'Make YU a Destination': An Interview With Dean Joe Bednarsh, Part II
Editor’s Note: Below is the second segment of a two-part interview with Associate Dean of Students Joe Bednarsh. In Part I, Bednarsh discussed his journey in working at YU for over three decades, his responsibilities at the university and his dreams of making YU a destination.
Rivka Bennun: Earlier you mentioned working to improve the student experience, and a part of that has to do with communication. I’ve heard much frustration from students about the seeming lack of communication between the administration and the student body—one recent example relating to the 2022-2023 calendar and the apparent lack of study days in the Spring. How do you think students and the administration can work better to communicate?
Dean Joe Bednarsh: It’s a great question. We made sure to involve student leaders when there was a proposed change to the student calendar, to say to them, “Here’s what we’re thinking, but you’re the customer—what pops out to you?” We had a good forty-minute talk about what to do about the calendar. The problem with this specific issue was people weren’t going to be able to get home in time for Shavuot, so we had to move things back and adjust accordingly. How do we do that in the right way? Students need study days, but they also can’t have three finals in one day. We had really good discussions about it. Going forward, we’re going to try to get more students involved as often and as many as we possibly can. I have some ideas about that that I won’t bore you with at the moment.
In terms of bridging this disconnect, I think first and foremost everybody needs to assume the best of the other people. Far too often we draw conclusions and then we make statements based on those conclusions instead of asking questions. I want to create a relationship with students where they are asking questions, where you don’t feel uncomfortable reaching out to me and saying, “I heard the following; is it true?” as opposed to “Here’s what it is; how dare you?” It is on all of us, we have to assume that the other people have the best of intentions.
Secondly, we have to believe that the energy and excitement that people are putting into these issues is a good thing. If students didn’t show passion, it would mean nobody cares. The fact that they get so passionate means that people care.
We can take these two approaches and we always have to be open, respectful and transparent. Every conversation should be a living conversation. We don’t end because the hour is over; if there’s more to be said, we continue the discussion. We can’t promise we’ll always end up on the side students want us to be on because there are always business decisions that need to be made. But those business decisions need to be centered around students. The lens through which we view these things has to be via students. That’s my opinion on how we bridge that divide. When there’s an information vacuum, somebody’s gonna fill it with information. Usually, the person that fills that gap with information doesn’t have all the information, so it doesn’t serve anybody. We need to change our expectations and the way we interact with each other. It’s not hard; students want to be here and they know the administration cares. The administration wants students to have a great education and experience—we just have to make sure everybody knows that.
RB: Do you feel that other administrators share this sentiment as well, or do you think you’re on your own?
DJB: I don’t think I’m on my own. Honestly, I couldn’t do this on my own. When I was athletics director I believed that everybody had students’ best interests at heart; when I moved up, I was very happy to see that I was right. I think we need to do a better job of including students in our thought processes: “Here’s what I’m thinking and here’s why I’m thinking it, now throw your ideas at me.” I personally am willing to admit that I don’t always have the right answer. The way to get to the right answer is if a bunch of us get in a room, and we argue it out and we come to what seems to be the best way to move forward. I think everyone in the administration wants to do that—the president, the vice presidents, the deans. I think sometimes when you have things that have been in place for so long, it’s very hard to take a step back. Maybe I’m just new blood and I’m able to take a step back, which is the beauty of having people come in and leave and bring various experiences. There is no doubt in my mind that the administration at YU wants this to be a destination. When you go out into the world, I want people to look at you and say, “That’s YU.” I don’t want people to say, “That’s YU?”
RB: Are there any other goals that you’d like to accomplish for the student experience this year?
DJB: There are so many goals. I have pages and pages of things that I’ve written. When I was offered this job, in the first month I read six books and two people’s doctoral dissertations about student success. I didn’t want to come in blind. I have so many things I want to do: from things as simple as the language I use when I speak to students, to the emails students receive and how to create a digest of emails that is easy for students to look at. How do we get students more involved with the discussions and the decision-making processes? How do we get ourselves out in front of students to answer their questions and to get to know them? It’s one thing to know my name because you’ve seen it in an email. It’s another thing to know that you can stop me on the street and ask me a question.
There are also larger things: Are we doing what we can to support students? Do students have all the services that they need? If not, how do we fix that? Expanding further, there is the Shabbos experience, the dorm experience—what else can Residence Life do? How can I not be defensive and accept constructive criticism when other people see ways I can do things better?
By the same token, there are so many things I don’t know yet that need to be examined, which is why I need to sit down with student leaders and various communities of students. True freshmen who didn’t go to Israel probably have very different needs and beliefs than students who did go to Israel. If you’re transferring in from Binghamton, do you have a chevra? Those are the kinds of things I need to find out. I’m remiss for not having the opportunity to do that last year, but I refuse to let another year go by without looking into it.
RB: Are there any aspects to working with the administration that students don’t know or could be better aware of? Oftentimes students don’t really understand both its structure and how it carries out decisions.
DJB: It’s funny because when I hear “the administration,” it’s almost like someone’s talking about some nebulous, ethereal, evil empire. Yes, there is a president and vice presidents and deans, but we really call in all the various constituencies to make decisions together. I think that would surprise students about the administration. I know there are students who sometimes feel like we’re making arbitrary decisions or capricious decisions. I think you’d be surprised to find out how much time and energy and discussion goes into making decisions; maybe we just need to do a better job of telling you that. Optimally, you would’ve had a seat at the table when we were talking (though maybe not at every meeting). But how could you possibly know how much time and energy goes into something like COVID policies? I was at every one of those meetings—COVID took up 70 percent of my time last year. There were times with COVID policies where I knew students may not like the decision, but sometimes we didn’t have a choice.
RB: Do you have any advice both for incoming and returning students?
DJB: Two things. First, get involved with something, whether it’s an athletic team, or a club or student leadership. I truly believe that if you get involved, you’ll feel a kinship to our community and to our values. Secondly, connect with someone that you know will support you. If you find someone that you know has your back, you’re going to feel rooted in the university. Nothing is worse than having something come up and not knowing what to do. It makes a world of difference when you know you can reach out to someone when you need help.
RB: Evidently you have been a part of the YU community for years now. What have your years here taught you about the YU community?
DJB: Within any homogenized community, there are always differences that only we see. Outside YU, no one knows the difference between students who went to Israel for the year and those who didn’t. Or the difference between guys who are in YP or in JSS. Sometimes we get fixated on that. There is so much more similar than there is dissimilar. Along those lines, for students that aren’t at YU yet, there’s someone like you here—whoever you are, however you identify, whatever level of observance. There is a community for you here with people who are exactly like you, people who are somewhat like you, and most importantly sometimes, people who are nothing like you but are still your brothers and sisters, and part of a larger community that has persevered for thousands of years. I know this sounds hokey, but we really are a special people in a special place at a special point in time. Two hundred years ago, YU could not have existed. This is so special that we can do these things and that all these people are here. I have learned that it’s really only us that see those differences, we’re much more alike than we are different, and that we have to be open and caring and warm and compassionate. We could make a tremendous difference to the university and to the world. It goes back again to that idea of showing people, this is YU.
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Photo Caption: Dean Joe Bednarsh
Photo Credit: YUNews