Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Where Are You, President Joel?

Dear President Joel,

Thanks for your Town Halls. It is so refreshing to hear you speak candidly about the State of YU, to voice my concerns and get actual, real-time feedback. I always leave those Town Hall meetings feeling really lucky to be a part of YU, really hopeful for the changes just coming around the corner. So, thanks!

But, several days later, or, often, even several hours later, I remember that I forgot to ask you a question. Or, another significant issue comes up that wasn't dealt with at the Town Hall. Well, I suppose the next time to speak is in... 6 MONTHS!

You are my main source of inspiration at this often bleak and gloomy college. "YU is pretty good, but it is getting better and better everyday," I tell high school students, "Thank God for President Joel."

Where are you, President Joel? I know, I know, you are busy fundraising and hiring new deans and doing lots of great things for YU. At least, that is what I tell myself. I rarely hear it from you.

You, for all practical purposes, are a myth. You don't really have to exist. You could be a figurehead, a puppet leader not really pulling the strings. Ultimately, you are a pagan god, Joelus, hidden from your worshipers but said to be the source of life, of all things good in our YUniverse.

Where are you, President Joel? Whatever the answer to that question, I know at least one answer: You are not with me and you are not with the students of this university, though we want you to be so badly. You are only with us for two lousy hours a year, where I get to ask one lousy question.

President Joel, with all due respect (the fact that I am writing this should illustrate just how much respect I have for you), Town Hall isn't enough. I would like to suggest another idea, implemented by a force arguably greater than even you.

In a race between YU and Google, Google wins. For humanity, and most probably even for the Jewish people, Google has way more influence and impact. It is bigger, more important, and makes the the world much better. YU has an endowment of 1.3 billion dollars. Google makes that every 2 years.

Yet, Google, even more important than YU, has a blog. That blog tells me what is going on at Google every day. The CEO of Google writes, different VPs write, product managers write. In short, the best and most relevant information at Google, the latest news, the goals, the struggles, the failures (like allowing China to censor Google searches) are all discussed, openly and immediately. People (including myself) comment and get responses. It is the best of Town Hall, 24/7.

If Google can do this, why can't YU? Perhaps a better question is: Google is doing this - why isn't YU? I want an immediate source of all things REAL about YU. When the English department hires a new professor, I want to hear about it the day it happens - I want to be made excited about it. When President Joel gets an award, I want to hear his thoughts on the matter. When a YU employee is screwed by HR, I want to know what is being done about it.

The internet demands openness. It is a wonderful place to give students, alumni, donors and potential donors very positive news about all the happenings at YU - and all the things that we want to eventually happen here. It gives those interested a place to discuss current, relevant issues. In other words, it takes Joelus out of the Forbidden Temple, away from the puppet masters, and into YU, where he belongs.

Where are you, President Joel? Maybe the next time I ask that question, you will let me know.

Why Shouldn't YC Keep Halakha?

Gil Student, over at wonderful Hirhurim, posted the following:

This is not an issue that will ever be under my discretion, but let me state anyway that I agree 100%. The courses taught at YU should be guided by and conform entirely with halakhah. However, and this is a big however, Jewish law must be implemented in a very broad-minded and inclusive way... Yeshiva College is not the place for being overly strict on these issues but nor should it be the place for ignoring them. YC should offer a top-notch secular education but that can and must be done within the confines of halakhah. It is not the latter that must be sacrificed for the former but, rather, vice versa.

I have to admit, I kind of like the fact that YC doesn't keep halakha. That said, from a conceptual viewpoint, I have no idea why this is the case.

Practically, I can imagine a few big issues:
1) The fear of an imam-like fundamentalist posek banishing Shakespeare and Evolution (and - why not? - Bible) from the curriculum.
2) The dangers of not being able to hire talented non-Orthodox or non-Jewish professors who do not want such restrictions.
3) The fact that many big decision makers at YU are not Orthodox, so they don't really care.

That said, I cannot think of a good justification for why YC and Stern do not, on an institutional level, conform entirely to even the loosest understandings of halakha. Can you?

I am going to email this post to Rabbi Lamm and President Richard Joel. I hope that they will reply. If you think there is anyone else who might be able to respond properly, please either send them the post yourself or let me know and I will.

In any case, my understanding is that there are perhaps more urgent derekh eretz issues that need to be tackled by HR before halakha should be even considered.

Please Leave

"What do you think the Devil is going to look like?... He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job... and he will never do an evil thing. He will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit."
- Albert Brooks

When it comes to President Richard Joel's YU, there is much about which to be optimistic. But the gloom of YU's past and the hopefully-progressing-but-still-malfunctioning present casts a shadow over President Joel's reign.

The many new faces at YU are another reason to be both cheerful and sardonic. On the one hand, new administrators like YC Dean David Srolovitz and Honors College Director Dr. James Otteson, and new professors like Dr. Adam Zachary Newton and Dr. Barry Eichler, provide wonderful assurance that the education here - and the college as a whole - are getting better. On the other hand, the steadfast bureaucratic nightmares, medieval policies, and otherwise, forgive the still applicable term, YUness, are not disappearing fast enough.

In the battle between light and darkness which is now playing out across our university, the greatest threat to victory is defection. We have brought in excellent professors, administrators, and students. Will they maintain their excellence, or will they succumb to the mediocrity that continues to plague YU? Will they raise YU to its lofty potential, or will they let the momentum of YU's past continue to trample the Jewish future?

A talented friend of mine, currently in YC, is sensing his potential being zapped here. I am urging him to transfer to Columbia, where he can maintain his learning and excel in an environment conducive to excellence.

I urge the same of any new professor or administrator. If you feel your standards dropping just a bit, the best thing you can do, both for yourself and for YU, is to leave. By dropping your standards just a bit, you are contributing to the continued problems of YU, not its solutions. Be strong, be vigilant, please, please raise the standards here. Make this place great!

But if not, your exit will send just the right message. Mediocrity cannot be tolerated.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Is ANYBODY listening?

There are many people who care, think about, cannot stand YU. Many of these people express their views relating to YU in private conversation. Of these, there are a small few who actually talk about it in writing. Those few are a rare breed who exist on the following spectrum.

People completely content with/apathetic to the existence of YU
People relatively content with YU
People relatively content with YU but who proactively want to make YU even better.
People no so content with YU who proactively want to make YU better.
People desperate to make YU better.
People so fed up with YU that they don't bother to write as there simply is no hope anymore. Indeed, there may never have been.

I find myself to be on the far end of the spectrum that still is willing to write. That is, I am desperate that YU get better. Though, I am prone to suffer long spurts of hopelessness.

I believe that there would be less hopelessness if there was more communication. Many people start off happily hoping to make YU better, voicing their opinions via The Commentator, or even in personal meetings with professors and administrators. But then, that is it. No one responds. Even at Town Halls, President Joel will say, "Yes, I agree. We will do that now." But that will be the last you and I will hear of it.

The blog hopes to put an end to that. Voice your well-written suggestions, ideas, issues, complaints, etc to TheYUVent@gmail.com . If they are well-written, thoughtful, and related to YU, they will be posted. They will also be sent to the relevant higher-ups with a very hopeful and polite request to respond, on this blog, for the public, for everyone to hear.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts - and the appropriate responses from the people who control our destiny.