By Chanie Tropper
Choosing to attend Stern College for Women wasn’t the easiest decision for me. Growing up, I fought to get out of the Orthodox education system and I could not wait to start college in a “normal” school and get that “normal” college experience — that is to say, in a secular college. However, after some impactful experiences, such as a gap year in Israel, I realized that for my newfound relationship with God, Stern was my best option. This decision meant sacrificing certain things other colleges have to offer, a significant factor being the size of the student body. This is crucial because it is what determines the number and variety of classes that the school can offer per semester. This is minimized by smaller enrollment numbers. Class availability especially impacts the art students who do not have large enough classrooms, have too few teachers, and not nearly enough space for our large classes, ones which require us to spread out to efficiently work.
Throughout the Studio Art Department, there are students who have a focus within most of the various artistic fields, which in turn spreads us very thin and puts a lot of limits on the variety of classes we can take each semester. The majority of classes students take are not focused on a specific field’s use of the material, but rather they are taught broadly to make it applicable to as many students and fields as possible. Thankfully, the limited faculty we do have are absolutely incredible and offer a lot of support and opportunities for their students. Additionally, the school has a partnership with the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) as a supplement which allows us to take career focused classes that specifically focus on a specific industry’s use of the skills. Overall, the current system puts the Stern College studio art students at a disadvantage when entering their respective fields, or when transferring to a master’s program.
Earlier this year, Randy Apfelbaum, chief of facilities and administrative officer at YU, showed people around 215 Lexington’s eighth floor, which, at the time, housed the entire studio art department. When directly asked by Traci Tullius, chair of the art department, about who the people were and what he was doing, he responded that he was just showing some investors around. A few weeks later, Apfelbaum came back with another group, this time the tourists took measurements of various classrooms and spaces. When Apfelbaum was asked again who they were and what they were doing, he continued his ruse, and said they were just investors. A few weeks later, it was reported that the eighth floor would be divided to accommodate the Katz School of Health and Science’s new Cybersecurity program. This decision was made without consulting with the chair of the department. Then, when emailed about the changes by both faculty and student body he — and the others involved — directly ignored all emails and questions for weeks at a time, leaving the entire department in the dark. To give some perspective on Apfelbaum’s position at YU, his job encompasses all aspects of how our buildings’ spaces are being used, in addition to things like the meal plan — for example, when the school attempted to change the meal plan for the Fall 2019 semester, the plan was headed by Apfelbaum. And as we saw with that change, it caused a lot of negative feedback from the student body, and was not a smart change for the school.
This new renovation will have detrimental effects on the Art Department, its students, the religious integrity of the school as a whole, and the school’s future. By allowing the Katz School’s program to be built, the Art Department will have to give up some of its already limited space, a third of the space it previously had. I have personally witnessed that the program is taking both of the media labs, which includes graphic design, photography, and videography labs. These labs double as lecture space when visuals need to be given. This will not only affect art students but anyone who hopes to take classes in any of these fields, such as media studies, journalism, and advertising. In a broader sense, this will affect anyone who wants to better their skills in the various softwares offered and anyone who wants to just learn the basic skills associated with them. This applies even to people who have a mere passion for forms of art such as photography or graphic design. The renovation will additionally take the faculty offices and the multimedia room which is used by seniors as a workspace for an array of senior projects and doubles as a greenscreen and light manipulation room for students to use. The plans will also cut off Stern students from the only bathroom on the floor, only allowing the Katz students access.
The original design is going to take away all of these crucial rooms, and the space wasn’t being optimized! The original design included a “hangout area” for the Katz students, as well as a large pantry space. Apfelbaum has agreed to rebuild these workspaces for us in a different location. Currently, the best suggested location he has had is in our open workspace that doubles as a location to wash our art supplies and as an additional lecture space when there are no other open rooms. The art floor is already lacking space for its own department — it certainly can not house a new program.
On the topic of challenging the school’s religious integrity. This great new Katz program is coed, as is the rest of the graduate school. However, placing a coed program on a women’s campus is a disaster waiting to happen. When you take an unobscured view of the situation, it is clearly very inappropriate, considering Stern has been built on the fact of it being a fully female school. The art students are known to be extremely late workers who work well into the night, and at times, I personally have been asked to leave by security at 11:30 p.m. when the building was being closed for the night. Not only that, art can get really messy; therefore, so many of the artists opt to bring a change of clothes designated specifically for the messiness of our classes. These outfits do not typically fall under official tznius halacha (Jewish modesty laws) since, up until recent developments, the art floor has been classified as a female-only floor, thus we have been able to wear whatever we wanted. Combining the late work hours with not-tznius dress and adding boys to the mix is very questionable decision making for an institution that “strives” for religious observance and education. Unfortunately, it seems as though YU only cares about our Jewish education when it suits them.
I know a lot of people reading this may think: “Who cares? I’m not religious. I don’t dress tznius, I’m friends with guys, what’s the big deal?” Let me clarify: I’m not some religious fanatic, I have many male friends and I don’t dress to the strictest halachic standards, but I do follow tznius and shomer negiah (laws regarding the avoidance of physical contact with men, even platonically), and I am sensitive to the halacha of yichud (Jewish law of avoiding being alone with a man). Allowing the floor to have men on it would destroy the religious security currently provided by the floor. We are a women’s school and we should maintain that status. Katz, while connected as a YU institution, is not an undergraduate school and should by no means be taking learning space away from us. Having this construction project fulfilled will not only affect the current Stern students but generations to follow. If YU becomes coed, losing their religious integrity in the process, they risk losing funding from their religious donors and organizations, and the funding may become refocused towards other smaller schools that are trying to maintain and build a Jewish future according to their vision. This may just be the first step to the end of YU.