A remarkable press release has issued from Yeshiva University: the university’s president has announced “the appointment of Lawrence H. Schiffman as vice provost for undergraduate education.” The release explains that “Schiffman joins the University from New York University where he served as the Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.” The release states, almost as an afterthought, that students will also “have the opportunity to study under Schiffman in his additional role as professor of Jewish studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels.”
The release continues:
“Professor Schiffman will lead the effort to ‘re-imagine’ undergraduate education at Yeshiva University,” said President [Richard] Joel. “This undertaking will involve restructuring the undergraduate colleges….. The vice provost will work … to strengthen and foster a student experience of excellence and success and provide the optimum environment for faculty scholarship and teaching…. Professor Schiffman’s reputation as a scholar, his academic vision and his commitment to Torah u’Maddah exemplify our mission,” said President Joel. “His boundless energy, his strong leadership skills and his collegial sensibilities make him the ideal person to further that mission in our undergraduate schools.”
Collegial sensibilities? The release fails to explain that only six weeks before President Joel’s announcement, a well-known Jewish historian at the University of Chicago accused Schiffman of engaging in unethical conduct. See Dr. Norman Golb’s article on a “confidential” letter that Schiffman addressed to NYU officials in 2008. Judging from what Golb says, “collegial” is perhaps not the right term with which to describe Schiffman’s “sensibilities.” Golb alleges that Schiffman secretly submitted dishonest statements to NYU officials, and even fabricated a “presentation” that Golb never wrote or gave, all with the apparent aim of squelching allegations that he used Golb’s research in an inappropriate manner.
Golb’s criticisms follow the widely reported trial of his son, Raphael, who was accused of “impersonating” Schiffman in a series of emails in which Schiffman “confessed” to plagiarism. In his own detailed statement on the case, Raphael Golb maintains the emails were an “academic lampoon,” or satirical parodies aimed at exposing Schiffman’s misconduct. The case is currently being appealed on First Amendment grounds following a guilty verdict and six-month prison sentence which has been stayed by a court of appeals. The testimony of many witnesses, including Schiffman himself, Raphael Golb, and two NYU deans, is available online, as is Schiffman’s secret letter (to which some of his correspondence with New York prosecutors appears to be appended).
A careful reading of the trial transcripts, combined with Norman Golb’s article and President Joel’s press release, certainly seems to raise a number of questions:
- Did Schiffman in fact commit plagiarism, and in that case, has he averted an investigation at NYU by absconding to Yeshiva?
- Did NYU push Schiffman out of his prestigious position as chairman of one of the country’s finest Jewish Studies departments?
- On the other hand, is it appropriate to hire an alleged plagiarist as vice provost for undergraduate studies in a major university?
- Is Yeshiva now obliged to investigate Schiffman’s conduct?
- Are Yeshiva faculty members aware of the allegations against Dr. Schiffman? Have they read Norman Golb’s article?
Writing on Twitter, Rabbi Josh Yuter describes Schiffman’s appointment as “big, yet puzzling news.”
Puzzling indeed! Reflecting, no doubt, a concern about previous ethical controversies at Yeshiva (including the Heidi Weissman and Jeevan Padiyan cases, as well as the debate over the ethics of religious education at a “Jewish-Secular” university in general) President Joel has stated (see here) that
the fundamental mission of Yeshiva University is to preserve and strengthen the core ethical values… that characterize Judaism’s contributions to the world. These ethical values are central to our individual lives, to the education we provide at YU, to the broader Jewish community, and to society.
Let us hope that President Joel will explain Yeshiva’s policy on all of these matters soon in a follow-up press release.
P.s. Schiffman’s commitment to Torah u’Maddah is discussed in this interesting article which describes his refusal to accept grant money from the Posen Foundation:
Teaching secular Jewish culture without a strong emphasis on the religious tradition, is “an incorrect way to categorize Jewish phenomenon,” said Lawrence Schiffman, chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. “We have declined to participate in [the Posen Foundation] and oppose its participation elsewhere at NYU.”