Does anyone know anything about the recent appointments of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the ex-chief rabbi of Great Britain, to the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University and to the Kressel and Efrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at YU?
The little I know is that Lord Rabbi Sacks will be between both universities 3 months out of the year for 3 years. The plan is for him to spend 6 weeks at NYU, 6 weeks at YU, and 6 weeks of “shared time.” It looks like a lot of money: what must be a plumb salary and benefits, including use of a luxe New York City apartment in Greenwich Village. Rabbi Sacks hopes to “inspire and recruit a new generation of young leaders for the Jewish world.” At YU, his website tells us, he’ll be delivering a public lecture, “The True Path to Happiness.” My guess is that none of this would happen without the private donor money behind the two named chairs.
In this day and age, is it true that private donors can get what they pay for do what they want at U.S. universities? A friend of mine thinks that this one more sign that marks the death of Jewish Studies. On one hand, I disagree. Ivy League universities and leaders of universities who aspire to Ivy League status like President Sexton at NYU do this all the time. They hire blue chip public intellectuals, like David Brooks at Yale, to run seminars or practica. These status events impress undergraduates, make them feel in the loop and important, and encourage more dollars from blue chip donors. Or these universities set up what they hope to be lucrative satellites in places like Dubai or the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, my friend may have a point.
Rabbi Lord Sacks is a prominent public figure of considerable consequence who should be welcome in university settings for the important and interesting things he might have to say about religion and public life; welcome, that is, as a distinguished visiting lecturer, not as the holder of not one, but two named chairs in Jewish thought.
For a number of reasons, the whole scheme is unorthodox and unprincipled:
First, both NYU and YU are breaching the firewall between scholarship and advocacy. The purpose of a university and the particular purpose of a university training in Jewish Studies is to train students in critical thinking, not to “inspire and recruit” young leaders for the Jewish world. This blurring of that fundamental dividing line is part and parcel of what we now increasingly see as attempts by outside private money to use universities to push extra-scholarly agendas and the compliance of university administrators hungry for money and/or status, unprepared and unwilling to turn down these kinds of deals.
The dual appointment of Rabbi Lord Sacks does nothing to advance the scholarly life of the host universities, nor does it advance Jewish Studies or any other related academic discipline. To the contrary. Money has been set aside for a three year temporary position, which will require his not undivided presence for 18 weeks out of the entire year. It remains clear how on such a short term basis he could even contribute to the broader life of the two universities, their hosting departments, and their students. Instead of money going to support long term investments for genuine scholarly purposes, investments that would strengthen departments and programs, a celebrity with limited academic credentials is parachuted onto campus on a short-term basis, and at whose departure, the funds presumably disappear.
Damaging in itself to university life, these kinds of arrangements are particularly dangerous for small academic disciplines such as Jewish Studies insofar as they only encourage deep skepticism about the academic integrity of programs seen as already dependent upon external community dollars, and compromised by the dependence upon that support. To further complicate the matter, it’s no accident that Rabbi Lord Sacks has been appointed to occupy named chairs in Jewish thought. As field of study, Jewish thought and modern Jewish thought has been especially prominent in the establishment, hosting, and in this case chairing of such dubious arrangements. The negative effect is to cast an additional set of doubts about the scholarly bonafides of this particular branch of Jewish Studies.
Next, how much control is given to wealthy donors, upon whose lifeblood Jewish Studies depends as an academic discipline. We need and like it very much when they establish named chairs. We like it less when doubts are raised about the control the exercise over the deposition of the position, especially when it feels that political and ideological strings get attached to it for extra-academic purposes. For more information re: Ira Rennet, the benefactor at NYU, see here.
Last and by no means least, it remains objectionable in the extreme that big money is put up to cosset a very privileged person precisely at the time when the academic job market is freezing out the most vulnerable members of the academic community, namely newly minted PhD’s burdened by enormous financial debts and no secure job prospects. What university life and Jewish Studies need today are not lords, but jobs, jobs, jobs.
I can say this because I have tenure. I’d say shame on my distinguished and esteemed colleagues at NYU and YU, except I suspect they were not in on the decision. That the appointment was made without consulting them and without their consent only deepens the shame. Indeed, that disgrace rightly belong to all of us who are tenured faculty nationwide at work in Jewish Studies, more or less comfortable when so many of our junior colleagues are facing the brutal economics and politics of a scorched earth, academic austerity environment.