By: Dr. Selma Botman  | 

Why Would a Professor from Holy Cross Want to Come to YU?

My life has been devoted to higher education. I have had the good fortune to study at world-class institutions that changed my life and created the conditions for a lifetime of continual satisfaction and joy. Over the course of my academic career, I have also had the privilege of contributing to different kinds of colleges and universities: large public universities, small private colleges and medium-sized comprehensive universities. As I ponder my varied professional life, two institutions have been especially meaningful to me. In the public perception, they couldn’t be more different: the Jesuit-based College of the Holy Cross and the Jewish-based Yeshiva University. Upon further consideration, though, they share important commonalities.

My Roots: Holy Cross

I began my academic career as a professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, a highly selective liberal college, shaped by the Jesuit tradition, which educates undergraduates for a lifetime of faith, leadership and service to the world. Students at Holy Cross are smart, successful and career oriented; faculty at the College are dedicated to student success, research-active and abundantly accomplished. I spent nine years in this highly ranked, mission-driven college based on Catholic values, high academic standards and repairing the world.  

Does this model sound familiar?

As a Jewish faculty member in the Department of Political Science, I was not connected to the Jesuit community by faith. However, I was drawn to Holy Cross College because of its purpose and mission.  I cheerfully taught and mentored hundreds and hundreds of students who have gone on to make important contributions to society. Many of these students demonstrated a sincere interest in modern Middle East politics and society – my academic focus – so my classes were full and discussions were vibrant. They were also dedicated to social justice and so were attracted to the courses I taught on the politics of developing societies. 

There is simply nothing more rewarding to an academic than teaching eager and attentive students who want to know more. My academic foci had been largely foreign to these undergraduates, and yet they demonstrated a commitment to understanding parts of the world that were truly unfamiliar – far beyond their neighborhoods and communities. 

Yeshiva University?

Fast forward a couple of decades, I had the honor and pleasure of joining Yeshiva University as its provost. What is a provost, you ask? Many people pose this question to me, quite befuddled by the term. The academic title “provost” goes back to medieval times in England and denoted the head of colleges. American universities started using the title in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it wasn’t until much later in the 20th century that the title was reserved for an institution’s chief academic officer. Today, the provost is responsible for ensuring that the academic life of a university is forward-looking, based on priorities and supportive of the highest academic standards. An important part of the provost’s job is to ensure that outstanding faculty, who can make significant contributions to the university through their teaching, research and service, are recruited, retained and supported.

So, when eight years ago, Yeshiva University launched a search for a provost and vice president for academic affairs, I was intrigued. The magnetic pull was the mission: distinguished academics rooted in Jewish thought and tradition, service to the Jewish community and to broader society. I wanted to return to an unapologetic mission-driven university – this time to one to which I could relate in every way.

One of Five Thousand

There are more than five thousand colleges and universities in the United States, hundreds of them are faith-based institutions representing Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Mormon and Muslim religions. Although at the outset of American higher education, universities featured a Protestant foundation, these current faith-based institutions represent distinct theological and cultural belief systems, while sharing many characteristics, including their Abrahamic origins. Within this landscape, Yeshiva University, the oldest and most comprehensive educational institution under Jewish auspices in America, is the most notable.

In its undergraduate programs, it was Yeshiva’s dual curriculum that impressed me. Unlike Brandeis University, where I did my undergraduate study and which was intentionally secular, Yeshiva stands out for its exceptional academic programs, complemented by rigorous religious studies that reflect the values of centuries’ old Jewish traditions.  In the graduate area, which is a mix of mission-related graduate schools and entirely secular professional programs, I knew from the outset that the university had room to grow in terms of its curricular offerings and its student body. I saw this as a challenge, an opportunity and a goal.

I was attracted to Yeshiva University because of what it stood for, its focus on producing leaders in science and technology, the humanities, business, professional and spiritual life. For me, there was no university comparable to YU, and for me, coming to YU was like coming home.

Dr. Selma Botman is the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Yeshiva University. She previously taught at the College of the Holy Cross, served as executive vice-chancellor and university provost for the City University of New York and president of the University of Southern Maine. 

Photo Caption: Dr. Selma Botman, Yeshiva University’s provost and vice president for academic affairs 
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University