By: Rivka Bennun  | 

'Make YU a Destination:' An Interview With Dean Joe Bednarsh, Part I

In June 2021, Joe Bednarsh assumed the position of Associate Dean of Students at Yeshiva University. However, Bednarsh has been working at YU for three decades, previously directing all of his endless energy and passion into the athletics department. Bednarsh has many responsibilities as associate dean, as well as many plans for how to make YU the best place it can be. The Commentator sat down for a two-part interview with Bednarsh to hear more about who he is, what he does and his dreams for the university. 

Rivka Bennun: Thank you so much for meeting with us! We’re really looking forward to this conversation. I wanted to first ask if you could give a bit of your background and how you came to working at YU. I know you also started off in athletics, which I think is an interesting shift in roles. I’d love it if you could tell me a little bit about that. 

Dean Joe Bednarsh: I kind of fell backward into working for YU. I started high school at MTA in 1988; in 1991 they built the pool and I became a lifeguard. I was working an incredible amount of hours a week and going to school. It helped support me through my college years and every couple of years I got a promotion. In 2005 they named me athletic director and I had some pretty lofty goals at the time. The first was to double the size of the women’s athletic program within five years, and we more than doubled it in three. I also wanted athletics to be a point of pride and a front porch for the university, and I think it did become that. During COVID, I was asked to step up and take on a lot of additional responsibilities. I’m guessing based on how I performed at those responsibilities there was a discussion about whether I wanted to move on to an assistant or associate dean role. I thought about it, I put in a proposal of what I thought would be the kind of things that I would be really interested in doing, and we came to an agreement. 

Being responsible (not on my own, of course) for working with students’ success and the student experience, and the idea of making YU not just a place where students go, but a destination for students, was a really intriguing thing to me. I thought, what a great use of my skills and personality. I was really excited to do it; unfortunately, I didn’t get to do enough of that last year because we still had a lot of COVID-related things that took my attention. But we’ve been working feverishly over the summer on so many different things just to find a way to make YU even more special than it is, and again, make it a destination. 

RB: I love that. I’m curious what exactly you mean by making YU a destination. 

DJB: I think what tends to happen in our community is you know somebody in shul who went to YU and you talk to them and you ask them about YU. Or your mother went or your father went or your brother went and you ask them about YU. Everybody has a different experience. What I’d really like is for everyone to have a unique but almost the same experience. What I mean by that is that every student at YU feels that their voice is important, their voice has been heard, they’ve had the ability to opine on things that will affect them. When they go to any office, they know that somebody is going to be warm and kind and straightforward and an advocate for them and have their backs. Having seen it from my end, I know that it’s true—people didn’t come to work at YU to work in higher education because they don’t care about students. But based on the things that I’ve seen from students and my conversations with them, I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of showing students how much we care, how much we have your backs, how much we want you to be part of the process and how important you are to literally everything that happens. 

We had a values summit where we were talking about the Torot, and there were a whole number of students there. I opened up my comments at the end to say, ‘Let’s never forget that students are our true north.’ That’s how I see my job—you’re my true north, you’re my responsibility, you’re the direction my compass always has to be pointing. I’m trying to use that platform to improve the experience here. Twenty years from now, if I see you on the street Rivka, and I ask you if you’d repeat the experience, I don’t want you to think for a second—I want you to say ‘absolutely.’ Then I’ll know collectively we did a great job. When you say, ‘I’m definitely sending my daughter/son here. This is the place for Jews to get an education.’ We can be even more amazing than we are now, and that’s really what I mean by making it a destination—a place people want to come, not a place people feel like they’re supposed to go. I want students in high school to say ‘that’s the place I need to be.’ 

RB: That’s very special. So what exactly are your current roles and responsibilities, and how do you view those responsibilities?

DJB: There’s a bit of a shift right now in the area of deans of students, so we’re trying to figure out exactly where each of us are going to fall in terms of our responsibilities. 

Student success is going to be my primary responsibility. This essentially means that admissions brings you in and hands you off to me, generally speaking. I am here to help, to be an advocate, to direct you when you don’t know where to go. I’m here to facilitate, I’m here to be a guide. I want to get you successfully over the finish line. I want you to have a great experience while you’re here and then I want you to graduate and go out into the world—this is student success, amongst other things. 

Student experience is another primary responsibility: How do we communicate with students? What’s the experience like when a student goes to an office? When a student is trying to find an answer? When a student isn’t sure to whom to reach out to? I've been here for thirty years and it’s amazing how much I don’t know. One of the things I learned this year was if you lose your ID card, the first place to go is student finance. I would never have guessed that; I would’ve thought to go to security. Those little things and making sure students know the answers make a tremendous difference. This is what I mean by student experience. Once a month, I will sit in front of the students and take questions. If I know the answer, I will be open and honest and give you the answer. And if I don’t, I will get back to you. I might not always give you the answer that you’ll like, but I will always give you an answer that’s truthful and accurate. I’m taking what I learned in athletics and extrapolating it from 300 students to 2,000 students. 

At the moment I’m [also] still responsible for COVID-related matters. We’re also working on finding better ways to share information and connect with students so that your experience is smoother. For example, we’ll be introducing a new platform where if you speak to one adviser, they’ll have your information at their fingertips and then they’ll be able to take notes on the meeting. Then if you come to speak to me after, I’ll already have access to that information, I won’t have to track it down, as it will all be in one place. This way everything works well and smoothly. This way, we have the ability to give you the right answer because we have all the right information. I get so frustrated when I don’t have all the information I need and I want to give a student an answer but I never want to give the wrong answer. By the same token, if a student goes into the system, there will be a virtual hand raise in this system—you don’t need to know who the right person is to reach out to, the question will get to the right person. I know sometimes it is difficult to know who’s the right person—personnel changes, offices shuffle, there are thirty people in an office with different titles. Those kinds of things make it easier for students and make the experience better. 

Stay tuned for Part II of this interview in the next issue of The Commentator, wherein Dean Bednarsh discusses his goals for the academic year and how to better communicate with students.


Photo Caption: Dean Joe Bednarsh

Photo Credit: YUNews