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Monday, July 13, 2009

Unfocused Study?

UPDATE: Just tuned in for a few minutes of the live conference, and it's far better than the release would have indicated in terms of what is being discussed, though with the caveat that 72 Board Presidents may not be a great sample as it is spread over all types of Jews.

At 12:00 noon today, July 13th, YU will be hosting a live interactive conference on a study they conducted regarding the high costs of Jewish education, allowing viewers to submit questions in real time to the presenters. Having received the press release and after reading through it a few times to ensure that I was in fact reading it carefully and correctly, I am terribly saddened and dismayed at the approach they seem to be taking and in particular at the misleading headline they used to pitch it. The press release is here: 1, 2, 3. However, there is a bright side, as you'll see below.

The (mis)leading headline states the following:

Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University:
‘Day Schools Could Gain $100 Million Through Better Management’

While this sounds wonderful, implying that a focus on elimination of wasteful spending would severely cut down on the cost of Jewish education and reducing the burden on families and supporters, the rest of the press release offers barely a mention of this. Instead, the focus throughout the memo is on fundraising, fundraising, and fundraising:
{Note: all quotes from the release}
  • Only about one-third of presidents strongly agree that board members give their schools their top personal philanthropic gifts or that they generate financial support for school events.
  • Only about one-quarter of presidents feel that board members are actively engaged in identifying and cultivating potential major donors for their institutions.
  • ...presidents overwhelmingly say that fundraising/advocacy and strategic planning, the two areas in which their boards are underperforming, are the two areas that impact most on overall school performance and affordability.
  • “While schools must find ways to cut spending, this survey suggests that we can help preserve the educational core of the school and maintain school quality by maximizing fundraising and strategic financial planning.”
  • ...in support of communal fundraising, advocating for increased government funding and promoting inter-school collaboration. At the same time, we are also focusing on helping day school boards learn to increase their engagement in financial planning, fundraising, and expense management.
  • "...it is incumbent upon the board members to serve as leaders both in planning as well as fundraising and their own personal giving.”
Meanwhile, there was very little focus on cutting costs, no mention of transparency, no real mention of keeping costs in line with revenues, and no discussion of looking at alternatives to the current structure in any way to make tuition more affordable.

This is very much in line with the overall feeling I got when I was interviewed by YU's Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) a number of weeks ago regarding the Jewish Economics Survey. They filmed me as part of a documentary they are showing at their ChampionsGate conference taking place this weekend in Orlando, and the impression I was left with from the questions being asked and the reaction to the answers I was giving left me disappointed. I came out of that interview with the impression (and hopefully this is incorrect) that they were looking to hear from me how dire circumstances were, how awful of a state we were in... and that the solution required a huge influx of donations to organizations and schools who can help manage the situation and make everything better. Seeing this press release was equally disheartening, further reinforcing the implication that problems will be best solved by throwing money, rather than starting from the bottom to create a base understanding of the communal economic state and how schools function

On the flip side, perhaps this is a misreading and just a poorly presented release. Harry Bloom of YU's Azrieli Graduate School, quoted throughout the release and presenting at the press conference today, is chairing a discussion at ChampionsGate called "Re-Envision and Re-Engineer Our Day Schools - Evaluate, and Craft New Community and School Economic Models". Hopefully, today's press conference will be positive and forward-thinking, looking for ways to understand that we need to start from the bottom up, not the top down, if we are to fully understand what are and how we can approach the problems that are facing us.

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