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 question is, is Y.U. drawing kids from yeshiva high schools that are coed Modern Orthodox?” the rabbi asked. “I think they’re trying to, and I think that’s challenging because the face of some of the senior rabbis there are more right-wing and more closed.”

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or senior faculty member, at Y.U.’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a biology professor at Yeshiva College, attributed the shift to the growing proportions of young men who study in conservative yeshivas Israel before coming to Y.U.

“The vast majority… come back with a different view of yeshiva life, one that can’t be matched” by Y.U.’s half-day yeshiva program, Tendler said.

Tendler said that he worries that Y.U. is “losing the left.”


At his inauguration as Y.U. president in 2003, Joel spoke about his plans. “Our undergraduate schools are quality institutions,” Joel said. “Yet our faculty is overburdened with high course loads and inadequate research support. We have unmet curricular needs.”

Within five years of Joel’s inauguration, the school had added 56 full-time faculty members. It had spent $80 million buying property near its uptown campus, and built one new facility at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx, and another at Cardozo. Joel brought in a $100 million pledge in 2006 and grew the endowment to $1.4 billion.

That growth served as a sort of cushion after 2008. “Since Richard Joel came, there has been a huge expansion of high-quality faculty members,” said Will Lee, a professor of English at Yeshiva College and a member of the faculty council. “For the most part those gains have been maintained…. The university remains quantitatively better as a result, despite the great recession and other setbacks.”

Today, the school is ranked 47th on the U.S. News & World Report list of national universities, above schools like Tulane University and Fordham University but below Brandeis University and Penn State. Its undergraduate schools admitted 84% of applicants for the 2012 academic year, far more than Brandeis, which admits just 39%, or nearby Fordham, which admits 43%. Y.U.’s acceptance rates have long been relatively high, but they climbed in 2012 as the number of applicants dropped. The undergraduate schools received 2,169 applications on the eve of the recession for the 2007-2008 school year; in the most recent cycle the number was down to 1,633.

At the same time, tuition for students living on campus has jumped from $44,000 in 2008 to $53,000 in 2013.

Ten years into his tenure, Joel faces seemingly intractable problems. Some, like the economic crisis, are outside the school’s control. Others, like Madoff and the tensions within the Judaic studies arm, predate his tenure. A few, like the response to the sex abuse allegations, fall squarely on Joel’s shoulders.

In one sense, he has not given up on trying to grapple with them. Faculty and administrators are working on a new strategic plan, which will be submitted to the board later this year.

In another sense, however, Joel seems resigned to his record.

“What I’ve come to realize as a president of a university… after 10 years as president, God rules the world,” Joel said at the Boteach panel. “I can do my part to partner with God, but ultimately God rules the world.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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