varying degrees of success. When a new pass/fail grading system for the spring semester was announced for the undergraduate schools, the deans of YC and Stern did not deem it worth their while to actively engage with their students on the plans; Dean of Sy Syms School of Business Noam Wasserman, on the other hand, went out of his way to hold a virtual town hall meeting for all Syms students to clarify the new system — a system that was drafted in collaboration with Syms student leaders. Syms students are lucky to have Wasserman as their dean, and the example he set should serve as a model for other administrators to follow in his lead.
No community calls have been held since the initial two calls nearly a month ago, but many areas of concern for the student body remain unresolved. In the most recent coronavirus update to the YU community, President Berman failed to state whether the school will be refunding cafeteria, housing and other costs to its students, pushing off the announcement of a decision until after Pesach break. The university has an obligation to communicate how and when students will be refunded in a timely and direct fashion. Whereas other colleges have already committed to refunds, YU has met students’ demands with little more than silence. With dormitories set to remain closed following Pesach break, the university should have already informed students how it will compensate them — not only for the time following the break when dorms will be closed, but for the past few weeks, when students understandably fled campus in fear of NYC quickly becoming the epicenter of the COVID-19 in the United States, and when only one meal has been offered to-go from the cafeteria each day.
The university should issue all students at least partial housing and meal plan refunds for the past few weeks and full refunds for the rest of the semester, but more importantly, administrators should have already notified students of its plans to refund them. Instead, students have been forced to wait for weeks, in doubt about the status of their own money, while university administrators decide their fate behind closed doors without even giving them the courtesy of an email updating them on what is taking so long.
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that forthright, honest and proactive communication are the key to weathering a perilous storm and preventing students from worrying or needlessly panicking. The university has not lived up to this standard thus far, and only through a complete about-face in its approach toward communication can it learn from its mistakes. Moving forward, YU officials should learn from the past and adopt policies of proactive communication to ensure students are kept informed of crucial developments that directly affect them.