On Tuesday November 15th, the board of trustees reportedly confirmed Rabbi Ari Berman as the new Yeshiva University president. Berman will take over from Richard Joel, who announced in September of 2015 that he would be stepping down from the position he’s held for 14 years. Berman graduated from Yeshiva College magna cum laude and received his rabbinic ordination at RIETS, as well as a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy from Bernard Revel Graduate School and went on to teach Talmud in the Stone Beit Midrash Program at YU. He served for fourteen years as rabbi at The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side, a position also held by previous YU president Rabbi Norman Lamm, and a congregation which is home to many major donors to and lay leaders of YU. He left this post when he and his family moved to Israel in 2008. In Israel, Berman earned a doctorate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University and currently serves as the Rosh ha-Merkaz, of Hechal Shlomo, The Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem. It’s presumed he will depart from this position in the near future, given his alleged confirmation on November 15th.
Berman’s name was first made known to the YU community on September 13th in an email from Moshael J. Strauss, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. After “many months of discussions, interviews and evaluations,” Strauss said that Berman would spend time meeting with University leaders and administrators, after which his candidacy would be voted on by the board, of which Berman’s uncle, Julius Berman, is an important member.
Despite the full board’s presence at the meeting, individual members declined to comment on Berman’s alleged confirmation. Members of YU’s Press Relations department declined to comment as well. When reached via phone, Paul Oestreicher, Executive Director of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs said only, “Stay tuned.” When asked, he declined to share a specific timeline for when Berman’s alleged confirmation would be made public.
The secrecy of the presidential confirmation only mirrors the selection process as a whole. The lack of transparency and student involvement throughout was a grievance expressed by many students. In a poll taken by The Observer this September, when asked if they felt the process was a transparent one and that they had been properly updated on the various developments, the overwhelming majority responded in the negative. Additionally, sixty-seven percent felt that the student body should have been more involved in the selection process, with some desiring student representatives on the selection committee, and others calling for surveys and town hall style meetings. Only seven percent of those surveyed felt that they should have had absolutely no involvement in the process whatsoever.
Students who were polled disagreed on many aspects of the university’s future and problems: only seventeen percent felt that the president would have a real impact on their day to day lives. All had different opinions on the amount of school spirit on campus and on what aspects of the university needed to be fixed.
But there was one thing a clear majority expressed in the survey: when asked what the biggest issue facing Yeshiva University today is, from a list that included a disenfranchised student body, a lack of religious leadership, and academic issues, an overwhelming amount of students selected fiscal problems that have been rife at the school for eight years now, with 167 million lost in the last two years alone. And the quality they were looking for most in the next president was not religious leadership or academic goals: it was financial know-how.
This past February, Moody’s investor service gave Yeshiva University a B3 rating, one of the lowest possible assigned to a security, and which indicates that an investment would be considered highly speculative and risky. But despite the fact that the university continues to operate at a deficit of millions of dollars, the selection committee and the board have, instead, embraced a nominee with little to no fiscal skills. While Berman may have the blend of Torah U’Maddah that Yeshiva University prides itself on promoting, he does not appear to have the abilities to lead the school out of the financial swamp it now finds itself mired in.