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Five Women in Leadership Positions at Yeshiva University Speak About Their Accomplishments, Challenges and Visions


Dr. Selma Botman
Dr. Karen Bacon
Dean Melanie Leslie
Dr. Danielle Wozniak
Dr. Rona Novick


Dr. Selma Botman
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

For Dr. Selma Botman, a dedication to student and faculty success has been a constant throughout her impressive career.

A scholar of modern Middle Eastern politics and society, Dr. Botman has published three books: Rise of Egyptian Communism 1939-1970, Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952 and Engendering Citizenship in Egypt. She has also written a number of scholarly articles and has taught a range of courses on the modern Middle East and international development.

Dr. Botman is widely known as an academic innovator and effective administrator who has directed the creation of many popular academic programs for faculty and students. For example, as the president of the University of Southern Maine, she inspired new academic initiatives, raised scholarship dollars for students who would have otherwise been unable to attend the university and promoted technology-assisted instruction.

As vice president for academic affairs at UMass, she strengthened technology and engineering education throughout Massachusetts and helped create UMass Online. In addition, while at The City University of New York (CUNY), she headed a Campaign for Student Success, designed to ensure that more students successfully graduated from the CUNY colleges.

Dr. Botman is proud to be part of Yeshiva University’s leadership team helping today’s students achieve academic excellence and professional success. She looks forward to creating additional innovative programs imbued with the high academic standards and proud values of the University.

What would you consider one of your significant accomplishments as a leader?
My biggest accomplishments have been building new areas of the University that respond to student interests, market needs and faculty strengths. I strive to create the conditions so that deans, faculty and, of course, students can succeed. A core principle is to support colleagues so that they can contribute to the University’s mission.

What would you consider your toughest challenge as a leader?
Innovating in an environment of constrained resources.

How would you assess the state of leadership by women in academia?
While there are certainly more women in leadership positions than ever before, all of us in the University need to mentor women so that they see themselves in leadership roles.

Do you have a core principle or set of principles that guides your leadership efforts?
Tell the truth. Listen. Take risks to advance the institution. Don’t take things personally.

What can YU do to help women reach the upper echelons of leadership in the University?
Be a role model whenever possible. Appoint and promote talented women. Mentor women in all areas.

What is your message to future leaders?
Work hard, believe in what you do, and build a team around you to help you achieve your goals.

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Dr. Karen Bacon
The Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the
Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Dr. Karen Bacon

Dr. Karen Bacon earned her bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, from Stern College for Women and served as valedictorian of her graduating class. She earned her doctorate in microbiology from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and did post-doctoral research both at UCLA and at Indiana University.

A trend-setter, Dr. Bacon was appointed as the first Stern College alumna to be granted a full-time appointment at Yeshiva College, where she served for two years as assistant professor of biology. Dr. Bacon has been Dean of Stern College for Women since 1977, and in 2015 she was appointed The Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In this enlarged role, she also serves as the Dean of Yeshiva College and is working to unite the faculty on curricular initiatives, academic policies and research collaborations.

Dr. Bacon has co-authored articles in scientific journals and books, including the Journal of Bacteriology and the Journal of Ultrastructure Research. Other work includes “A Biochemical Response to a Halakhic Challenge: The Case of the Ethiopian Jews” in the Torah U-Madda Journal, “Women and Jewish Education” in Tradition Magazine and “Yeshiva University: A Model for Undergraduate Science Research” in CUR Quarterly.

What would you consider one of your significant accomplishments as a leader?
I look at my accomplishments from the perspective of what have I done for students and what have I achieved for staff. For our students, particularly the women of Stern College, I have focused on expanding their opportunities. This has meant seeking out outstanding faculty and giving them encouragement, support and inspiration to do what they do so well: teach, research and mentor. For the staff as a whole, I have been committed to a strong ethos of delegation and collaboration. This approach enables each staff member to “shine,” to have a broad knowledge base and develop leadership skills. All of this not only benefits the individual but also benefits the organization.

What would you consider your toughest challenge as a leader?
I am thrilled to have been involved in the lives of thousands of young women and men over the years, all of whom have had impressive levels of energy, stamina and resilience. My toughest challenge has been to do everything possible to help them fulfill their ambitions by ensuring they have the right opportunities to sustain a strong intellectual foundation based on Jewish values. That’s the foundation upon which they will build their professional and personal lives.

How would you assess the state of leadership by women in academia?
Mentoring women is key. But the environment has changed over the past 25 years. In earlier decades, I think it was more a question of encouraging women to really push as far as they could so that they didn’t underestimate both their abilities and their opportunities. Today, it is more a question of keeping up with the pace at which women really want to move forward in contributing to society. Women are ambitious and anxious to be real players in both their community and the world.

Do you have a core principle or set of principles that guides your leadership efforts?
I have always tried to create an environment of mutual respect and trust. These are critical elements that make it possible to sustain what is valuable and still move forward in response to a changing environment and new opportunities. Respect enables each person to have his or her voice heard and for the listener to gain from a broader perspective. Trust means that those committed to the organization have confidence in the leadership and work to support the decisions of that leadership.

What can YU do to help women reach the upper echelons of leadership in the University?
At YU at this time, women are in a significant number of leadership positions, not only the visible ones such as deans but also behind the scenes. I expect this trend will continue as there is an eagerness on the part of the University to include more “voices” and a desire among women to be part of the YU conversation. The academic life is not typically one of large financial rewards. The rewards are most often intellectual and emotional. Creating knowledge, helping others acquire knowledge, seeing eyes light up and doors open are what academics and those in academic administration do every single day. I believe this is a professional vision that appeals to many talented women.

What is your message to future leaders?
Be true to the mission of the organization you lead. If the mission does not speak to you, you are in the wrong place. But if you feel the mission is a noble and worthy one, you will wake up every morning energized to do what you can to bring the organization and all those associated with it into a glorious future.

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Dean Melanie Leslie
Dean, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

Dean Melanie Leslie

When Melanie Leslie became dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law on July 1, 2015, she was the first Cardozo Law graduate and the first woman to hold the position.

Since then, she has founded many programs that have made Cardozo Law School a leader on legal issues relating to technology and intellectual property, such as the FAME Center, the Cardozo/Google Patent Diversity Project (to increase patent ownership among women and minorities) and the Blockchain Project.

These and the many other initiatives she has spearheaded have placed Cardozo Law School at 52nd in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, up 23 places from when she started her tenure.

She is also a respected teacher, with an expertise in trusts and estates as well as in the fiduciary duties of trustees and charitable boards, and has received the “Best First-Year Professor” award from three graduating classes.

Her CV includes multiple publications in important law reviews as well as coauthorship of leading casebooks in her field: Estates and Trusts, Cases and Materials and Concepts and Insights: Trusts and Estates.

What would you consider one of your significant accomplishments as a leader?
When I became dean in 2015 the law school had been struggling with a five-year decline in applications. Nationally, applications to law schools had hit a 40-year low, due chiefly to the after-effects of the 2008 recession, which sharply constricted the job market for lawyers.

I put a strategic planning team together, and we produced a five-year plan to strengthen the quality of the student body, improve our employment outcomes and generate efficiencies within our budget. The University supported the plan, agreeing to make a financial investment in the law school to produce growth in the long term.

The plan has produced remarkable results: the median credentials of our entering students and our job placement numbers have improved each year. We have moved up 23 places in US News & World Report’s Law School Rankings, and we are now ranked 52.

What would you consider your toughest challenge as a leader?
Leadership is about building a team, setting goals and developing talent to break through barriers. Getting an institution to move in a new direction takes a lot of people working together, and it’s not easy to achieve that. I had to gain an in-depth understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of every department here and then work to get all wheels pointing in the same direction. We did that, and now we are seeing momentum and results. I’m proud of the leadership team we’ve built.

How would you assess the state of leadership by women in academia?
I think the academy is experiencing a culture shift that reflects what is happening in society more broadly. In the past few years, we’ve seen momentum: significantly more women are moving into top positions as deans of law schools, provosts and presidents. There is a new openness to viewing women as leaders.

Do you have a core principle or set of principles that guides your leadership efforts?
I try to build trust by being transparent, accessible and accountable. When you face hardship, you have to be a clear communicator and an honest broker to bring along students, faculty, administrators, parents and others. When you make a mistake, or when the institution you represent makes a mistake, you have to own it and do your best to address it in an honest and transparent manner.

What can YU do to help women reach the upper echelons of leadership in the University?
It’s important to build in diversity at all levels of decision-making within a university. In the for-profit sector, bringing on female CEOs is inadequate to change the culture because you have to have diversity at all levels of management. The same is true in higher education. You have to continually strive to create a culture that supports a diverse team at all levels from the ground up.

What is your message to future leaders?
When a professional opportunity scares you, that’s probably a sign that you should take it.

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Dr. Danielle Wozniak
Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work

Dr. Danielle Wozniak

Dr. Danielle Wozniak was appointed the dean of Wurzweiler School of Social Work in 2016, after the passing of Dean Carmen Hendricks Ortiz in February of that year.

Dr. Wozniak has a PhD in anthropology, a sixth-year degree in education administration and supervision and an MSW. She was dean of arts and sciences at the College of New Rochelle and director of the school of social work at University of New England (Portland, Maine), where she was responsible for significant growth in online and campus programs. She was also director of the bachelor of social work program and co-director of the sexual assault prevention program at the University of Montana.

Dr. Wozniak also has extensive teaching experience, having held positions at the University of Montana, Western Michigan University and Connecticut College. Her areas of teaching and research expertise are domestic violence and post-traumatic growth, social policy as practice, distance pedagogy, gender and sexuality, kinship relations, and foster parenting. She also co-founded an online mental health experience company, Powerful Me!, that combines mental health interventions and techniques with cutting-edge game technology to assist women in making difficult life changes or heal from painful life experiences including recovery from domestic violence.

She is the author of They’re All My Children: Foster Mothering in America and co-author of Consuming Motherhood and Surviving Domestic Violence: A Guide to Healing Your Soul and Building Your Future. She is currently co-authoring a book on leadership entitled Back from the Brink: Women Leaders in Times of Academic Crisis. Dr. Wozniak has also contributed to numerous scholarly publications, including Journal of Progressive Human Services, Journal of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Current Anthropology and Women’s History Review. She is also a prolific presenter on such topics as domestic violence intervention, post-traumatic growth, teaching social policy as practice, pedagogical innovations in distance education, ethnographic field research and constructs of kinship in a consumer culture.

What would you consider one of your significant accomplishments as a leader?
My most significant accomplishment is not a single event. It is the capacity to help people develop a collaborative and inclusive vision for change and growth, to be excited about that vision and then to collectively work toward it. In the last 3 institutions I have served, I have been able to rapidly assess my school’s needs, examine constituent goals and values and then develop a strategy for growth based on a shared vision for change. I have also been able to evaluate and implement ideas if they are feasible and consistent with the mission. Nothing thrills me more than someone coming in my office saying, “Hey, I have a great idea!” I want to hear it!

Each school under my leadership flourished, not because I am magic but because when we are able to work toward a shared vision and when people feel supported in their goals, then magic happens. Most of us in higher education are very proud of the work we are doing. Faculty and staff at Wurzweiler feel honored by the way our work connects us to a much larger mission of social and individual change and repair. Wurzweiler has seen some amazing growth in the last three years. We have literally doubled in size, and we continue to grow. This is because faculty and staff recognize that growth doesn’t just have instrumental value. It is intrinsic to our mission, to our core beliefs about who we are and what we do. We grow because we have an exceptional training program for social workers, and by growing, we can positively impact more people, change more lives and scale our social repair efforts.

What would you consider your toughest challenge as a leader?
There are a lot to choose from, and each one is endemic in higher education. All universities and colleges right now are experiencing resource constraints and soaring costs of higher education.

In addition, I think one of the toughest challenges continues to lie in striking a balance between the need for stability juxtaposed with the demands of a rapidly changing educational landscape. To be competitive, we must innovate by interrogating our pedagogy, by paying close attention to student learning outcomes and by challenging our own assumptions about higher education.

Our work force must also be ready to embrace change and be open and curious. My best teachers are those who start a conversation with “I wonder if we could….” And my best staff come to me and say, “This doesn’t work. We should consider…” Institutions that thrive are flexible. They can deliver knowledge fluidly and make changes quickly based on not just response to need but anticipation of need.

To remain competitive, we must be ready to embrace change at a rate that can be daunting. We have been delivering information the same way for hundreds of years, and yet the way we receive information has changed. Consider, for example, that 40 years ago we did not have email. Distance education until very recently meant a correspondence course conducted by U.S. mail. We must match our delivery of evolving knowledge to the innovation in knowledge production and dissemination. In other words, the “sage on the stage” way of delivering knowledge can’t be the only thing we know how to do.

Additionally, colleges are being asked to take on many more responsibilities relative to student learning and success, and this comes with added costs. In spite of or in the face of these pressures, universities, as bastions of learning and critical thought, must be stable entities; we must value our traditions and rituals while we iterate. We have to be the constant in society that represents impartial and empirical knowledge and expertise. The challenge is in the balance between change and tradition.

How would you assess the state of leadership by women in academia?
I think we have a long way to go. I am concerned when people don’t see institutional sexism or think that we have “arrived” because we have women leaders or fail to see that the “normal” ways we conduct business can disadvantage women. According to a study done by the American Council on Education in 2017, just 30 percent of college and university presidents are women. That percentage has risen very little over time. That same study shows that while women have made strides in the early stages of their careers, they have made little progress in advancing their career to executive positions. This is just as true in higher education as it is in other fields.

Women’s exclusion from leadership supports a logical fallacy that women are somehow less-than-able leaders: women aren’t in leadership positions, ergo they must not be good leaders. Gender initiatives and policies that protect women are critical, but we need to go past that and actively seek to promote and include women, to intentionally disrupt normalized exclusion. We need to examine who is in the room making decisions, and who sits on our governing boards, who comprises our C-suite executives. One of my colleagues and I are looking at the ways in which gendered leadership has been instrumental in breathing new life into failing institutions. It is such a rewarding project and such a pleasure to speak with women leaders. There is a lot to be proud of and a lot of leadership capital that belongs in higher education right now.
Do you have a core principle or set of principles that guides your leadership efforts?
I am guided professionally by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, which not only delineates our professional responsibilities but also outlines our ethical imperatives. As a social worker, the best course of action is not always immediately clear. The NASW code serves as a reminder about who we are professionally and what our work is. We are advocates. We work toward social justice for those who are disenfranchised.

I am also personally guided by Judaism.  We have just ended Pesach where we remembered how b’nai ysrael fled slavery to freedom. The bitter experience of injustice and captivity as well as being the discomfited stranger is part of not just our collective legacy but also our personal one. That empathic understanding of displacement and struggle for me translates to a moral imperative of altruism, righteousness and social justice. Once you have tasted that suffering, how can we turn away from the suffering of others?

Hanging on the walls in my synagogue are plaques marking who our founders were and commemorating our past presidents. I look at these plaques as markers of leaders who maintained a vision not only of what our synagogue could be but also of what we as Jews could be. I think about them as reminders of edah, of congregation and community. As a leader, as a social worker, as an anthropologist, as an educator, as an administrator and as a Jew, I never forget that we must work for the edah and, through that sense of community, work to repair a fractured world.

What can YU do to help women reach the upper echelons of leadership in the University?
Educate, support and advocate. I am very excited to be a part of women leaders at Yeshiva University and am enormously proud of my colleagues who are doing such ground-breaking work.  I am extremely fortunate that I have such excellent mentorship and support from Provost Botman, who is an amazing advocate, teacher and example of leadership. Using her as my role model, I strive to be a support for other women. I ask women directly, “Where do you want to be in five years? Tell me about your leadership plans and how I can help.”

It is also important to advocate for change and to educate others about the need for change. Unless we recognize that there is a problem, we can’t address it. So, part of my work is raising awareness about the ways women can contribute, why our voices are important and how we can be better included in the formal and informal power structure. I do this because we are at a critical time in higher education. The landscape is changing very quickly. We cannot afford to exclude women’s voices, knowledge and talent from the board rooms any more than we can afford to do business the way we have done it for hundreds of years.

At Yeshiva, I am extremely lucky to be surrounded by competent women. My work is to support them in their leadership and encourage them in their career trajectory. I left a university I absolutely loved because I hit a glass ceiling. There were no leadership opportunities for women beyond a certain point, and I had so much to contribute. That was very difficult for me and my family. I don’t want other women to face that decision.

What is your message to future leaders?
My message to future leaders is to be sensitive to the needs of those with whom you work juxtaposed with the needs and mission of the institution you represent and maintain high fidelity to both simultaneously as you move rapidly to execute an iterative strategic plan. I guess that means being a visionary who is also good at effecting balance! Here are some other words of wisdom that I would add to that message. Be bold and when possible, balance stability with innovation and change. Create a culture of inclusion and enthusiasm. Pitch to people’s strengths and remember that one person’s weakness is another’s strength so that well-executed team work will allow you to have a seamless and talented workforce. Create buy-in by enfranchising stakeholders; make sure everyone is responsible for a piece of the mission. Don’t be afraid to move quickly; it isn’t speed that kills, it is hubris. Maintain your moral and ethical compass. Pair disparate ideas together when possible. And always, always, always encourage, support and nurture new ideas. My personal motto is “What box?”

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Dr. Rona Novick
Dean, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration

Dr. Rona Novick=

For Dr. Rona Novick, the work of the school and her mission as both a dean and an educator is summed up in the school’s motto: “Where Teaching is Sacred, Where Learning Transforms.”

What guides Dr. Novick, from her celebrated work on preventing bullying to her tireless advocacy for renewing and upgrading Jewish education, is rooted in the gentle parental advice she gives on her blog, “Life’s Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators.” The title comes from her father, who passed away recently, an industrial arts teacher and proud owner of a garage filled with tools who was fond of saying, “Everything in life is easier with the right tools.”

Dr. Novick is a firm believer that with the right tools—compassion and faith, along with contemporary research and practice, humility, self-reflection and a solid dose of good humor—Azrieli can carry out the sacred work of preparing classroom teachers, informal Jewish educators, and Jewish educational leaders to grow this and future generations of Jewish learners and transform the world to make it better, brighter and bolder.

What would you consider one of your significant accomplishments as a leader?
I have communicated to those with whom I work that they are important as human beings with multiple components: they are spouses, brothers, parents, daughters, and so on as well as colleagues. I believe in growth and in a healthy work/life balance, and I have to support that in my leadership. I am very proud of serving as mentor and model for professionals who are wondering how to combine professional accomplishment with family values and a Torah observant lifestyle.

What would you consider your toughest challenge as a leader?
Not enough hours in the day! I am very passionate about Jewish education and the well-being and growth of children, and there are so many opportunities to contribute and make a difference, there is so much more we could and should be doing—but, obviously, not all of it can be done. That means I have to strategically allocate my resources and those of my colleagues, even when it means not everything I want to do will get done.

How would you assess the state of leadership by women in academia?
I feel quite blessed to have had female colleagues in all the settings where I have worked, with many in leadership positions. That said, there are still places, times and meetings where subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions are made. For instance, and this may seem like a small thing to some, but it often appears that women are treated more informally in ways men would not: they are referred to by first names, without titles, that sort of thing.

Do you have a core principle or set of principles that guides your leadership efforts?
In academia, where our mission is to teach people to grow, I believe true leadership must include mentoring others to help them fulfill their potential. If, as a leader, I am always focusing on how I am growing the people with whom I work, then I think I am doing all right. I also think I can’t, nor can any leader, fake passion and belief: a leader has to believe in the organization and its mission as well as believing in the endless capacity of people to grow.

What can YU do to help women reach the upper echelons of leadership in the University?
Often the answer to this question focuses on what women can do, or how we can help women. I actually think that for women to be able to “lean in,” men need to create a welcoming atmosphere. That means carefully and sensitively assessing how and when male culture makes women feel separate, unwelcome and tentative. Of course, mentoring for developing leaders is important.

What is your message to future leaders?
Follow your passion and go beyond your comfort zone. But as important as leadership is, always remember and value your personal development and family: in doing so, you will be able to help those who work with you also find balance.

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