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Reform Seminary Bracing For ‘Radical’ Reductions

Reform Seminary Bracing For ‘Radical’ Reductions

The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, faced with a projected $3 million deficit this academic year, is on the verge of making what its president calls “radical” structural changes that could mean the closing of two of its three campuses in the U.S.

In a letter this week to the HUC community and obtained by The Jewish Week, Rabbi David Ellenson, the president, wrote that the college “stands at a fateful crossroads.

“The financial crisis that has engulfed the world these past six months has had a painful impact on the Reform movement and the college-institute,” he wrote.

HUC-JIR is the educational and intellectual center of Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Ellenson said that the 20 percent cut in dues for the Reform movement’s 900 synagogues cost the college $2.5 million to $3 million. In addition, he said a substantial decline in endowments, ongoing pension liability payments and flat fundraising have placed the institution “in the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history — even more so than during the Depression.”

Changes in the college’s operation are “inevitable and necessary,” he said, adding that “all the scenarios being considered involve radical” measures.

“Some scenarios under consideration focus on an HUC-JIR of one stateside campus,” he said.

The college now has campuses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and New York, where Rabbi Ellenson is based.

“Such an alternative would allow the strength and depth of a single faculty and unified student body to emerge,” Rabbi Ellenson suggested. “Other scenarios provide ‘hybrid’ alternatives in which academic programs would exist on more than one campus and such options would allow the college-institute to have a desirable physical presence and programs in more than one location.”

The alternatives are to be discussed here by the college’s board of governors and faculty representatives on May 3; a final decision is to be made at a meeting here June 23.

“In moving forward,” Rabbi Ellenson wrote, “committees of the administration, board of governors and faculty are all now actively involved in developing scenarios that will allow the college-institute to fulfill its mission of providing religious, educational, communal, and intellectual leadership for the Jewish people in a manner that is financially sustainable.”

In an earlier letter to the college community, written last month, Rabbi Ellenson had warned: “Unless conditions improve quickly and significantly, the projections for the next several years could be even worse [than this year’s $3 million loss]. We cannot sustain such losses and survive.”

But the rabbi said the structural changes to be considered in the 134-year-old institution should turn things around.

“I have every confidence we will emerge from this a stronger institution,” Rabbi Ellenson told The Jewish Week on Monday.

In his earlier letter, the rabbi said HUC-JIR needed to save a minimum of $5 million. And to save $5.8 million next year, Rabbi Ellenson said tuition would be increased by $3,000 (to $19,000), bringing it more in line with what other colleges charge. He announced also that pays cuts would take effect later this month: he is to take a 10 percent cut; the vice-presidents and provost are to take an 8 percent cut; and virtually all other employees will take a 5 percent cut. In addition, some employee and retirement benefits are to be curtailed.

“The current economic crisis forces all of us to distinguish between form and content, between external structures and essential concerns,” Rabbi Ellenson wrote this week. “This dynamic of challenge and response is one which has informed Jewish consciousness from our earliest days. Stasis at the present moment would be dangerous, and a dynamic and open approach to the future is required. Each new configuration of the college-institute holds much promise, but each also requires sacrifice.”

Meanwhile, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary is planning to reduce its faculty by 15 percent in the fall. And the Orthodox movement’s Yeshiva University, faced with an endowment decline of 30 percent, is implementing steps to cut $28 million from its operating budget beginning in July. It will freeze tuition to attract the largest number of qualified students.

The full economic dimensions of the recession at the Jewish Theological Seminary will not be known until the seminary’s board of directors meets next Wednesday, according to Alan Cooper, the seminary provost.

He said the faculty reduction from 59 to 50 was the result of the seminary not renewing the contracts of six full-time contract employees whose contracts expire June 30. The contracts of two other employees that expire next year will also not be renewed, and one of them has chosen to resign this year, Cooper said. Two other faculty members had a phased-out retirement that ends in June.

As a result, Cooper said students would find “fewer courses – primarily elective courses.”.

The faculty was first notified last June that this might happen, and at the time budgetary considerations were cited as the reason. But Cooper said strategic planning considerations, what he termed the “mission and vision of the school,” are now also a factor.

“We’re trying to look at the institution over the next 10 to 20 years and what will take us into the future,” he explained.

At Yeshiva University, Richard Joel, the president, wrote to the community in February that there would be salary freezes next year and a hold on filling any vacancies. He said the school’s trustees would lead a drive to raise another $5 million for scholarships on top of the $31 million already budgeted.

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