Richard Joel’s Term at Y.U. Is a Study in Promise and Turmoil

Financial and Cultural Problems Grow in Decade

Power Player: Richard Joel has been president of Yeshiva University for a decade. What is the vercict on his tenure?
yeshiva u.
Power Player: Richard Joel has been president of Yeshiva University for a decade. What is the vercict on his tenure?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 04, 2013, issue of November 08, 2013.
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The health of Y.U. isn’t just an academic matter. Unlike Brandeis University and the liberal Jewish rabbinical seminaries, Y.U. exists at the center of Modern Orthodox life. Scores of Modern Orthodox rabbis have side jobs teaching there; Modern Orthodox day schools send entire graduating classes there, and whole neighborhoods in New Jersey are colonized by Y.U. alumni. Without Y.U., the Modern Orthodox ecosystem is imperiled.

Joel would not speak for this story. A spokesman for Y.U. did not respond to a list of questions submitted by the Forward.

In public, however, Joel doesn’t shy away from his problems. Onstage at a Y.U. auditorium in October, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach teasingly beseeched Joel not to raise tuition for his nine kids. “It’s our only hope!” Joel replied.

Yeshiva University faculty members are worried about their pocketbooks. In 2009, Y.U. froze all salaries. Three years later, the school cut its contributions to faculty retirement accounts from matching 7% of employee contributions to matching 2%.

This spring, 70% of faculty members polled in a survey administered by Y.U.’s Office of Institutional Research said that they will not have enough money to retire until they are past 70.

“They were treated shabbily by the institution,” said Paris R. Baldacci, a professor at Y.U.’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a member of the faculty council, of the undergraduate faculty. (Some graduate programs within the university were able to mitigate the salary cuts for their own faculty.) “It was just devastating to their morale.”

The cuts came after a terrible 2008 for Y.U.’s finances. Bernard Madoff was chairman of the board of Y.U.’s business school that year, and J. Ezra Merkin, who ran a Madoff feeder fund, was on Y.U.’s investment committee. Y.U. had $105 million invested with Madoff through Merkin, a conflict of interest that drew much criticism after the fact.

Though the Madoff losses were tremendous, they were only a fraction of the amount the school lost in the economic crisis that year. Y.U. reported $439 million less in net assets in June 2009 than it did in June 2008 — a 17% drop.

Faculty salary cuts were part of the response. That made recruitment difficult for the law school. “There was a really tremendous concern at the school about how we could present ourselves as a stable and growing professional school when we’re getting all of this cutback,” Baldacci said.

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