At Yeshiva University, members of the various student governments are often referred to as “student leaders.” The phrase is self-explanatory: members of the student councils within the university have a form of authority and as such, are expected to lead. However, in the past year, it seems that the members of the student councils have attempted to avoid joining the discussions on university issues. Therefore, I must pose a question: how have many of our student leaders — both of this year, and candidates for the upcoming one — have forgotten that it is their role to lead?
One glaring instance of near-automatic deferral in order to avoid conflict from the past year, was when the approval of the YU Pride Alliance was up for debate on the student government level. At the beginning of each semester, it is the job of the student government to approve or refuse all proposed clubs. Rather than openly making a choice to approve or deny the club, those involved in the vote chose to abstain, deferring instead to the administration, who have not yet granted the Pride Alliance club status.
This unprecedented action gave up significant authority intended for the student council presidents for the purpose of avoiding conflict. Considering the precedents, such as the attempted formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in previous years (which the administration has denied), it has never been a question of whether the administration would approve the club — of course, consistent with their past actions, the club would be denied. Therefore, considering the fact that the outcome of abstention was obvious, the abstention was likely a strategic action to avoid conflict.
Conflict avoidance, in a vacuum, is admirable. This is why being diplomatic is emphasized in politics. However, when others look to you as a figure of authority to make a definitive decision about a conflict, it is imperative that the authority figures in question get involved, rather than forfeiting their leadership out of cowardice.
The recent unwillingness to enter the debates and conflicts of the university, to the point of giving up leadership on the issue or giving up on diplomatic responses, sets a precedent that may become a pattern. On May 3, the candidates for the Wilf student councils’ presidential positions held a debate via Zoom. In the debate, Zachary Greenberg, YSU president and candidate, and Jacob Shiner, Wilf Campus Canvassing Committee member, asked candidates about their views on various topics. However, many of the questions, which should have yielded clear answers on the candidates’ ideas and opinions, were answered with vague references to deferring to roshei yeshiva and administrators.
For example, considering the year-long debate regarding approval of the YU Pride Alliance, the debate would have been incomplete without asking candidates about their opinions on a LGBT club in the university. While one candidate stated very openly that he was opposed to the club, and another stated clearly that he is in support of the the club, the remainder of the candidates attempted to sidestep the conflict.
One Syms presidential candidate, for example, originally stated that an LGBT club is not an issue related to Syms, despite having a vote in the matter should it arise with him in office. When prompted again to answer, he said it is “above his pay grade” and he would defer to the administration. The majority of the other candidates gave similar answers, stating that they would defer to rabbis or administration to make the decision instead, similar to the actions of the student government when faced with the decision earlier this year. Some candidates even stated outright that they do not wish to get involved in such topics, despite the fact that these topics may — frankly, most likely will — become a part of the dialogue for the incoming members of the student government.
By this point, you may be rolling your eyes at the fact that this is “another gay article” entering the YU dialogue. I wish to make it very clear that this article is not about “the gay issue” in the university, or any specific issue at all. Rather, this article is urging the incoming Yeshiva University student government members to lead, as we elected them to do.
Particularly following the results of the Wilf campus election, which took place on May 7, this is especially important. While the infamous Amendment 6, which was meant to prevent campus discrimination, was rejected, Amendment 5 was rejected as well. Amendment 5 stated that: “A vote on the approval of each new club must be taken by the General. Assembly within one week after the close of the petitioning period.” This amendment would prevent occurrences such as the student government’s abstention from voting on the YU Pride Alliance. Without the approval of this amendment, we risk being witnesses to a very recent history repeating itself.
As a message to our newly elected student government officials: We look to you to be student leaders, not to avoid all debates and conflicts through deference, abstention, and the sidestepping of questions. There is a difference between being a diplomat and being a coward – choose wisely.