Aug 19, 2003 — Freshman orientation is fast approaching, yet that intense time of adjustment does not apply to fresh-faced teens alone. It also extends to new college presidents.
In New York City, among the new presidents joining exhausted parents in counting down the days until school begins are Richard Joel and the Reverend Joseph McShane.
Both are experienced educators, but that’s where most of the similarities end. Mr. Joel is the new president of Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution in Manhattan. Rev. Mc-Shane’s office can be found in the Bronx, in the Jesuit-run Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus.
Mr. Joel is the former director and president of Hillel, a movement that works to build up Jewish communities on college campuses. He is a former New York assistant district attorney who has also worked as a dean at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo law school.
Rev. McShane is an ordained priest whose previous job was as president of the University of Scranton, a Jesuit college in Pennsylvania. He has also served as a professor of theology and is the author of the entry on “Roman Catholicism” in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Ensconced in his spacious, newly renovated Washington Heights office, Mr. Joel sketched his goals and objectives for the coming academic year. “Being the president of a university today is both frightening and incredibly opportune. One of our biggest challenges lies in how we shape the future of Orthodox Jewry, and through that, the future of the Jewish people and building of a better world at large. The stakes are high at Y.U.”
With an entirely Jewish undergraduate population, “We have to break the stereotype surrounding Y.U. students,” Mr. Joel said. “We have to be clear in what we are, and the best in what we are.” He interpreted the school’s Hebrew slogan of “Torah U’Madda” as “viewing all the wonders of life through the world of Torah and Torah values. We have spawned all the great civilizations we call Western civilization, not just in terms of education, but in promoting a God-centered universe. Our job as Jews is to model those values, to be a light unto the nations.” On a more practical level, he said he would like to see the quality of learning at Yeshiva University improve, particularly at the women’s school, Stern College for Women, which has a campus in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan.
He described some of the unique aspects of running a religious institution. “There’s no question that this is a place where we’re always balancing how we stay rooted to traditional values while boldly going where no one has gone before in the secular world,” he said.
Rev. McShane faces some of the same challenges. “We have to wrestle with the public perception of what it means to be a Catholic institution,” he said. “We don’t believe that being Catholic means being narrow in our approach to the world. The challenge is continually trying to engage people. We’re not inhospitable to ideas.”
He elaborated on some of the issues he would like to see addressed. “Fordham has traditionally been a school that accepts first-generation students from all economic backgrounds. We want to make sure that we have continued access.” He went on,“We also have infrastructure and capital needs, such as plain basic space. We want to improve and refurbish our facilities, the quality of student life.”
Rev. McShane said he’ll have to juggle the various aspects of his jobs.“The president has to switch hats. I’m in charge of leading the university community in prayer…I’m pastor of the university at the same time as I am CEO, fund-raiser, and campus leader.”
He said his previous job at the University of Scranton had some useful lessons, even though it was a much smaller school in a much smaller city. “I learned about the importance of engaging students in dialogue, and of using the city in the context of laboratory and classroom. Practically speaking, you learn how to apportion your time, to speak with alumni — to beg.”
Mr. Joel’s selection as the new president of Yeshiva spurred some debate within the Jewish community because while he is an observant Jew, he is not an ordained rabbi, something many feel to be a necessary part of the president’s profile.“I am a radical departure from my three predecessors, who were very devoted to academia. I am committed to scholarship. I am not a scholar,” he said.
But he said he brings other skills: “For the last 15 years,” said Mr. Joel, “I have done a wonderful amount of listening to young people. I know what their urges and aspirations are, where there’s hunger. I love young people. I can relate to them, and I’m not afraid to empower them.”
Mr. Joel said that, at $939.2 million as of May 2003,Yeshiva University’s endowment is “substantial enough that we don’t need to fear. We can dream 21st century dreams.”
At Fordham, the endowment recently totaled $254.7 million. Rev. McShane calls that “still smaller than it should be” and says one of his major goals is increasing it.
Mr.Joel recently returned from Cambridge, Mass., where he was enrolled in the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents. It attracted professionals from all over the country, from Monmouth College in New Jersey, to the American University in Cairo.
The chair of the Harvard program, Judith Block McLaughlin, said,“All the religious presidents have the same challenges as non-sectarian and independent institutions. But they also have the complex task of figuring out what it means to be a religious university, and how to think about values in that context.”
It’s a complicated task that fills the new presidents with some of the same emotions felt by the new students arriving on campus. Mr. Joel said of himself and the other presidents at the Harvard seminar,“we were all equally terrified.”
But part of the nervousness is anticipation of the new academic year.
“I’m very excited,” said Rev. Mc-Shane. “I really can’t wait.”
©The New York Sun – Yael Merkin