By: Avi Hirsch  | 

In Retrospect: Takeaways From a Tumultuous Year

Following a relatively calm and uneventful year, in which a rosh yeshiva denouncing a coed Shabbaton was perhaps the most controversial and widely discussed news story, one might have expected that this year would be no different.

But as early as August, there were signs that this year would not follow the same path. Beginning with the lawsuit brought by nearly 40 former students against YU, week after week brought with it new major events. The LGBTQ march in September was followed by the rejection and subsequent reinstatement of the YU College Democrats club. In November, student backlash to the restructured dining plan saw it quickly reverted back to the previous year’s system, and December brought with it a much-discussed break-in and arson attempt at the Schottenstein dorms, as well as the return of the Chanukah concert.

Then 2020 began, and somehow things became even more hectic. As the spring semester started in late January, elevators began to malfunction across campus, sometimes trapping students and faculty while they waited to be rescued by the fire department. February then saw the abstention of the student council from a vote on the YU Alliance club — deferring the decision to the YU administration, which, with the semester already over, has not yet released its decision on the club’s status — as well as the beginning of the historic streak of YU’s basketball team. This would continue into March, overlapping with what was to be the last significant story of the year, as well as the most tragic — the infection of a student with the novel coronavirus and YU’s subsequent transition to remote learning that we currently find ourselves in.

It’s been a busy year, to say the least. Throughout this year, The Commentator has stayed on top of each news story as it unfolded. Our dedicated staff has often worked long hours to highlight important issues and keep the student body informed. One of our primary missions has been to uphold and promote transparency between administrators and students, calling out the administration for not communicating sufficiently time and again. Although not always successful, we have worked to influence the administration to further prioritize students’ concerns.

Many undergraduate students at YU cherish their time here. They appreciate the close relationships they form with their rabbeim and mashgichim, whose focus on each individual student’s spiritual and emotional well-being is unrivaled by any other university. They acknowledge the benefits of YU’s small class sizes and enjoy the social atmosphere of a predominantly Jewish undergraduate student body. Often these students arrived at YU with friends from yeshiva, seminary or high school, but many more met their group of friends for the first time when they arrived at college, pleasantly surprised by the warm and inviting atmosphere they found here. These students will fondly remember their time at YU when they graduate after four years.

But another, often more vocal contingent of students have predominantly negative views of YU and its administration. These students have had their experience here tainted by interactions with an administration that doesn’t respond when elevator malfunctions threaten student safety, refuses to take a stand on the formation of an LGBTQ alliance on campus, waits for vocal student protest before reversing a dining plan that overwhelmingly dissatisfied students, and at times seems more interested in preserving its own image than in responding honestly and transparently to student complaints. Despite all the services, activities, events, advisement and assistance that YU administrators have worked tirelessly to confer on them, these students will graduate YU with a cynical and generally unfavorable impression of their college.

Why do these students endlessly criticize an institution that has given them so much? Although partially a result of simple administrative failures, the most significant cause is a pervasive sense — right or wrong — that YU executives don’t really care about student satisfaction or welfare. This feeling grows more pronounced with every email ignored by the Office of Student Life (OSL), every policy decision made with little to no student feedback and every semester with no public forums or town halls by administrators to hear from the students they purport to serve. As long as administrators fail to reach out to the student body to demonstrate their support and actually convey to the students that they have been working many long hours for them, their attitudes won’t change.

That’s not to say this is a problem across the board. Those administrators who have not only been responsive to student concern but have gone out of their way to engage personally with their students have overwhelmingly positive impressions among the student body.

Dr. Noam Wasserman, in his first year as Dean of Sy Syms School of Business, has been perhaps the most extraordinary example of an administrator with universally positive impressions among students both in his school and across YU. I’ve heard many students share anecdotes that usually center on his eagerness to directly engage with students, from the open-door policy of his office, to his roundtables and “meet the dean” chats, to his one-on-one schmoozes with students and his tendency to take student feedback seriously when implementing policies. In my own interactions with him, I have found his demeanor to be one of genuine concern for his student body and a willingness to act on their behalf.

Dean Wasserman was the first of the undergraduate deans to host a virtual town hall explaining to students how the P/N policy of his school — which itself was formed largely based on input from Syms student leaders — would work. Interestingly, The Commentator’s recent survey of undergraduate students found that not only do more Syms students have a positive view of their school’s P/N policy than Yeshiva College (YC) or Stern students, but the percentage of students who expect to make use of the policy for their courses is nearly double in Syms than in YC or Stern. Following Pesach break, Stern and YC deans held their own virtual town halls explaining the effects of the coronavirus on academics for their students — a belated but still much appreciated gesture and certainly an indication that things may be headed in the right direction.

Dean Wasserman’s tireless efforts developing a summer initiatives program for those students who would be without an internship over the summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, which attracted far more students than he had originally anticipated, was built with constant student engagement and feedback in the form of a survey completed by 235 students across YU’s undergraduate colleges. His competent work has made him an effective dean; his noticeable dedication to students has helped students appreciate that work.

Dean Wasserman is certainly not the only executive working on students’ behalf. The efforts of countless other administrators, including Associate Dean of Syms Michael Strauss and the deans of the other undergraduate colleges, have helped students in numerous ways. But Wasserman’s student-oriented leadership ought to set the standard for all administrators at YU and promote a new form of student-administrator interaction that elevates students to the level of partnering with the officers of the school for their own benefit and thereby empowering them.

It is unfortunately the case that the most dissatisfied students tend to be the most outspoken, whereas those with more positive stories to tell will often remain silent about their experiences. People tend to speak up most often when they are unhappy with the state of affairs and are therefore motivated to demand change. As a result of this imbalance, negative perspectives of YU have often been amplified, leading to a frustrated administration that feels under attack even while it struggles to continue its job of assisting students.

The Commentator has contributed to this dynamic as well; although we have always tried to represent a broad spectrum of student opinions, both positive and negative, our pages have often ended up reflecting the more critical voices among the student body. Looking back on the ups and downs of the past year, I know that we have not always been successful in conveying all aspects of student experience at YU, the good together with the bad. My hope is that as I hand over the paper to my successor during this unprecedented time, all of us — students and administrators — will work together for the benefit of YU as well as its student body.