YU ‘No-Confidence’ Vote Spurs Internal Battle
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YU ‘No-Confidence’ Vote Spurs Internal Battle

President Joel at center of conflict between faculty and board of trustees.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

A Yeshiva College faculty vote of “no confidence” in the university’s president, Richard Joel, has made public in dramatic fashion a long-simmering debate within the institution — and the greater Orthodox community — over who is to blame for the financial crisis and what should be done about it.

The vote of the fulltime faculty of Yeshiva College, the undergraduate school for men, which was taken last Friday, was organized by its executive committee. Eighty percent voted “no confidence,” 3 percent “confidence,” and 17 percent abstained, with nearly two-thirds of the faculty casting votes. Sixty-six faculty members took part in the vote.

In response, the university’s board of trustees issued a letter backing Joel, noting that he and his administration — and an outside firm brought in to help resolve the school’s money problems — “have performed admirably in a difficult environment.”

Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, members of the Orthodox community, including prominent alumni in a wide range of fields, express sadness over YU’s predicament and deep concern about its future, recognizing the unique role it plays beyond the classroom as the flagship and center of Modern/centrist Orthodox life.

“I still wonder how all this happened, how it got so bad,” a graduate of YU and executive of a national Jewish organization said this week. “Do you blame the president, the board, the administration — all of the above?”

The question lingers as YU continues to deal with a growing deficit it has had since 2008, after a $100 million loss to the university’s endowment from investments with Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, a former trustee of the university. Lack of sound financial records and irresponsible spending have left YU nearly $600 million in debt, according to a faculty letter.

Though the no-confidence vote has few practical ramifications, Professor Gillian Steinberg, a member of the YC executive committee, said the drastic move was 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.

“We didn’t know which faculty would be around,” said Steinberg, an associate professor of English and director of writing at YC. “The administration won’t tell us who will get a contract renewal. Now, the rubber hits the road.”

In defending Joel and his administration, the YU board, in a letter from chairman Henry Kressel, praised the YU faculty as “among the best anywhere” and called on its members to “continue to partner with the University to implement the necessary changes.” It said Joel and his administration would continue to “work diligently to strengthen the bonds of collaboration” so as to “ensure YU continues to flourish.”

But some observers, as well as faculty, question whether the school is flourishing, and say it may be too late for the teamwork between teachers and administration called for by the board.

“A vote of ‘no confidence’ is like filing for divorce — it signals a clear break in the relationship, and there’s no going back,” said Peter Schmidt, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education who has written extensively on the issue of ‘no-confidence’ votes.

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, the YC faculty asserted that “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.”

Responding to the faculty’s vote, YU’s provost, Selma Botman, told The Jewish Week in an interview Monday that the university is “investing in the retention of contract [both tenured and fulltime] faculty” and that “a very small number of faculty” will not be reappointed.

“The great majority of faculty at YU remains,” she said, adding that any plan calling for reduction of staff is “excruciating,” and “we don’t take it lightly.”

She stressed that YU is working hard to meet student and academic needs while maintaining fiscal responsibility.

The most recent concern that prompted the “no-confidence” vote, a kind of last straw for faculty, was a decision to eliminate part of the Yeshiva College liberal arts curriculum known as “The Core.” The provost noted that curriculum changes were worked out successfully months ago between administration and faculty at both Stern College for Women and the Sy Syms School of Business.

‘Global’ Solution?

Some observers complain that YU has offered no specific plan over the last several years beyond staff reduction for cutting its deficit in a significant way. Talk about selling valuable real estate in Midtown, like its Cardozo Law School or parts of its Stern College campus, are seen as too drastic. Moving the Stern College women to YU’s main Washington Heights campus and holding co-ed classes, though it would save money, would offend the rabbinic faculty and tarnish the school’s image as a traditional yeshiva.

The administration is investing, though, in YU Global, the university’s new online learning initiative with which it hopes to generate “significant revenue,” according to Botman, through courses available around the world.

It is too early to tell how that all might work.

Responding to the board of trustees’ statement supporting Joel, a group of faculty members from multiple departments at YC wrote a letter to the board saying they were aware of the need for financial reform but have “never received clear statements regarding the budgetary impacts of proposed curricular changes.”

“We have been team players this whole time,” said Steinberg in a follow-up interview Monday, citing the five-year salary freeze and pension cuts. “We understand cuts need to be made, and we’ve gone along for a long time. But there isn’t a plan.”

She added that, though the most recent cuts prompted the letter, the real hope is a change in leadership.

“We’d like a different president,” she said. “The person who led us here is not the person who can lead us out.”

Joel In The Middle

Joel, who previously reinvigorated Hillel, the international Jewish campus organization, as an innovator, visionary and fundraiser, became president of Yeshiva University in 2003. He has been given high marks for his efforts to improve the academic stature and campus spirit of YU in his early years. But the last half of his tenure has been marked by an embarrassing sexual abuse scandal against former faculty at YU’s boys’ high school and the financial crisis that began with the Madoff scandal. Since then there have been spiraling deficits and plummeting bond ratings.

A year ago, in its downgrade of YU’s bond rating, the credit agency Moody’s “Credit Focus” said that “poor financial oversight and high expenses caused deep and growing operating deficits that will continue.”

Joel, a charismatic figure and often-riveting orator who is by nature an optimist, has blamed past administration — or lack of it — for both the sex abuse and financial crises, noting that they preceded his arrival. But critics say that despite his enthusiasm and positive statements about a turnaround, his leadership qualities are far more suited to strong financial times, when he introduced and expanded programs, than to the current situation, when business acumen is required to reduce them.

Joel’s lucrative contract is for another few years, but some question whether he will last that long under pressure to produce.

Professor Steinberg has decided to leave her post at Yeshiva College. The decision came about after Botman, the provost, called her into her office and told her that the First Year Seminar program she spent years helping to create, and which was first implemented in 2013, had to go.

“She asked me to present the destruction of my own program to the faculty,” Steinberg said.

That’s when, after 15 years at YC, she decided she had had enough.

“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, there is insufficient communication between the administration and faculty. His article in The Commentator student newspaper March 3 was the first time students, and many faculty members, found out about cuts being made to the core curriculum.

Botman said there have been numerous meetings with faculty over the last few months seeking collaboration on curriculum issues, but some faculty say the meetings were less than open.

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 the most extreme yet.

“They’re going to change of the quality of education we can give,” she said.

The letter of support for the Joel administration from the board of trustees said that “sometimes change can create concern. But the fact is that change needs to be embraced, and change provides an opportunity to make improvements in our structure, and in the way we support the needs and aspirations of our exceptional students. Change will allow YU to move forward with excellence.”

It’s a goal everyone involved would like to see, but the question is the nature of that change — where will it come from, and when.

Editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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