YU Faculty Votes ‘No Confidence’ In President Joel
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YU Faculty Votes ‘No Confidence’ In President Joel

Yeshiva University faculty and students take unprecedented step to call attention to school's "refusal to take responsibility" for financial woes.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

In an unprecedented move based on deep concern over their jobs, the faculty of Yeshiva College at Yeshiva University produced an overwhelming vote of “no confidence” in the University’s president, Richard Joel.

The vote, taken late Friday afternoon, was organized by the Yeshiva College Executive Committee, the elected body for faculty governance of the undergraduate college for men. The fulltime faculty teaching at Yeshiva College voted 80 percent “no confidence,” 3 percent “confidence,” and 17 percent abstaining, with 64 percent of the faculty voting.

Though the no-confidence vote has few practical ramifications, said Professor Gillian Steinberg, a member of the executive committee, the drastic move is intended to “signal donors in a meaningful way” and “indicate that the board of trustees is moving in the wrong direction.”

According to Steinberg, the faculty decided to move now because the administration’s silence left them unable to organize the fall 2015 academic schedule.

“It’s the time of year when we put the schedule together, and we realized we were paralyzed because we didn’t know which faculty would be around,” said Steinberg, an associate professor of English and director of writing at Yeshiva College, known as YC. “The administration won’t tell us who will get a contract renewal. Now, the rubber hits the road.”

The faculty of Albert Einstein School of Medicine, YU’s medical school, took a similar vote of no confidence in the YU board on Jan. 23. According to Einstein students, the vote helped revive the merger between Einstein and Montefiore Health System.

In last Friday's open letter to the administration, a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week, the YC faculty cited the administration's lack of financial oversight, mismanagement and refusal to take responsibility as reasons for the move.

“There were no systems in place for financial reporting, and the administration essentially flew blind when it came to finances, leading the university to the brink of catastrophe,” according to the letter. “We now face the inevitable educational consequences of this mismanagement.”

Though the university has not responded to request for comment, a letter from the YU Board of Trustees posted late Friday referred to the vote of no confidence as “an unfortunate development, given the Administration’s work and many meetings with the faculty to develop plans to enhance the quality of the educational experience at YU while saving costs.”

“While it’s regrettable that a small number of contract faculty will leave the University, we are building an organization and an academic program that creates more flexibility and options for students,” the board's letter reads. “Sometimes change can create concern.”

Richard Joel became president of Yeshiva University in 2003. His tenure at the university has been marked by the reported $100 million loss to the university’s endowment from investments with Bernard Madoff, spiraling deficits that have left the university nearly $600 million in debt according to the faculty letter, and plummeting bond ratings. In its March 21, 2014 downgrade of Yeshiva University’s bond rating, the credit agency Moody’s “Credit Focus” said that the school's “poor financial oversight and high expenses caused deep and growing operating deficits that will continue.”

In an attempt to reduce its running deficits, Yeshiva University hired Alvarez & Marsal Holdings LLC, a corporate restructuring company, in December 2014 to help make severe cuts to YU’s academic and other operations.

Most recently, A&M outlined severe cuts to the college’s liberal arts curriculum, known as “The Core.” The First Year Seminar, called FYSM, an essential part of the curriculum mandatory to all first year students, has been scrapped.

“The provost [Dr. Selma Botman] called me alone into her office and told me FYSM has to go,” said Steinberg, who spent 10 years helping to create the curriculum, first implemented in fall 2013. “She asked me to present the destruction of my own program to the faculty.”

After the incident, Steinberg, who has been at YC since 2000, decided to leave the university.

“The sense of futility and frustration has grown too strong,” she said.

According Yadin Teitz, a junior at Yeshiva College who has been leading student efforts to get information from the administration, the “administration operates without consulting the faculty.”

“There’s no connection between what’s going on at the top and at the bottom,” Teitz, an editor at The Commentator student newspaper, told The Jewish Week. Teitz's March 3 article was the first time students, and many faculty members, found out about cuts being made to the core curriculum.

“There’s no transparency,” said Teitz, who said it was “crazy” that faculty members had to find out about cuts to their own programs through a student newspaper.

Along with several student leaders, Teitz helped circulate a student “Declaration of Principles,” which has since received more than 100 student signatures. The declaration, presented to the YU administration last Thursday, stressed the importance of maintaining high academic standards at the college.

“When curricular changes that affect academic standards must be made, they must be made with the direct and significant involvement of those who design curricula — the faculty,” one principle reads. Another principle stressed the importance of the academic Jewish studies curriculum at YC, which has also been on the cutting block, though no specific cuts have been confirmed.

“Everything is rumors, and no one knows facts,” said Teitz. “The uncertainty is hurting everyone.”

A senior faculty member at YC, who asked for anonymity for fear of losing her position, said the most recent cuts to the liberal arts curriculum are “more extreme than anything we’ve faced before.”

“They’ve been cutting and cutting under the radar for years,” she said, citing the hiring freeze, refusal to renew contracts and absence of raises. “But these latest cuts are going to change of the quality of education we can give.”

The faculty member referred to lack of communication between administration and faculty as “business as usual.”

“We ask for information, we get no actual information, just emails full of euphemisms about how great everything is going,” she said. “News hurts, but no news hurts more.”

hannah@jewishweek.org

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