Dis-honoring Yeshiva

Peter Wood

                Inside Higher Education lived up to its name the other day by providing a gossipy account of the resignation of Professor James Otteson from his position as founding director of the Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva College, the men’s undergraduate liberal arts divisions of Yeshiva University, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Yeshiva’s motto is “Bring Wisdom to Life.”  

                Yeshiva is the best known Orthodox Jewish university in the United States and has long upheld a tough-minded Talmudic tradition. Recently, however, things have gotten a little strange. Two years ago, Jay Ladin, a tenured professor of literature at the university was placed on leave. He returned this month as “Joy Ladin,” Yeshiva’s first transgendered professor. The New York Post joyfully headlined the story, “YE-SHE-VA.” The Post quotes a dean in the Yeshiva’s rabbinical school declaring “He’s a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for. There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual.” Yeshiva has agreed to let Ladin resume his teaching. 

                Otteson, on the other hand, is a goner. The stories have a certain symmetry. Otteson was ousted apparently because in a pseudonymous blog he expressed a jaundiced view of women. Ladin liked women so much that he decided to become one—more or less.  

                Both Yeshiva and Otteson have declined to speak about what caused his resignation, so we are left with IHE’s connect-the-dots version of what happened. The interest for the National Association of Scholars is that Otteson is a well-known academic traditionalist and to some extent a conservative. His dismissal (or mutual parting of the ways) has the odor of yet another Leftist purge of a scholar who failed to conform himself to the shibboleths enforced by the faculty. 

                Otteson had just been hired by Yeshiva to build a rigorous liberal arts program. He had been chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Alabama, and has a substantial record of scholarship, including Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life (Cambridge University Press 2002) and Actual Ethics (Cambridge University Press 2006). Actual Ethics won first prize in the 2007 Templeton Enterprise Awards. 

                A sudden resignation shrouded in mystery suggests a scandal, but there is no hint of scandal in this case, unless it is the craven response of the Yeshiva University administration to a campaign to vilify Otteson. The key documents are embedded in the IHE article for those with a taste for reading them. It seems that Otteson irritated some Yeshiva faculty members who believed he had failed adequately to seek their counsel—or to heed it when he did seek it. They complained in a letter to the administration; and there matters rested until an awful truth emerged. 

                The awful truth is that Otteson had kept a blog under a pseudonym, and in this guise had expressed some grouchy views about women. The killer quote came in a blog where he wrote “on several occasions… high-functioning women” had expressed views similar to a blogger named Mary Graber who had claimed that, “Women, without male guidance, are illogical, frivolous, and incapable of making any decisions beyond what to make for dinner.” Otteson’s blogs were then subjected to a fine-toothed comb approach, and IHE provides the tally of his rhetorical infractions. 

                The Inside Higher Ed account implies that Otteson’s blog turned the Yeshiva administration against him, but we don’t know. A group of 51 students wrote to the president, provost, and dean defending Otteson and declaring, “Having collectively read through the entirety of Professor Otteson's pseudonymous blog, Proportional Belief, we have found nothing that merits a request for his resignation.” But it was clearly too late. The Yeshiva administration and Otteson had already cut a deal in which Otteson resigned. 

                Here’s another interpretation. Yeshiva University hired Otteson with the goal of improving its reputation by creating a highly visible outstanding academic honors program. Otteson was a good pick and threw himself into the task energetically and intelligently. He may not have adequately reckoned with the ankle-biters on the Yeshiva faculty: professors who had accomplished less in their careers than he had but simmered with jealousy when confronted with “high functioning” colleagues.   After they caught the drift of what Otteson was doing, they set out to find fault with it. Essentially they failed in their first attempt, which focused on supposed procedural irregularities in Otteson’s work. Remember, he was a brand new professor at Yeshiva charged with setting up a brand new program. Procedural perfection was unlikely. But having failed to break the Yeshiva administration’s confidence in Otteson that way, someone hit upon the idea of doing “opposition research” on him. The blog was discovered, some outraged souls were scared up to voice complaints, and the Yeshiva administration lost its nerve. Perhaps Otteson himself took stock of his colleagues and said “no thanks.” 

                The larger issue here is the relentlessness of the adversaries of traditional academic excellence. We cannot measure out the fabric of this story in liberal vs. conservative ideology. But anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the situation knows that was the real issue. The procedural grousing and the umbrage over Otteson’s old blog posts were the outward manifestations of a deeper hostility aimed at Otteson for his views of what should count as scholarly excellence.   

                Yeshiva still has plenty of flexibility. It knows how to bend Jewish tradition to treat a man who has hormone injections and breast implants as a “woman.” But when it comes to sustaining its decision to appoint a traditionalist scholar to head its honors program, however, the prospect of controversy was just too much. Of course, we can’t know this for sure. As I said, neither side is talking. 

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