The Strategic Plan: YU’s Best and Worst in Transparency

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  February 15, 2018

If you checked YU’s website on February 7th, 2018 you might get the wrong idea about some critical things going on at YU. Because our university fails to appropriately update information on it’s site you would not know, for example, that Provost Selma Botman has taken on a senior advisory role to the Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) since the departure of Rabbi Brander from YU this past January. Rabbi Brander served as the senior administrative figure responsible for GPATS, including its funding, for a number of years and when he left the university he left a gap in senior administrative leadership for the program. Still, even though it was determined by the administration some time before Brander formally left the university over a month ago, Botman’s role in GPATS is not yet recognized on the website.

Botman’s omission from the GPATS page is just one example of the university’s slow pace at updating its information. As The Commentator recently reported, Dr. Stu Halpern moved from his role as Chief of Staff of President Berman to Senior Advisor of the Provost on February 1st. However, it took over a full week for the university to recognize this change on its website.

To be sure, the website’s need for prompt updates is not one of our university’s most pressing issues. But while this is true, I think it is safe to say that this slow tendency to update the website–its foremorest interface with the general public and student body–reflects a deeper issue that does need to be solved: the YU administration’s lack of transparency. When a significant change takes place, people should be informed of that change. The website is the key place where that information is shared, so that informing should be done promptly when the change occurs.

YU’s Strategic Plan is perhaps the best example of both the university’s attempts and failures in transparency. The plan itself, spearheaded by Vice President Josh Joseph in 2016, outlines the university’s goals for improvement from 2016 to 2020 with five specific strategic imperatives. The plan clearly outlines goals for achieving each strategic imperative listed and often provides dates for when each goal should be achieved. This plan was made public and can be found on the university’s website–as it should be. This sort of transparent articulation of vision and purpose is exactly what our university needs. Not only does it assure that the university has a defined plan and direction, but it also makes the university accountable for the goals it sets for itself, especially when it sets clear deadlines to achieve those goals.

But while the Strategic Plan shows some of the best of what YU has to offer in terms of transparency, it has also shown the university’s failures in this regard. The plan was written in September 2016, but it has yet to be updated since its original release. This is cause for concern because many of the dates set to achieve goals laid out in the plan have already passed. A full nine goals were set for 2016–none have been updated. Nine more were set to be achieved in the spring of 2017, nine in summer of 2017, and five in the fall of 2017–all of these dates have also  passed without an update.

So now we have a problem: while it is all well and good that we know our university’s goals and intended direction, we have no straightforward, easily accessible way of knowing what has and has not been achieved and what will be done in the future. We do not know if a goal has failed to be achieved, and if so, why it failed and what the university’s strategy is going forward. Even if all the goals laid out in the plan to be achieved before Spring 2018 have been fulfilled by their deadline, there is no way for us to know this without undergoing a thorough investigation of our own. While I encourage students to feel empowered to seek out the university information they care about on their own, we are not all journalists, nor should we have to be, in order to be made aware about whether or not  the university has achieved its set goals.

There is another important question the lack of updates does not account for: what happens after a goal is achieved? Are further goals for expansion created or is there a stagnation of purpose?

The faculty wage crisis is a perfect example of this issue. The Strategic Plan states under “Strategic Imperative 2: Advance Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching and Research” a list of six actions to achieve this imperative. The first: “Develop a plan with benchmarks by summer 2017 to improve faculty compensation (salary and benefits) that meets the collective goals of the University.” After eight years of a continuous  wage freeze as well as  cuts in faculty benefits put in place during the Joel administration to deal with the massive debts accrued by mismanagement of funds and the 2008 stock market crash, this action was critical in regaining faculty trust and goodwill. As The Observer reported in October, this goal was met in August when President Berman announced to the faculty that there would be a “modest allocation of funds” for merit based raises and an increase  from 2% to 3% in retirement plan matching.

While this was great news, there is clearly much more that needs to be done in way of “impov[ing] faculty compensation”; the merit based raises will not be as far-reaching or big as they once were and the retirement matching benefits are still 4% lower than they were before the university’s fiscal crisis. The need for further action on this issue was acknowledged by the president himself in his announcement to the faculty, in which he said “these steps are, of course, only minor improvements, and I am deeply aware that more needs to be done in the future.” And herein lies the problem: the Strategic Plan has not been updated to reflect the fact that the president has reached a “benchmark” on this issue, and thus it also does not layout any future plans for how to improve faculty compensation “in the future.”

Without clear transparency on this issue, the president’s office, when asked what the next benchmark will be for faculty wage improvement, as they were by The Observer multiple times, can simply revert to vague statements such as “the administration continues to work on this issue as well as the general strategic plan.”

Some might fly to the defense of President Beman, claiming that he holds no responsibility to update a plan that was not made during his tenure, with many of its deadlines passing before he was even selected for the job. I would agree that from the outset the plan should have been adopted with the intention to update it as long as it was in use, and the previous administration’s failure to do is not a fault of our new president. However, the president’s office has confirmed with The Observer that Berman has been following the Strategic Plan, which has remained on the university’s website since he has assumed office. If our president intends to use this plan, then he must be held accountable for its failings; if he intends not to use it, then he should make that intention known, remove it from the website, and, hopefully, release (and update) his own.

As it stands now, the Strategic Plan does not reflect YU’s current reality, because it is not updated to account for it. Unfortunately the same document that provided so much transparency when it was first released, can often obscure the true state of our university now, making this is the administration’s problems today.

I highly recommend the administration work harder to keep its website updated, at least in regard to its senior staff positions, as an easy and simple way to let us know what is happening in our university.

But I also recommend a more difficult, but also more urgent change: an updated Strategic Plan that accounts for the goals that have been achieved, those which have not, those which need adjusting, and those that need complete alterations, in order to provide us with the clear transparency of vision and direction that we deserve.