Richard Joel spoke of renewal when he became president of Yeshiva University in 2003, promising higher academic standards and broader horizons. At first, the charismatic lawyer delivered.
Then came 2008 and Bernard Madoff and the economic collapse.
Today, Modern Orthodoxy’s educational core is showing cracks. Secular faculty members are furious over salary cuts. Students, aware that their professors are polishing their resumés, have challenged Joel over his own salary. Moody’s has downgraded the school’s credit rating, citing deep financial troubles. And a $380 million sex abuse lawsuit has the potential to take a chunk out of the school’s reserves.
Meanwhile, the number of undergraduate applicants has dropped, forcing the school to become less selective. And centrist rabbis worry that the religious side of the institution is swaying ever more to the right, alienating moderate students.
Brought in to modernize Y.U., Joel, 63, has presided over a period of greater turmoil than it has faced in decades. Is it Joel’s fault?
“I think this is the reality catching up with the dream,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a former president of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America who has taught at Y.U. Goldin, who supports Joel, said, “The fact [is] that reality has caught up with us, all of the Jewish community.”
Many at Y.U. believe that Joel has done as well as he could under the circumstances. “I think President Joel’s leadership through this has been the best it can be,” said Gavriel Brown, a senior at Yeshiva College and the editor of The Commentator, the official student newspaper.
Others are more critical of Joel’s role. “I look at his leadership with profound disappointment,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a Y.U. graduate and a congregational rabbi in Washington. Herzfeld said that he no longer encourages congregants to apply there.
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.
Students also protested the cuts. In April 2012, student activists passed out packets at a campus town hall meeting with information on the school’s financial troubles, and then asked Joel about his salary, asserting that he had taken a recent raise.
“I really resent answering this question,” Joel responded, before asserting that he earned $750,000 a year, not the $1.3 million that the student quoted. Joel also said that he had not taken a pay raise in five years. (Joel’s estimation of his own salary is suspect. According to publicly available IRS filings, his total salary in 2011, not including deferred compensation, was $1 million.)
While the faculty salary freeze ended this academic year, Y.U.’s financial outlook has not improved. In 2011, Y.U.’s board wrote off as a loss nearly $50 million that it had paid out of its endowment funds to cover operating deficits.
In an October 23 meeting with students and faculty, Joel said that the school’s decision to give 2% pay increases to faculty members was necessary, but “an insane thing to do when we’re having massive financial issues.”
Faculty members are still on edge. “I know many professors who have been concentrating very hard on their publications because they know if there’s a real big cut or whatever… they will be able to boost their résumés and leave,” said Brown, the Commentator editor. “That’s scary.”
In Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald’s telling, Richard Joel’s route to the presidency of Y.U. began with an accordion rendition of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Joel attended Y.U.’s boys high school in the 1960s, but left the school’s orbit for college, attending New York University at its campus in the Bronx. In 1971, when Joel was 21, Buchwald needed a replacement musician to play at a Y.U.-affiliated weekend retreat for non-Orthodox kids. He got Joel and his accordion.
“He didn’t know too many songs. He knew ‘Hava Nagila’ and things like that,” said Buchwald, who is now director of the National Jewish Outreach Program. “‘Cat’s in the Cradle,’ that was his big song.”
Despite his limited repertoire, Joel was a hit with the kids. “He was so charismatic and so enchanting,” Buchwald said. Before long, Joel had become a leader of the program and of a similar Y.U.-affiliated program for Orthodox kids.
“He was a very, very powerful force, and someone that many of us looked up to,” said Goldin, who worked under Joel at one of the Y.U.-affiliated programs in the ’70s.
Brute charismatic force propelled Joel from there to the inner circles of Modern Orthodoxy’s hierarchy. While many of the young men whom Joel influenced went on to Y.U.’s rabbinical school, Joel went to NYU’s law school instead. He worked as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx before then Y.U. president Norman Lamm asked him back to Y.U. to create an alumni office. From there, Joel was made an assistant dean at Cardozo, which Y.U. had just established. He was teaching at the school and working as an administrator when he was selected in 1988, at just 37, to lead Hillel, the national campus Jewish outreach group.
When Joel arrived, Hillel was a subsidiary of B’nai B’rith, the venerable but then shrinking Jewish fraternal order that also spawned the Anti-Defamation League. Joel took advantage of Jewish communal anxiety over intermarriage spurred by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study to draw donors and energy to Hillel. Joel ultimately spun the group off from B’nai B’rith and built a board packed with wealthy donors. Edgar Bronfman, heir to the Seagram’s fortune, was an important early backer.
“It was [by] force of personality and charisma and ideas,” Jeff Rubin, who worked as Hillel’s communications director under Joel, said of how Joel was able to grow the then-low-profile group.
Joel’s reputation grew with Hillel. In 1999, the Orthodox Union picked Joel to lead an internal investigation of allegations that the head of its youth group had abused multiple teenagers over many years.
“I was under the opinion… you had to go out front and expose it and tell people the truth,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, who served as O.U.’s president at the time. Yet Ganchrow also wanted someone who respected the O.U. “Who do you appoint that will be both fair… [and] accepted by the public, but not ruin the organization?” Ganchrow said.
The answer was Joel, whose report received respectful coverage in The New York Times.
“We basically saved the name of the union,” Ganchrow said. “I have only the highest regard for what Richard did.”
Joel’s handling of sex abuse charges at his own institution has been more controversial.
In December 2012 the Forward reported that Y.U. had covered up allegations of sexual abuse against students for decades. Though the alleged incidents happened long before Joel’s tenure, two men who claim that faculty members abused them while they were students at Y.U.’s high school said they told Joel of the abuse after he became president.
Joel has yet to respond to Forward inquiries as to what he did to investigate those reports between his appointment as president and the publication of the Forward’s story.
A publicly released version of Y.U.’s internal investigation into the sex abuse allegations withheld all details of the investigators’ findings, citing the $380 million lawsuit filed by the alleged victims.
In an opinion piece published in the Forward, Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president of CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership who said he was a victim of abuse at Y.U.’s high school, wrote that he was disappointed that the school had not published a full report on its investigation. “No ohr lagoyim — light unto nations — here, just an administration and a board that is k’chol hagoyim: just like everyone else,” Kula wrote.
Other Y.U. alumni have also condemned Joel’s handling of the allegations. “They’ve tried to deflect the problems to everybody that came before them,” said Herzfeld, the Washington rabbi. “Maybe it’s saved them a few dollars in a lawsuit, but in the long run I think they’ve lost a lot of their moral high ground.”
Joel was reportedly not the Y.U. board’s first pick to succeed Lamm as president. According to a 2003 story in The Jerusalem Post, board members considered Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who leads the West Bank settlement of Efrat, and former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks before turning to Joel.
Neither a rabbi nor a PhD, Joel was a nontraditional choice to lead Y.U., a job that he told The Riverdale Press in 2008 was “kind of like the Vatican.” Lamm, Joel’s predecessor, was both a rabbi and a PhD. On the eve of Joel’s inauguration, religiously right-wing students and professors protested the selection of a non-rabbi to lead the university.
Those professors and students represented a growing hard-right constituency within the Jewish studies portion of the university that Joel has not been able to face down. The ascendancy of ultra-Orthodox currents within the flagship Modern Orthodox theological school is a long-term trend, but one that has accelerated under Joel.
Some blame Joel for not pushing harder to rein in the yeshiva.
“I think there was a lot of hope when President Joel came in,” said one Modern Orthodox rabbi with strong ties to the university, who did not want to be named in order to protect relationships. “He has vastly improved the undergraduate colleges and the community outreach component of the university. But more challenging has been impacting the tone within the [Jewish studies division]. I don’t know if it’s that he doesn’t think he has the bona fides or because it’s just too difficult.”
The rabbi pointed to Hershel Schachter, the top rabbi in the rabbinical school, who advised earlier this year that one should not report on a Jewish sex abuser because of the risk that he would be put in jail with a black inmate.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.