Friday, May 21, 2010

About Yeshiva University

While working on my doctoral dissertation a tad shy of fifty years ago, I taught political science at Yeshiva University for a year and a half, shifting then to Hunter College. Charles Liebman and I shared an office, but as we were young and low on the academic totem pole, the space was small and cramped – I believe other faculty used the room – and we met infrequently.

Over the years, I haven’t been much at Yeshiva, not for any ideological or similar reasons but for the more prosaic circumstance that Washington Heights is a distance away from Borough Park and since I do not drive, the trip is time-consuming and time is always a scarce commodity, as my plate is constantly full. Rabbi Norman Lamm, whom I admire, asked me to speak several years ago to a senior kollel group and that was an enjoyable experience. Before Pesach, there was a tribute to Rabbi Lamm, with Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, as the principal speaker. After the event, Richard Joel, Y.U.’s president, invited me to visit and that resulted in a delightful afternoon several weeks ago.

Yeshiva University in 2010 is a lot like Yeshiva University of 1960 and also a lot different. It still represents a synthesis between Orthodox Judaism and the secular world, which is inevitably a challenge, and the main campus still seems a bit out of place amidst a vibrant Hispanic community. There are differences, starting with the diminution but not entire eradication of the paternalism that long characterized the relationship between administration and faculty, a relationship that arose less out of an intent to take advantage of the faculty as out of the dialectical nature of the institution being a heimische place. The school would take care of its own. In return, its own would be quiescent.

When in the 1970s many in the faculty came to believe that this was a bad deal and sought to organize a union, Yeshiva resisted and that ultimately resulted in one of the most atrocious decisions in all of Supreme Court jurisprudence, when in 1980 and by a 5-4 vote, the Justices ruled that university faculty are managerial employees and therefore excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act.

Rabbi Lamm became president in the 1970s, succeeding Dr. Samuel Belkin who during his long tenure had expanded Yeshiva into a full-fledged university with a medical school, law school, graduate schools and programs and much else, accumulating along the way a mountain of debt. Y.U. came within a hairbreadth of declaring bankruptcy, saved by the creative actions of Rabbi Lamm and key supporters. However, scars remained, as the fear that another bankruptcy was always nearby begot a spirit of parsimony.

Yet, during Rabbi Lamm’s long and distinguished service there were improvements in the lot of the faculty and the main campus expanded somewhat and was made considerably more attractive. His great achievement, which remains underappreciated, is that he directed the remarkable transformation of Yeshiva from a center of Orthodoxy distinguished by the intellectual grandeur of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and other European born and educated Torah scholars to an equally elevated institution whose religious faculty are, in the main, Yeshiva-educated. The level of religious study is perhaps higher than ever and the Seminary remains the essence – the heart and soul and much more – of the institution. It is thrilling to be in the new Beth Medrash or study hall, a beautiful place constantly occupied by young scholars.

Universities are characterized by intellectual ferment, as well as more petty rivalries, and this can generate all kinds of conflict, whether ideological or personal. Yeshiva is no exception. Given that it is Jewish and Orthodox to boot, as well as located in New York, it isn’t entirely surprising that it lives a fishbowl existence, so that minor incidents are treated as major happenings.

Rabbi Lamm had wanted to step down as president for some time. The search for a successor turned out to be difficult because there were quite a few hats to wear. Several years ago and seemingly out of frustration, Yeshiva settled on Richard Joel who had been a top administrator at Y.U.’s Cardoza Law School and was doing a strong job as the national director of Hillel. He has more than justified the faith in him. He is a modest and friendly man, yet a person who knows his authority and responsibilities. Under his leadership, the main campus has grown and become even more attractive, extending the achievements of Rabbi Lamm. One senses an enormous amount of vitality.

A characteristic of contemporary higher education, notably in urban areas, is for universities (like medical centers) to sprinkle campuses and programs across the geographic landscape. Yeshiva has maintained its model, with the main campus being the primary beneficiary of additional attention, financial resources and programming. Of course, key units such as Stern College, are elsewhere and they, too, have been upgraded.

There are, inevitably, problem areas and question marks, some heightened by the severe economic downturn. I sense that there are initiatives on hold, while there have been cutbacks that hurt. Central High School for Girls continues to seem out of sync, the result of the unfortunate decision years ago to relocate from Manhattan to Queens where its status resembles that of an orphan.

Surprisingly in view of how Israel figures in the modern and centrist Orthodox mindset, Yeshiva’s presence in Israel is limited to essentially one small program. It’s a major challenge to develop a meaningful higher education niche in Israel and today’s financial realities make the prospect remote. Hopefully, the day will come when Richard Joel and his board will tackle that issue.

Right now, there is an abundance of strong programs and much to be proud of.