Town Hall Meeting: Do You Trust YU's Integrity?

By: Adena Kleiner  |  November 7, 2013
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Wednesday, October 30th—Stern students and faculty joined on the downtown Beren Campus for the highly anticipated Town Hall Meeting with President Richard M. Joel. Taking place once a semester, Town Hall Meetings promote open dialogue between the student body and the President.

The atmosphere at the first meeting of the year was relatively subdued. Student Life Council Co-President, Penina Cohen, commented, “An issue is usually brought up at the Town Hall Meeting when the committee feels that an administrator is not taking an issue seriously. While there are many issues we are working on right now, we didn’t feel that we needed to publicize them at a Town Hall Meeting because the administration has been very receptive.” Despite the lack of controversial topics on the agenda, there were still a number of surprising and poignant moments.

The President began by announcing that YU has received full authorization to begin the new master’s program in Speech Pathology and Audiology this upcoming semester. This news was followed by the announcement that Chief Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has been appointed as a Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought. It will be a dual professorship, beginning with one six-week period at Yeshiva University and two six week periods at New York University.  Rabbi Sacks will begin teaching on the Wilf campus this upcoming spring. Danny Ayalon, the former Deputy Foreign Minister and Israeli Ambassador to the United States, will also be teaching on the Wilf campus for an eight-week period on Middle Eastern Foreign Policy.

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President concluded his introductory announcements by introducing his new Chief Financial Officer, Toby Weiner, and announcing that YU was one of the thirty schools to receive the JedCampus seal, “an award of approval given to colleges that demonstrate strong, comprehensive solutions to students’ mental health needs.”

Students then began with questions. The first concern brought up was regarding security’s training in emergency situations, specifically with regard to handicapped students.  This question resulted from the student having personally witnessed a security guard improperly helping a student with physical disabilities.  President Joel assured the students that security is trained in health and emergency procedures and that sometimes in the spur of the moment people make mistakes. He directed his attention to the heads of security to follow up on this issue.

Next, Gaby Elkaim (SCW ’14) expressed her frustrations with Academic Advisement and called them “incompetent.” Her word choice received a shocked response from the crowd. She explained that since she began her career in Stern it has been extremely difficult to plan and determine which classes she needed in order to fulfill her requirements due to the ambiguity of the core and major requirements. President Joel defended the academic advisors and said that it is simply not the case that they are incompetent.  He conceded that that the confusing and enigmatic requirements need to be reviewed and simplified. He suggested speaking with the advisors, Dean Orlian, or his newly born granddaughter.

Moving in a completely different direction, Tal Meiri (SCW ’14), who is a fellow at Drisha Institute for Education, said that she has noticed many YU students participating in Drisha programming.  She was curious to know if the President thought that this was a result of something lacking in the Judaic Studies curriculum at YU.  After pressing Meiri to define what this lack might be, President Joel told Meiri that there were many opportunities to learn less “main stream ideas” and that it is TAC’s job to provide the community with more opportunities if there were not enough. Shout-outs were given to TEIQU, the women’s Beit Midrash, and GPATS.

Dreyfus

President Joel was then confronted with a round of questions referring to various headlines recently associated with YU.  The first came from The Observer Editor-In Chief, Hannah Dreyfus (SCW ’14), who referred back to the President Joel’s earlier announcement and pressed the President to elucidate what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s involvement would be with the Beren campus. Joel answered that they only have plans through this spring, though he guaranteed that Rabbi Sacks would have equal exposure to both campuses.  He then turned to Deputy Chief of Staff, Daniel Gordon, who disclosed that the plan is for Rabbi Sacks to spend Shabbat and give lectures at Stern. They are currently trying to determine what his three-year plan will be.

Vaguely referring to an incident that occurred earlier this semester regarding the possibility of a student’s scholarship being revoked, Adena Kleiner (SCW ’14) asked the President to clarify the relationship between a student’s personal life choices and their merit and/or need-based scholarships. President Joel staunchly spelled out that there is no connection between need-based scholarships and performance, other than school achievements or gross violations of school values and rules. The scholarship in question was not a need-based scholarship. He maintained that it was the right decision to return the young woman her scholarship. Joel did express the notion, however, “That if you’re a student at Stern College, willy nilly, you’re an ambassador for us…We invest in you and have a responsibility to live by the boundaries of those people who give us the money to do so.”

The next round of questions went back to the subject of academics and credits. Ariella Kossin (SCW ’14), the Stage Manager for SCDS, wanted to know why she could not receive credit for her hard work as a stage manger, while her male counterparts uptown received credit. President Joel commiserated and said that he did not know why this was the case. He suggested that she try to speak to Dean Orlian one more time and to follow up with him personally.

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The next question was regarding why students in SCW could not take Syms courses for credit unless they were officially majoring or minoring in that subject in Syms.  President Joel agreed that it was not a seamless process and that from an academic stand point, there should be maximum interchange between the two schools. He explained that the same debate is occurring uptown and that an effort is being made to resolve the issue.

Hadassah Tirschwell (SCW ’15), an RA, expressed some new ideas to improve the out-of town experience.  Some of the difficulties out-of town students and their parents face include: summer storage, move-in on weekdays, etc. President Joel answered very simply that the Office of Student Life and the Office of University Housing and Residence Life would try to be more sensitive to their needs without incurring more costs.

Dreyfus returned to some more sensitive subjects and asked President Joel to comment on the university’s credit rating going down and what the plans are to improve this situation. Joel first stated that he and his team are working on “re-imagining the university.”  He explained that the issue is when you look university-wide, there is clearly more spending of money than generating of money. This is a result of the fact that the model of education in YU is a mission-driven mode, which is not a sustainable and structural model.  However, he and his trustees are transitioning to a more “sustainable model.” “This will require tough choice, change, and inventing differently,” said the President. The new speech pathology and audiology school is an example of programs intended to generate significant revenue.

President Joel then expressed his surprise that Dreyfus’ question was not about the recent hiring and firing of a certain faculty member who had a history of sexual misconduct.  He opened his final monologue by admitting that a mistake was made. He clarified that every employee has a background check, all faculty hires go to the provost office, and that this was a last minute hire. The background check came in and sat on a desk for a little too long.

In a very poignant end to the meeting, President Joel posed a question to the student body: “At the end of the day, do you trust the integrity of this university or not?”

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