Saturday, August 15, 2020

YU President Richard Joel

YU President Richard Joel, Even With the March No-Confidence Vote, Looks Ahead

For Richard Joel, Yeshiva University’s president since 2003, the school he leads “needs to be the shining city on the Jewish hill. If you take the yeshiva out of the equation, I think Jewish life will be imperiled.”


In a recent hour-long interview with the Jewish Link, Joel spoke about his hopes for the future of YU and Stern College. He discusses the feelings that last March resulted in a no-confidence vote from faculty members. He took issue with that vote, because in his heart of hearts he wants to move the institutions forward. Also, YU’s board backed their president despite the vote.

Joel said that YU is itself the fealty of timeless Jewish values representing Judaism’s responsibilities to society. He hit upon the notion of what he called just “schlepping through life” in favor of just teaching Jewish students to really matter in life.

He feels strongly that coming from a faith-based university YU graduates emerge with a feeling of responsibility for Jews and the world.

“We’re not out to make everyone Orthodox,” he said.

His voice over the phone is filled with energy, like he is multi-tasking while talking, but giving 100 percent attention to the conversation.

He sees himself as an “evolutionary revolutionary,” words he used to describe how he is managing the school. Joel, 64, compares the movement forward of Yeshiva University in the same terms as how God makes a flower blossom. One needs time-lapse photography to see the flower open.

Part of that flowering will begin on July 1, when the arts and science departments of both YU and Stern will consolidate. Stern, a women’s college, and the all-male Yeshiva have separate facilities with campuses about five miles apart.

“I look at what came before and how we are built on those shoulders,” he said. “I look at a Teaneck, a New Rochelle and Riverdale. I look at the rabbinic leadership there and the role of educators and how we are encouraging young people to go into Jewish education. But when I look into lay leadership I see far too few Orthodox Jews in leadership positions in federations.

“When I look at the State of Israel, I see so many people who are Yeshiva University educated. Western civilization has to believe in something more than shopping. We are a school of students who believe their lives are supposed to matter based on timeless truths.”

Five or ten years down the road, Joel sees what he called a “vibrant” Yeshiva and Stern. He added that there will always be a constant striving for YU students to define and keep defining what an integrated life based on Torah means.

“How does one celebrate the nuances of life, but avoid easy absolutisms and nihilism? We are here and alive. We are a great gift of Modern Orthodoxy. That will continue, because we will attract the best and the brightest from a big tent of what people call Modern Orthodoxy.” But with that will come change, he intimated. Different times call for different ways of teaching and learning. He said he sees what he called a “roadmap of sustainable excellence to get rid” of courses and curriculum that might not be up to par with a higher bar he’s set. One such example he would give involved the school’s computer science department, which he called “non robust.”

“We can look for and get into new partnerships,” he said. “I see active growth in the Syms School of Business. There will be more offered to students online.” The blending of online learning brings faculty and students together, he said, maximizing the use of the faculty. The school, he said, is looking at 500 students for summer online learning. This will serve to maximize the faculty even more.

Joel said that he wants to take YU and offer its courses in a more global way, which would again merge faculty, students and online study. He said that YU is long overdue for a school of continuing education and professional education. He believes what will happen this summer will create what he called a “cauldron of creativity.” The two schools will play to each other’s strengths.

But Joel is also cautious.

“All of this (moving forward) can and will happen, but it really requires our constituency to not take it for granted. People view YU the way they view air. They think it’s free. It’s not. We have to make a redoubled (financial) commitment to the future.”

What’s it like to be President Joel? He and Esther, his wife of over 41 years, have six children (all YU/Stern grads) and eight grandchildren.

“If I don’t start my day with prayer, I don’t have a prayer,” he said. He is in the gym twice a week, and wishes it could be more.

“There is no typical day,” he commented. “In the role of president, I need to be very student centered. I have the best students the world, and I am committed to my faculty and my lay leaders. We also have an incredible group of rabbeim. My day is about trying to stay to a schedule. I have four campuses, I have lay leadership, different programs I oversee and I have the responsibility for philanthropy. A typical day for me is hardly typical. I live a 24/6 week. Shabbos is wonderful, but I am always on. I’m wearing the admiral’s uniform of Yeshiva University. People salute it, not necessarily saluting Richard, therefore I am always on.”

When he talks of education, he said that the big mistake is to only make learning the pursuit of a degree. He describes the university years for a student as a critical time in terms of one’s philosophy of life, one’s work ethic and what is negotiable and not negotiable in one’s life.

“How do you have rabbinic thinkers, men and women who are guiding people through life? How do you have a community who can play out passions? A quality education costs. If you want the cheapest, you can find that somewhere. I think we as a people have always said that what has sustained us was a passionate commitment to education, not just a ticket to something. The majesty of Judaism’s cultural imperative is that education really matters.”

But it is going to cost. In New York, he admitted, a quality education is going to be expensive.

He gets that.

“We believe that everybody should have a deep, profound Jewish education,” said. “Our parents have been paying tuition since their children were two years old. They send their children to Jewish day school. Then comes the element of choosing a college.”

This for Joel is the rub.

He said that there are approximately 3,000 seniors graduating from Orthodox high schools each year.

“I want at least 1,000 of them,” he said. “I know what is offered out there, and I have to market how rich it is to come to our school. Even the public universities are recognizing that the current model of education is difficult to sustain. A lot of them have a broader enrollment. But we are faith based, and that’s why we exist. We speak about the value of values. Its part and parcel of what we do.”

Joel said that 80 percent of YU and Stern students receive financial aid of $40 million.

“Nobody is going to have to break to send their kid here,” he said. “They might have to stretch.”

When it comes to the no-confidence vote from last March, the president looks at the concern of faculty and students in positive terms.

“I believe that the faculty and administration and professionals and students here think this is a special place,” he said. “It is a fact that the faculty and staff feel a deep frustration, and I understand that completely. They haven’t gotten salary increases in five of the last six years. I’m sure we’ll be better, once we get things balanced.

“We’re not looking at cutting faculty,” he continued. “Do I blame a faculty member for saying he or she is frustrated? I don’t fault them. I haven’t gotten a raise in five years. I empathize with them. There are no majors or programs cut, no tenured faculty changes made. We are making the class-size average larger, from 12 to 16. Our tenured faculty will be offering more classes. Most of our students get most of their education from the most accomplished scholars. Our yeshiva and Jewish studies and academic Jewish studies are illustrious.”

Joel said he is proud of what Yeshiva University and Stern have built.

How would he grade himself after some 12 years on the job?

“An incomplete,” he said quite candidly. “I’m not done yet.”

In a meeting with students in the Gottesman board room in the 215 Lexington building, President Joel, Provost Botman, and Chair of the Stern Board and

Amongst other important breaking news, President Joel announced that Dean Eichler will be taking a sabbatical next semester, and will be returning as a professor.

At the meeting, Provost Botman and President Joel both mentioned that this will hopefully give the opportunity for departments that exist on one campus,

By Phil Jacob

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