Due to unprecedented financial distress, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) is poised to make deep cuts to its programming that might include the closure of two of its three U.S. campuses. HUC-JIR has campuses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and New York, as well as a fourth location in Jerusalem, which annually cost about $40 million to operate.
The leading academic arm of the Reform movement, facing a $3 million deficit this year that could swell to $5 million next year, is weighing its options for surviving “the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history — even more so than during the Depression,” Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR’s president, wrote in a letter last week to the institute’s community.
“We are looking at the college-institute as a whole to see how it can continue to fulfill its mission while still being fiscally responsible,” Ellenson said in a telephone interview from New York, where he is based. “We have different scenarios. We are really in the midst of a process. Everything is possible.”
Flat donations, substantial endowment declines and burdensome pension liability payments have pushed HUC-JIR to a “fateful crossroads” requiring drastic structural change, he said.
One of several scenarios the college’s board of governors will discuss at a meeting May 3 is the closure of two campuses in the United States.
Founded in Cincinnati in 1875, Hebrew Union College merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1950 and has since become the Reform movement’s central hub of higher education. The college will award 167 degrees nationally this year through its rabbinical, cantorial, education and Judaic studies programs, among others. The Los Angeles campus, which opened in 1971, currently serves 86 students and will ordain 15 rabbis in May.
Faculty members at the L.A. campus have sent a letter to Ellenson and other HUC-JIR leaders protesting the potential closure of the West Coast site. The campus should be kept open as part of any plan the college’s board approves because of its profitable relationship with its neighbor, the University of Southern California (USC), the letter states, according to the Los Angeles Times. The two schools share some faculty and facilities and cross-educate students.
“USC is prepared to open discussions about buying or leasing part or all of our property,” the letter reportedly says.
Rumors, first reported on The God Blog on jewishjournal.com, began to circulate last week that HUC-JIR’s L.A. campus and USC are working on a deal to fold the L.A. campus into USC as a Jewish studies program.
At the center of these rumors was Stanley Gold, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a past chair of the boards of directors at both schools.
But reached by phone in Paris on April 20, Gold, who is a member of the boards of both the HUC-JIR and USC, said he is not negotiating any sort of agreement.
“I really have a conflict of interest,” Gold said. “So I would not urge anything except for the two parties to get together and talk. USC values the HUC relationship very much, so I am sure at some point, if they are not already talking, they certainly will talk. But before there is a talk, HUC has to decide what it wants to do.”
HUC-JIR and USC have long offered joint academic programs — graduate students enrolled in the college’s Jewish Communal Service program can pursue joint master’s degrees through USC in social work, business administration, public administration or communications management. Officials at both schools already were discussing the idea of building a shared new facility on a part of HUC-JIR’s property as recently as January 2008.
Ellenson said it is too early to say whether the L.A. campus would be among those chosen for closure. “At this moment, I would not want to predict in any way,” he said. “Every campus is being examined.”
No campus is in danger of immediate closure, he added — any structural changes the board recommends in May would take at least two years to implement. Alternative scenarios propose consolidating programs but keeping more than one campus open, Ellenson wrote in the letter. A final decision is expected in late June.
Staff reductions, pay cuts and slashes to programming are occurring at institutions throughout the Reform movement, said Rabbi Larry Goldmark, executive director of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis (PARR).
“There is a lot of belt-tightening going on,” Goldmark said. “Even our large synagogues are not immune from this financial crisis.”
PARR’s approximately 300 member synagogues were set to adopt a resolution to “oppose every effort to close down HUC-JIR in Los Angeles” and commit to working with the college’s faculty and administration to keep the campus viable.
Closing HUC-JIR’s campus in Los Angeles — a city that has the country’s second-largest Jewish population — would be a “terribly short-sighted decision with negative ramifications for generations to come,” said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said the loss would stunt an important locale for Reform Jewish advancement.
“I’m concerned that the American Reform movement would lose something significant if the campus has to close,” said Rosove, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1979. “Some of the most creative things are happening on the West Coast,” including innovative social justice and education initiatives.
The closure of two HUC-JIR campuses would be “radical surgery,” and the college board should do what it can to avoid it, he said.
“If it weren’t for the current economic environment, we would not have moved in this direction,” Ellenson said by phone. “Change is always painful.”
HUC-JIR’s board of governors in March approved $5.8 million in cost-cutting measures for the college’s 2009-2010 budget, including a tuition increase of $3,000 per full-time student — bringing tuition to $19,000 — and a reduction of at least $1 million in salary and benefit costs by trimming positions from HUC-JIR staff. Pay cuts were also approved across the board, including a 10 percent salary reduction for Ellenson, eight percent cuts for the vice presidents and provost, and five percent reductions for almost all other employees.
The cuts were meant to alleviate losses in revenue tied to a 20 percent slash in dues collected from the country’s 900 Reform synagogues, which cost HUC-JIR $2.5 million to $3 million, according to an earlier letter Ellenson sent out to the community. He added that several of the college’s endowment funds are now “underwater” and HUC-JIR will have to make significantly higher payments on its devalued pension plan over the next five years. The current state of the college’s general fund is “sobering, if not bleak,” he wrote.
Ellenson said the proposals to streamline HUC-JIR’s programs would help the institution weather the economic crisis.
“The key element is for HUC-JIR to maintain its mission of providing Jewish leadership for the Jewish community of North America, Israel and throughout the world,” he said. “That transcends any given locale.”
Rachel Heller is a contributing writer and Brad A. Greenberg is a senior writer for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.