Compromised — Jobs, Jewish Studies, & Academic Integrity at NYU & YU


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.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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15 Responses to Compromised — Jobs, Jewish Studies, & Academic Integrity at NYU & YU

  1. amandajanebradley says:

    it’s all jealousy really.
    1. bit hard to quibble with r’ sacks’ academic credentials. double first at cambridge? check. phd? check. headed a uni-affiliated college? check. been teaching large crowds all his life? check. lots of published works? check again. of course, a newly-minted phd would have far fewer academic credentials.

    • zjb says:

      no, not jealous. i would suggest that rabbi lord jonathan sacks, a prolific author of popular books about Judaism, has distinguished himself as a public intellectual, not as a university scholar. and that’s an important distinction for those of us who have devoted much blood, sweat and tears to university research and teaching. academic research and teaching is committed to critical methodlogy, not “inspiring and recruiting” future jewish leadership.

  2. amandajanebradley says:

    2. do you have inside knowledge, that the families funding r’ sacks’ tenure would oppose this use of the money? perhaps they are delighted. also, if wealthy individuals are funding r’ sacks’ tenure, then the uni coffers are not being drained and so there is nothing wrong with r’ sacks being appointed for only 3 months a year. if the uni is paying ofr it, then wealthy communal figures aren’t dictating university appoints.
    3. “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. ” i take it you also oppose university courses in law, business, medicine, and similarly vocational topics?

    • zjb says:

      no, i’m sure the families are very much in favor of promoting Lord Rabbi JS’ dual appointment and see it as promoting worthy purposes. i’m sure they are delighted. but in the past, universities faculties and administrations have jealously guarded their own perogatives. and this means maintaining the line between critical scholarship and the ideological agendas that donors might want to advance. the principle here is academic autonomy. Jewish Studies is not a vocational academic discipline. based in the Humanities and Social Sciences, academic Jewish Studies does not have as its mission the training of Jewish leadership

  3. amandajanebradley says:

    4. ” 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.”
    ahh, here’s the real complaint that you have. all the rest is just a smokescreen. so here’s my objection to this objection:
    a. to what extent is r’ sacks privileged? it sounds like this prof thinks that uni chairs shouldn;t be given to wealthy men (or women). so first, i hope that you know that being a lord does not mean that r’ sacks has any money. you don;t have to have a minimium wage to become honoured in this way.
    b. if r’ sacks has money, job prospects, etc, it’s because he’s an extremely clever man who’s worked very hard all of his life to reach the point where he is respected for his knowledge and his oratorial skills and is paid money to share these with others. at one point, he too was a freshly minted PhD. he worked. now he’s respected. all these newly minted phds are now free to attend his classes and take notes on how to be in his shoes in anotehr 40 years.
    he is not ‘privileged’. he is ‘successful’. something this prof seems to envy.

    • zjb says:

      if you don’t see the difference between a privileged VIP and struggling young scholars frozen out and with no job prospects, not even uncertain ones, well, then we just see things in very different lights. at issue are priorities and misplaced priorities. i’m not even blaming Lord Rabbi JS. and not even the donors. they’re simply doing what they want and what they think is best. it’s the university administrators i’m blaming for not know better, not knowing what’s best for the university. as a faculty member, i still have this right to express my opinion as to what strikes me as an instance involving faculty governance..

  4. Ben says:

    This is a really well reasoned piece and you raise important and searching questions that are in need of urgent response.

    The only thing I would quibble with is your questioning Rabbi Sacks academic credentials – as per the above comment. He became a Lord long after he had earned his academic qualifications and written academically. You make it sound like he is a blood peer rather than a life-peer-. Rabbi Sacks didn’t earn his academic stripes because he was born into the aristocracy or because he is ‘tight’ with the Queen.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Ben. It’s not that I don’t think he credentialed, as much as I don’t think he established his career as a university scholar. And, please believe me, I don’t think there’s any shame in that, or no shame in being a university scholar, especially in this day and age. About his title, yes, I see very much his point. Perhaps my post would have been less snarky if I left out “Lord,” and simply referred to him as “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.” That said, I do think part of his charisma has a little something to do with the title. Or is this just an American thing? I think I’ll go back and delete the word “Lord”

  5. Josh says:

    Respectfully, judging from your examination of the Tikvah Fund (on Zeek), it seems you fail to see the patterns that continue to fall into (I won’t go into the many failings of that article; many readers did so in the comments section there). Don’t you realize what’s happening to you? You are always troubled by ideology entering academia if it is different from your ideology. Is there any shortage of secular/left-wing politics, individuals, and institutions in the university? I say this as a liberal myself. I am troubled, however, that many other liberals want to stifle conversation rather than stimulate it in an open, competing environment. As someone also involved in Jewish Studies, I can well testify that I have never seen any kind of ideological pressure from the Tikvah Fund, right-wing donors, or the like. I have seen much of the opposite. To my dismay, the academic community is often closed off to those who think differently from the liberal consensus (of which I am a part). Often, people with right or center-right views are not advanced or downright ostracized. Only a blind bias on your part, or jealousy (which I won’t speculate about; I give you the benefit of the doubt on that one) would make things look otherwise.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Josh for the critical pushback. again i’d like to say that what bothers is not ideology in the academy as much as the absence of transparency and the blurring of boundaries. i have never had a cross word about institutions like the Shalem Center/University, the Hoover Institute, or Witherspoon. they are what they are and everyone knows where they stand. in the case of the Tikvah Fund, it was my contention that a conservative and anti-liberal cultural agenda was intentionally obscured. about this agenda, the people behind the organization such as Roger Hertog and Eric Cohen were crystal clear, but which never quite made it out to the general public. in the case of Rabbi Sacks, at issue is the blurring of lines between academics and advocacy. that Rabbi Sacks is orthodox is, one hand, incidental, but, on the other hand, not coincidental. whether or not conservative academics are not getting or hired or advanced is something you would have to demonstrate, even anecdotally. i feel comfortable saying that to chalk this up to my somehow being blind or jealous is beneath the intelligence on evidence in your argument with me.

      • Josh says:

        Thanks for your response. Anecdotally, one could point out the recent refusal of Haifa University to honor Nobel Prize winner Israel Aumann for his political beliefs, or the refusal to advance Ran Baratz at Hebrew University for the same reason (about this second anecdote, however, I have suspicions that this was not the only reason they refused to keep him on staff). I don’t offer either of these as excellent evidence, just two stories that come to mind.

        My reasons for thinking this is not concrete evidence. It would be exceedingly hard to prove that a certain paper was not published because of its views. First, finding a quality unpublished conservative article that was rejected is not easy. – since it was never published. Moreover, the reviewer/s for the journal would undoubtedly not admit that that was the reason they did not accept it. It is also highly likely that they would not see their own bias. The same goes for the difficulty in finding someone who was not hired or advanced in the academic world. Aumann’s story did not surprise me at all, except for the guts of the committee in admitting that political bias was their reason for withholding the honor (after all, this was a case that no one could try to cast doubt on his credentials).

        As I mentioned, the real reasons that cause me to think this way are not these anecdotes. Rather, it is the general atmosphere of revulsion at conservatism (no matter how small a footing conservatives have in the academic world), that I often find in people who are hold the same liberal values as I do. Knowing and loving many liberal academics as I do, I know that they can sometimes be close-minded and biased against those that think differently.

        The fact that there are other conservative institutions (academic or semi-academic) whom you did not attack does not impress me. The question is: did you ever attack institutions who hold similar views to yours on these points? Or do you feel that it is only Orthodox/conservatives that use unfair tactics? Is it an accident that you come from a different ideology than they?

        This in general bothers me about political and ideological discourse. Almost always, people (on all sides of the spectrum) attack the methods of those with different views of them, claiming it is only the methods that they have a problem with. (In the realm of ideology rather than tactics, it is understandable that one would only object to opposing ideologies, and not attack their own ideology. However, when attacking certain methods of discourse and institutionalization, it would seem that the criticism could apply equally to both sides.). It is so rare that people take issue with the methods of those on the same side as them (as I am doing now). One obvious way to see that this is the case is to measure up whether they take issue with people on their own side for using the same tactics.

      • zjb says:


        thanks again for the very thoughtful critical pushback. I think you’re right to call out the bias in the world of liberal academe. I wonder if in part this has to to with the sociology of knowledge, namely that academics tends predominantly to attract liberals; just as business schools tend to attract more conservative minded people. I don’t know if this is true or not, but i tend to think that occupations and professions tend to demonstrate social patterning, and academics is no exception.

        I’d have called out the Posen Foundation, but, as I argued in the piece in Zeek, i genuinely believed and still believe that what’s at issue here is transparency. about this, i think Posen was more transparent in its mission statements than was Tikvah, about which it wasn’t really clear what they were doing.

        a colleague, now a friend, pushed back when the Zeek came out, asking why should it matter to me that there’s a place for a modern-orthodox, culturally conservative, even anti-liberal voice in Jewish Studies. to this i could only answer that as long as we’re clear that that’s what Tikvah was up to, then we’re fine. but now we can say in an open way that Tikvah or the Jewish Review of Books reflects an ideology, as opposed to denying that what they were or are up to is non-ideological, which, really, already just below the surface, was an absurd or disengenuous claim.

        all i can say for my part is that i decided to pursue the Tikva Fund piece, which involved some very involved online looking around, after a serious of what i thought were not just nasty, over the top and over the line hatchet jobs, but a pattern, hatchet jobs that, to my mind, were unprofessional and that did nothing except to spill a lot of bad blood into the field. and no one was saying anything.

        if it weren’t for what i think was and is the nastiness at the JRB, i think i’d probably not have pursued the larger Tivkah piece. i’ve received a lot of support for the piece, and also criticism, like your criticism here, which i think is fair and above board. but not one the critics have said anything about the substance of the remarks made by Hertog and Eric Cohen, remarks that detail the strategy of using university resources to pursue conservative cultural politics.

        the best i heard was that one can separate what the donors say and do from what the Tikvah platforms actually do and say. that too struck me a very tenuous argument. in contrast, i was much more comfortable with the way things worked out at Posen. in the meantime, i’m not sorry that Posen seems to have left the academic track, because, yes, they did muddy the waters. and i won’t be sad as Tikvah closes shop, just like they said they would do, first at JTS and NYU, and then, i guess, at Princeton and JRB?

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

  7. lawrence kaplan says:

    Zach: I’m with you on this one. I was very troubled by Rabbi Sack’s comment that he hopes to use his position “to inspire and recruit a new generation of young leaders of the Jewish world.” That, as you state correctly, is NOT the task of a Professor of Jewish Studies. And what of non-Jews in the courses? (Two out of three of my graduate students at McGill are non-Jews.) If anything, I think that NYU is much more culpable than YU, which at least is a denominational university, though I think it is wrong for YU as well.

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