Thoughts on Strategic Planning - A Prolegomenon
By David Ellenson
Shortly after Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise arrived in the United States at the age
of twenty-seven in 1846, he recognized that an unorganized and divided American
Jewish community sorely required religious direction and guidance. Wise viewed
the establishment of a modern rabbinical academy as the means to accomplish
this task, and he succeeded in establishing the Hebrew Union College in 1875
as “a seminary of sacred learning” for the education of such religious
Rabbi Wise saw the United States as a unique land of freedom that would provide
unprecedented opportunity for Jews and others who would come to these shores,
and from the outset he regarded his nascent Hebrew Union College as part of
a broad and developing American religious and cultural landscape. He was determined
that the graduates of his institution be equipped to serve both the Jewish community
and the broader world.
In setting forth the mission of HUC, Wise self-consciously rejected the model
of the traditional yeshiva curriculum as insular, and he established the course
of instruction at the Hebrew Union College in accord with the canons of contemporary
western scholarship. At the same time, he acknowledged – as Heraclitus
observed – that change is constant. Therefore, Wise recognized that the
content of the initial curriculum he framed as well as the specific schools
and programs he established would require constant review and modification if
the demands and needs of the Jewish people for leadership were to be served
in a world marked by evolution as well as continuity.
As we now embark on our own Strategic Planning Process for Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion at the outset of a new century, I want to state that I
share the sense of mission Rabbi Wise articulated 129 years ago, and I regard
the concerns and frameworks Rabbi Wise identified as relevant today as when
he first stated them. Of course, the context that informed Wise is not our own.
He served an exclusively immigrant Jewish population and their first-generation
descendants who were anxious to adapt and acculturate into a novel American
setting. In contrast, we serve a predominantly (with notable exceptions of which
we must be mindful) fourth and fifth generation American Jewish community that
is comfortably ensconced in every facet of American life. The vectors of modern
Jewish life therefore move in a different direction today than they did a century
ago or more.
In addition, Rabbi Wise was concerned only with the education of rabbis, and
he had only one campus on which to focus– Cincinnati. The College-Institute
has since expanded exponentially – in terms of sites, schools, and programs.
Nevertheless, the fundamental task of the College-Institute remains the instruction
and formation of religious-intellectual leadership for the modern Jewish community.
The vision of our founder is an enduring one that should guide us as we go forth
to meet the demands of our own era.
The Dimensions of Our Tasks and the Scope of the College-Institute Today
As we begin thinking about a strategic planning process, I would note that
our overarching task is to define and assign priority to those programs and
offerings at the College-Institute that are central to our mission and do so
in a way that takes account of the financial situation of our institution. In
other words, this entire process presents an opportunity to coordinate the vision
of HUC-JIR with the costs of running the school, and the process should allow
for a broad discussion among Faculty, Administration, Staff, Students, and Board.
This is an educational task that should permit all to recognize the challenges
as well the possibilities confronting the College-Institute as HUC-JIR seeks
to serve the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.
One word of caution -- in view of the ongoing budgetary constraints that face
the College-Institute, there is a natural inclination to approach this process
in an overly urgent way. I understand such judgments, and consider them quite
reasoned. However, the financial situation of the College-Institute should not
be viewed as dire. The budget deficits – while remaining real and troublesome
-- have been cut considerably in recent years. Our fund raising efforts have
yielded positive results during these past two years, and there is good reason
to believe that results will be even more positive during the next two. Finally,
the economy itself has improved during this past year, and this has had a salutary
impact on our endowment funds. None of this is to diminish the seriousness with
which we must approach the fiscal problems of our academy. To do so would be
a betrayal of our fiduciary responsibility. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge
there are positive elements that mark the economic state of the College-Institute
today, and the economic pressures of this exact moment should not cause us to
make hasty decisions concerning the programs and directions of the College-Institute
that we might well later regret. Instead, I would recommend once again that
we – Governors, Overseers, Faculty, Administration, Staff, and Students
-- now embark upon our strategic planning process in a calm and deliberate manner.
We should all acknowledge that the parameters that we must confront as we engage
in this process of strategic planning are surely vast. Yet, these parameters
must be defined in a rational and comprehensive way if the culture of our academy
is to be changed and if a rational plan for planning and prioritization is to
emerge. What I am offering here today is my own tentative outline of what I
regard as some of the major areas we must address as we begin this process,
and it is my hope that this outline will stimulate your own thoughts and suggestions
as we begin to struggle with the issues that will occupy our attention as we
engage in such planning.
The areas I would identify for preliminary consideration are as follows:
I. Faculty – During the previous administration, the Board wisely decided
to offer significant pay raises to the faculty. Such raises have permitted the
College-Institute to attract many of the finest young Judaica scholars in the
world today to the College-Institute. They have also allowed us to reward our
more senior faculty with the pay they deserve. Inasmuch as the faculty stands
at the center of this institution, it is clearly desirable that we maintain
this upward trajectory in faculty salaries as we move towards the future. In
reflecting upon this need, we should simultaneously recognize that rising medical
costs have resulted in decreased benefits for faculty and this has eroded some
of the financial gains that emerged as a result of the pay raises themselves.
At the same time, we should acknowledge that while the College-Institute has
positioned itself quite well to attract persons at the outset of their academic
careers, we have not positioned ourselves similarly to retain these persons
as they attain greater prominence in the academic world. In the secular academy,
pay increases are frequently determined on the basis of merit, not longevity,
and there are considerable salary differences that distinguish faculty members
in departments of the Humanities. Senior scholars who are “stars”
commonly make more than $150,000 per annum, and their salaries are often supplemented
by individual discretionary funds of $25,000 or more. HUC-JIR is simply not
in a position to address this challenge at the current moment, but a strategic
planning process should take these matters into account.
II. Pension – This is surely one of the most serious problems that confronts
the College-Institute today. The decline in our Pension Endowment Funds during
the past three years has added enormous costs to our yearly budget. As a result,
it is sometimes suggested that the solution is to move away from a Defined Benefits
Plan. This is surely a possibility. However, before we do so we should consider
that for years the College-Institute paid nothing in this regard, as the Pension
Endowment Funds completely covered these costs. Should these funds increase
sufficiently in the future, it might be that the College-Institute would be
in this position once again. In this case, it would seemingly be wise to put
money away in “good years” in anticipation that there would be “bad
ones.” On the other hand, it might be that the College-Institute, like
many other comparable institutions, should simply turn to a Defined Contribution
Plan. Should we do this, we should recognize that as a Jewish institution we
are obligated in two ways – to preserve the fiscal solvency of the school
itself and to provide a dignified retirement for our faculty, administration,
and staff. This is a pressing matter of highest priority for the school, and
we should move ahead with discussions of this issue during the current fiscal
year, recognizing that decisions we make in this area will undoubtedly have
an impact on other areas and programs of the school.
III. Programs and Museums – There are numerous programs and museums at
the College-Institute today. They include – but are not limited to --
ECE, DeLeT, Kollel, and various adult education offerings. Some of these are
funded by outside grants apart from the budget. Others are financed by the annual
budget. These programs should be examined and evaluated as part of the planning
process and in light of the mission of the College-Institute.
IV. Centers – There are the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education
and the HUC-UC Ethics Center that are housed in Cincinnati, and the Kalsman
Institute on Judaism and Health is located on our Los Angeles campus. In New
York, there is Blaustein Institute for Pastoral Counseling. Each of these centers
clearly enriches the life of our institution, and each allows us to serve the
larger public. Each of them should be examined, and discussion should center
on issues of funding and future direction and purpose. Possible future centers
should be considered in relationship to the mission of the College.
V. Schools – All our schools – Cantorial, Communal Service, Education
in both Los Angeles and New York, Graduate, and Rabbinical – should be
examined in terms of costs and enrollment. The strategic planning process should
also allow for a reexamination of the rationales that inform each school, and
questions about direction and relationship to the mission of the College-Institute
should be raised. The presence of the Klau Library and the American Jewish Archives
should certainly be taken into account as should the impact of current Judaica
programs in American secular universities in discussions concerning the Graduate
VI. Buildings – It is apparent that there are building and maintenance
needs on each campus, and they should be discussed. New York and Los Angeles
are already overcrowded. Deferred maintenance has clearly proved costly here
VII. Israel – Our Jerusalem campus must be made a full partner of HUC-JIR
in every sense. The growth of the Israeli rabbinical program and the expressed
need for a fulltime M.A. program in Education under Reform auspices means that
we must begin to consider the addition of more full-time faculty lines, so that
the direction and character of HUC-Jerusalem as an intellectual-religious force
on the Israeli scene can be realized.
VIII. Library – The Klau Library is one of the great cultural-intellectual
treasures of the Jewish people. The building is currently woefully inadequate
and in need of renovation and expansion. The College-Institute must address
this problem, for the library stands at the academic-cultural heart of HUC-JIR.
In New York and Los Angeles, each library is badly in need of more space.
IX. Recruitment – This is surely a priority need of the College-Institute.
We simply need more talented and qualified students, and a continuing increase
in enrollment is required at all our sites. After all, the education and graduation
of these students for their lives of service is our raison d’etre.
X. Technology – No academic institution in our day can ignore this area,
and this is especially true of HUC-JIR. We can only capitalize upon the talents
of our full faculty for our students if this area continues to be strengthened.
Plans for a Mechina (Preparatory) Program as well as alumni and congregational
educational needs that we can serve are dependent upon our technological capabilities,
as is our ability to disseminate the resources of our libraries, museums, and
archives with the world.
XI. Governance – The Committee on Governance of the Board of Governors
should work closely with the Strategic Planning Committee so that appropriate
oversight and roles can be established for lay and professional leadership of
the College-Institute as we move ahead. To this end, I would also hope –
in light of this process and in view of the many new Board members who have
become Governors during the last two years – that there be a retreat for
the Governors this summer where governance and the issues of planning and orientation
can be addressed in an adequate and focused way.
XII. New Initiatives – The planning process must consider all the items
mentioned above. At the same time, the process must reflect upon future dreams
and visions. The great strength of the College-Institute throughout our history
has been the ability to respond creatively to the demands of the hour. We must
be proactive as well if we are to exercise the leadership position that is ours.
Concluding Very Unscientific Epiloguet
These statements has been intended to stimulate discussion as well as provide
an overarching view of the areas I believe we must address as we begin this
planning process. As we engage in this process, I have no doubt that priorities
will be assigned that will guide us and I am confident that consensus will emerge
as to the directions the College-Institute ought to take as we fulfill the ongoing
mission that Isaac Mayer Wise defined 130 years ago. Some parts of the College
as it now stands will surely be constricted as we move ahead. Others will just
as surely be expanded, and still others will be created.
As we consider the process that lies ahead, the words of Pirkei Avot, “Hamalakhah
m’ruba – the tasks are many,” ought to ring in our ears. Yet,
I suspect that the second part of that famous mishna, “V’hapoalim
atzeilim -- the workers are lazy,” does not characterize us. For we recognize
that “Ba’al ha-bayit dohek – the Master is pressing.”
My administration and I look forward to working together with you as shutafin
(partners) as we enter this exciting as well as daunting new chapter in our
history of service to God, the Jewish people, and humankind.