On Rabbi Sacks’ Appointment to NYU and YU

My daughter sent me a link to a pieced by Zachary Braiterman and asked me to comment.


Braiterman questions the appointment of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, up to recently the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, to New York University and Yeshiva University (NYU and YU) to offer a limited series of lectures to students. My daughter is one of the NYU students in his class, and this post began as a response to her inquiry regarding my thoughts about Breiterman’s essay.

Braiterman raises issues with presumably a substantial sum of cash for Sacks’ salary and expenses, and issues of academic integrity surrounding who should teach and the degree to which non-academic considerations impact faculty appointments. In particular, it would seem that he takes issue with framing the appointment as filling named, donated Professorships, and Rabbi Sacks’ comment that he hopes to “inspire and recruit a new generation of young leaders for the Jewish world.”

To a certain extent, but only to a certain extent, I see Braiterman’s point about the problems of “inspiring and recruiting” young leaders—our goal in teaching is not merely to inspire, but more concretely, to train and educate: to help those future leaders see complexity, analyze issues, form conclusions based on research and analysis, and write coherently and constructively about issues. I hope that Rabbi Sacks conceives of his role in the classroom, at least, as going far beyond recruiting and inspiring future leaders of the Jewish community—training and educating them, providing and analyzing issues he has dealt with in his career and many publications. Regarding recruitment and inspiration: My guess is that all university departments from time to time debate such things as the effectiveness of this or that course, curriculum or instructor in inspiring and recruiting students to choose their major, and make decisions about course offerings and the instructors who staff them informed by precisely such considerations. As for leaders: My undergraduate university took heat for the gendered portion of its President’s commitment to “a thousand male leaders” a year. To be sure, searching for Kingman Brewster’s remarks, verbs associated with this commitment emphasized his comment was to “educate,” “produce,” or “graduate”—not “recruit” or “inspire.” But none of the debate ever touched upon the question of “leaders,” only the emphasis on “male” part. I do have a footnote to the “Jewish leaders” part: The issues Rabbi Sacks has dealt with are most compelling for Jewish leaders, but issues within the Jewish community often have constructive parallels or comparisons with issues outside the Jewish community; in the academic world, of course, many non-Jews are teach, publish and study in the field of Judaic Studies. While this may not be as relevant for Yeshiva University, it is certainly possible that Rabbi Sacks’ insights could help inspire and educate leaders who are not Jewish as well as those who are.

Braiterman’s main concern is that the appointment to named professorships as opposed to a visiting lectureship breaches a firewall between education and advocacy, and does not sufficiently advance the academic or intellectual life of the university as a whole. I’m not so sure about the named professorships being a real issue: is Braiterman saying that Sacks’ appointment would be OK if the word “Visiting” had been inserted in the title? The words “Distinguished” and “University” – and the limited timeframe – indicate much the same: these are appointments that are outside the usual process. I hope Rabbi Sacks spends time with colleagues, not only with donors. Students in his class will be the best judge of the value of his offerings, and the nature of things is such that in some cases, some event or issue years from now will trigger a memory of something discussed in Sack’s classroom: short term evaluations may be misleading.

Braiterman is right that the money might be well spent in other directions. I am not so sure about “jobs, jobs, jobs” (as he puts it in his essay)—if he is talking about non-academic leadership positions. Others are in a better position than I to assess whether the job shortage in academics is mirrored in the general community. But I hear of academics who cannot find jobs at universities going to leadership positions in the community a lot more than the other way around. But that does not mean that there is a job surplus for the kinds of leaders the donors who funded Rabbi Sacks wish to develop. Moreover, there are many junior and adjunct faculty who deserve more funding for jobs they already have.

Had Braiterman said “jobs and educational funding” it might have been much more convincing. Assuming that the education given by NYU and YU is worthwhile (and I think it is!) the cash spent to bring Rabbi Sacks might have had even more impact were NYU able to offer more funding to more future leaders! One or more endowed “Sacks Fellowships” perhaps might be far more worthwhile long-term than a one-time residence of Rabbi Sacks on campus.

Having said all of that, the issue of donor involvement in specific hires at Universities is a real one, and a real problem in many universities I teach at a public university where a similar issue has caused great consternation—in our case, coming from the Trustees, Legislature and industry rather than from a private donor. But offering limited appointments for highly prominent persons with something to say is – as Braiterman notes – common indeed, and occurs both in places with what he might think of as having pretensions to be major universities, and even more-so in the places that such institutions aspire to imitate. From my humble point of view, having an ongoing class with someone like Rabbi Sacks would be an invaluable component of the life portfolio of a graduate of one of any program for Jewish professionals. Rabbi Sacks or anyone else in his position should do all he can to provide a memorable experience for students, service to the community, and collegiality with colleagues, but I cannot imagine that he could compromise the regular faculty role in setting curricula and standards, and certainly not without their complicity.

Nevertheless, to judge this situation, I tried to imagine how I might react were a similar situation to occur in my university. Suppose a Highly Prominent Person were brought in to teach a donor-funded class on a short term basis—someone highly unpopular among the faculty, and moreover, considered to be ill-qualified on academic standards. I teach at the University of Wyoming; one has only to think of a former Vice President to envision such a scenario. Indeed, I have referred to him as one “who-must-not-be-named” to counteract the fact that the value of a scholarship named after him was compromised by other requirements of his grant to the University. I would hope that—as long as “he-who-must-not-be-named” would not dictate university or faculty policy—I would nevertheless support providing an opportunity to hear from a prominent public figure, even one whose views are unpopular and considered discredited by many on our campus. Certainly he could be an inspiration to many who want to go into public service.

Moreover, my experience suggests that such instruction can help clarify issues, and give insight into the complex processes and personality involved. But—students will strike out in their own directions no matter what. Years later, they will recall the time they spent with the Highly Prominent Person, but are unlikely to be swayed to follow the policies he or she espoused. Indeed, they are much more likely to ascribe to the prominent instructor some insights that were at best suggested or inspired by the classroom experience, but are completely their own.

In short—I can easily see some issues with donor-developed programs that stream cash to a specific prominent person. Perhaps the cash is better spent on funding scholarships or jobs. There is a real question of minor problems in having a curriculum directed in some small way by donors rather than by faculty. But in the large scope of things, this is a small piece of this issue—grants for entire research institutes or large research projects have way more influence and it seems to me that any issue of academic integrity pales in comparison. The value to students, institution and colleagues of meeting prominent persons as a Visiting Professor far outweighs any issues of academic integrity raised by this particular model.

I was highly in favor of my daughter signing up for Lord Sacks’ class, and remain so. The donor involvement and academic integrity issues seem to be minimal at this level, although such considerations do indeed merit discussion in the large picture. Nevertheless, the value of the experience will be best assessed by the frequency with which she and the others who attend his class or lectures find classroom deliberations, readings, intellectual interaction, and the overall experience a useful component of their training and education.


Seth Ward

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One Response to On Rabbi Sacks’ Appointment to NYU and YU

  1. Pingback: On Rabbi Sacks’ Appointment to NYU and YU | Coffeecups

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