The last days of the Passover holiday brought a shocking message to 14 faculty and staff members at the University of Judaism: They’re laid off.
Among those whose contracts will not be renewed this June are Rabbi David Ackerman, associate dean of the Fingerhut School of Education; Dean of Students Jill Landesberg; and Director of Student Jewish Life Betty Brasky.
At press time, The Jewish Journal could not confirm the names of other employees whose contracts will not be renewed.
The layoff, substantial at an institution with fewer than 100 faculty and staff members, came against a backdrop of continuing money problems for the school.
Several weeks ago, the administration circulated a message to staff, informing them that the university had a $2 million deficit. Department heads were asked to cut their budgets by 10 percent, and officials held an open meeting to discuss other cost-cutting measures at the 200-student school.
“We had known there were serious budgetary problems, and we were told there would have to be layoffs,” said Ackerman. “I just didn’t expect to be one of them.”
Four years ago, a similar round of layoffs, also the result of a budget crisis, provoked outrage within the university as well as in the larger Jewish community.
The current round was met with a much more subdued response. Those laid off were informed of their termination in meetings with Vice President, Administration, Mark Bookman on the Thursday or Friday before the long holiday vacation that included the Sabbath and the last two days of Passover. (Many were still unreachable as The Journal went to press).
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and University President Dr. Robert Wexler were not in town at the time of the layoffs.
Bookman had not returned The Journal’s calls by press time.
When asked Wednesday morning to comment on the layoffs, the university’s PR department said that it hadn’t heard of any taking place.
The University of Judaism, long a center of Jewish learning in Los Angeles, is home to an undergraduate liberal arts program and graduate schools in rabbinic studies and education.
Those affiliated with the university acknowledge that laying off valued staff is always a last resort.
“It’s always perceived as anti-Jewish not to take care of your own,” said University Regent Alan Bloch. But, said Bloch, the drastic measure was a “matter of survival.”
At least one person associated with the school was openly critical.
“A Jewish institution that believes it teaches Jewish values has to act in accordance with those values,” said Rabbi Jane Litman, who has taught at the Bel Air campus.
In a telephone interview, Litman took the UJ to task for laying off well-regarded staffers in the midst of the Passover holiday and well into the academic year.
“I don’t think it shows much sensitivity,” she said. “They are decent people, and they feel very betrayed.”
But others, including some of those laid off, said that they understand the university had little choice.
Although the school made headlines last year, when it received a $22 million donation from the Ziegler family for its rabbinical school, administrators say that money is being allocated at $2.2 million per year over 10 years — not enough to get the university through its crisis.
“I guess they had no choice,” said Brasky, one of those laid off.
Statement on the Budget
By Dr. Robert Wexler
The 1990s continues to be a decade of downsizing at many private colleges around the country. The primary cause is the precipitous rise in expense budgets during the past 20 years, accompanied by tuition costs that have increased at a pace much beyond the rate of general inflation. Students and their parents complain that they are no longer willing to accept the burden of underwriting the continual expansion of campus programs.
Colleges are becoming leaner and more cost conscious. In this regard, the University of Judaism is no exception. In order to reduce our expenses, we have embarked on a rigorous program of self-examination and cost-cutting. This includes a reduction in the size of our administration, accomplished through the consolidation of several staff positions. We have also instituted a variety of financial controls intended to limit spending.
We deeply regret the fact that downsizing inevitably causes hardship to employees whose jobs are eliminated and to their families. We will do whatever we can to ease their transition, while recognizing the personal unhappiness that regrettably results.
The board of directors and the administration of the University of Judaism understand their responsibility to our students to provide them with a quality education while keeping tuition at the lowest level possible. We also consider ourselves the guardians of the funds provided by our donors and acknowledge our duty to use those funds as wisely and efficiently as possible.
Dr. Robert Wexler is president of the University of Judaism.