Keeping Up Appearances: On Whose Opinions Matter at YU, and Whose Don't

By: Kira Paley  |  October 16, 2018

By Kira Paley, Editor in Chief

If  you asked me to sing a song that captures my attitude about YU at the moment, it would be Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain.” Lyrical analysis aside, it’s simply the title of the track that exemplifies a core issue I take with YU’s most recent questionable decision–that is, taking out two advertisements in The Wall Street Journal. In making this bold move, the school acted as a quintessence of itself in that as an institution, YU is more concerned with its external image than with its “internal image,” as I’ll call it. That is to say, YU cares most about the opinions of those who are not directly affiliated with it on a daily basis–donors, employers, potential students and parents–while the opinions of students and faculty, whose lives are more deeply entrenched in the university, are brushed aside. (For the sake of this editorial, I will limit myself to discussing the diminished value of the student’s opinion, since discussing how the university deals with faculty satisfaction is, at the moment, beyond my scope.)

YU is presenting itself sort of like an insecure teenager. Obsessed with how he or she compares to his or her friends in looks, smarts, and athletic ability; echoing the values and opinions of those by whom he or she is surrounded–parents, a high school, or a youth organization; too concerned with others think of him or her to even consider his or her self-image. Yeshiva University is constantly reassuring itself and its peers that its academics and student life are just as good as any other larger university.  Its ambiguous religious values are simply manifestations of what it thinks its values should be–that is, its principles are perhaps intentionally left vague in an attempt to please all, yet end up only pleasing a minority. And finally, YU is fixated on the image it projects to the world, basing many of its decisions on what it thinks outsiders will find favorable, without pausing to consider what those who actually attend YU have to say about YU.

At the end of this past May, my peers and I received a somewhat sketchy email from a survey company called Toluna asking us to “please help Yeshiva University understand your perspectives on colleges” with the promise of a $15 Visa gift card upon completion of a survey. Excited by the possibility of, well, free money, I took the survey and remember answering oddly worded questions about what I thought about YU’s religious life and academics in comparison to other universities commonly attended by Orthodox Jews, like Columbia and Brandeis. Besides for the more specific class evaluations required at the end of every semester, this awkward survey is the only time I can recall YU reaching out to me about what I thought of the institution at large. And if this survey was sent out to the entire undergraduate student body, it was a poor attempt to gather our opinions, namely because the sketchiness of the email and website almost led me to simply ignore the survey altogether–which I’m sure many of peers did. With this survey, though, YU is on the right track; a detailed annual questionnaire about the undergraduate student body’s attitude about the school would not only provide the administration with insight, but it would also provide students with a sense of efficacy.

I’m aware that President Berman and other members of the administration meet with student council members to discuss multiple campus issues; as someone who respects, and is friends with some of the student council members, I am sure that these individuals represent the concerns of student body well and have productive and meaningful things to discuss. Student input is also taken into consideration when hiring important administrative figures, like deans. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that a full range of diverse student opinions are presented, and that every single aspect of academic experience and student life is discussed. A comprehensive annual survey, not only to get a feel for student morale but also to see which technical campus issues need to be addressed (issues regarding housing, facilities, academic advising, security, registration, etc.) would be beneficial for both students and administrators, and would make all involved parties aware of the generally lack of school spirit that seems to exist at YU (if they weren’t already).

As admissions season rolls around, it is especially important that YU realize the importance of keeping its student morale high. We can all put on a smile and solely sing YU’s praises for one Sunday a year to receive a free sweatshirt from the Office of Admissions, but wouldn’t it be nice if everyone’s smiles were genuine? Even though YU attracts a general undergraduate demographic that isn’t necessarily dependent on the enthusiasm of current students, YU does its admissions department a disservice by failing to place enough value on its internal image. While there are plenty of student ambassadors who lead tours depicting YU as an Edenic paradise of ideal Jewish life, superior academics, and unending fun, there are also plenty of students like me who give prospective students honest answers about the university and are dissatisfied with many aspects of being a YU student.

I understand that development is crucial in running any university, and YU needs to attract new donors, maintain its current donors, and keep up enrollment. But when will YU shed its insecurity and realize that valuing what its students think is just as important?