Taking stock of Richard Joel


Last summer, on the eve of his fifth anniversary as president of Yeshiva University, I spent a day following Richard Joel around as he flitted between the university’s several campuses, met with the board of trustees, watched The West Wing with Stern College undergraduates, and lunched with faculty. At the time, Yeshiva was flush with cash and was spending aggressively. And while Joel’s fundraising was shattering school records, some questions remained about his ability to fortify a house divided by religious politics.

Those concerns were revived later after the departure of an award-winning professor recruited by Joel to boost the school’s academic reputation. The professor, James Otteson, believed he was removed because of his blog, which had contained some posts deemed controversial, and reported in an email that Joel had described him as an inappropriate role model.

In a mostly admiring consideration of Joel’s tenure thus far, The Y.U. Commentator has largely sidestepped those questions, with the exception of the unavoidable financial issue, which is relegated to the bottom of the piece. It cites Joel’s defense of the study of the New Testament ("We cannot be afraid of ideas, even the ones we disagree with.") and offers this spot-on description of Joel’s second-greatest talent after fundraising: the inspirational speech.

In any of the many speeches and talks President Joel gives with dizzying frequency, the formula is often similar: a few, self-deprecating jokes, followed by a short talk about the subject at hand, pivoting from there into grandiloquence about the mission of Yeshiva and the capacity of student potential, before ending with an apocryphal anecdote. Towards the end of speeches, as he speaks about his vision for the university and its students, President Joel’s voice often drops to a lower level and transitions into a fervently earnest tone. Though the words and phrases are often familiar, the authenticity accompanying each flight of rhetoric rarely fails to move many in every crowd.

Yet, unlike all the presidents that preceded him, President Joel is not a rabbi, and it is readily apparent that he is pointedly cognizant of the fact. When answering questions regarding religious questions he regularly precedes his answers with the disclaimer that he’s answering “as a layman, not a rabbi.”

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