Unpacking a Presidency: Rabbi David Ellenson

Unpacking a Presidency:
Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., in Service to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (2001-2013)
by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

With the announcement this past week naming Rabbi Aaron Panken as Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s 12th President, the tenure of the College-Institute’s current President, Dr. David Ellenson, will come to an end on January 1, 2014, when Ellenson will become Chancellor of HUC-JIR. As with all presidents, an array of measures are available designed to assess a leader’s tenure of service. In many ways history will provide an assessment of David’s leadership, providing a more reflective lens on his service and contributions to this institution, the Reform Movement, and to the larger Jewish world.

Yet, unlike most university or college presidents, for Ellenson HUC-JIR did not represent some disconnected institution, merely requiring a new executive officer. In this instance, he represented an integral part of this institution’s story. Not only would he be ordained by the College-Institute (1977) but David Ellenson would serve on its faculty for some 23 years, holding its academic chair in Jewish religious thought.

Length of Service:

The tenure of Ellenson’s presidency must be seen within the context of emerging trends in leadership of American universities, where two conflicting perspectives seem to be in play. One proposal suggests that presidential service has been extended due to generous compensation packages and to the dynamic character of working with dynamic, high energy institutions as represented by America’s higher educational system. As one observer of university life has noted:
“One factor could be that governing boards are trying to keep their presidents longer, to facilitate multi-year fund-raising campaigns, to allow enough time to realize the vision that comes from long-range planning.”[1]

Yet another study offers a countervailing notion:

“The prospects for even more turnover in the next few years are strong, if trends documented in a recent report by the American Council on Education hold. The “American College President 2012” report found that the average age of a U.S. college president in 2011 was 61 years old. The Center for Policy Analysis also found that the average length of service in 2011 for a president was seven years compared to 8.5 years in 2006.”[2]

This report acknowledges that as budgets are being reduced and educational offerings are being downsized, university boards are placing greater pressure on their presidents to grow their institution despite the changing structural and economic conditions.

This study also noted that “university stakeholders – from trustee boards to faculty senates to alumni groups – are becoming more vocal, independent and unpredictable…” This growing reality, according to this second study, has led over time to the resignation of some college officials.

A corollary factor, as reported in this study, involved the difficulty on the part of many institutions to secure quality candidates for such executive positions as head hunters report: “We’re looking anywhere and everywhere so that we can find true leaders. There isn’t ‘one size fits all.’”

Further, it was reported that institutions were being ‘creative’ in their ideas about the kind of person they would like, indicating an openness to looking outside academia and including the consideration of current board or trustee members to fill the top job.[3]

Upon reflection, for the most part, HUC-JIR presidents have had a remarkable record of tenure of service, as many of Ellenson’s predecessors held office for well over twenty years. Yet, it is important to note that earlier presidents of the College-Institute did not face the same fiscal challenges, as 80% of the HUC-JIR budget, and more recently 50% of the operational expenses, was provided through MUM (Memorandum on Union Maintenance) a dues-arrangement with congregations designed to provide support for the Union for Reform Judaism and the College-Institute. The financial needs of this institution today are quite different and will represent a formidable challenge for future presidents, as a significant portion, currently around 70% of the annual operational budget of this institution, must now be raised, with much of the responsibility centered in the office of the president.

Yet, beyond the measure of years of service, it is interesting to note that HUC-JIR presidents are each identified for specific contributions as their administrations would be identified by either the “great decisions” they rendered or by “events” that would shape and define their period of service. No doubt, the economic crisis (2008-2011) did play a profound and defining role not only for HUC-JIR but in transforming our society.

Measuring the Service of a President: A number of specific measures however can certainly be employed even now as Ellenson completes his tenure of service:

Styles of Leadership: Ellenson has left an imprint based on his leadership style. David exudes a relationship model of leadership; for him no other value would seem to best characterize his approach to this office. Building and sustaining relationships is David’s essence. It is the defining quality of what he seeks to represent not only in his work but as mantra of his life.

As we learn from leadership literature: “relationship-driven leaders are more empathetic, patient and tolerant. They approach decision-making subjectively, using personal values as a guide and examining how each option will impact others. They are approachable; strive for harmony among their employees and work to build consensus and trust. They also admit when they’re wrong and seek constructive criticism. …they are adept at listening and forging personal connections…”[4]

Network Leadership: Of all the significant assets that David Ellenson would bring to his presidency were the extensive personal and academic connections that he would enjoy from his years of teaching, his public lectures, and his individual friendships. Network leadership, we learn, is unlike conventional leadership approaches; it is collective, distributed, bottom-up, facilitative, and emergent. The individual model of leadership historically associated with strong organizations is more directive, top-down, and transactional. As we expand our leadership mindset to understand leadership as a collective process, more people are questioning the leadership assumptions that are embedded in traditional organizational structures and processes.[5]

In no small measure Ellenson’s network of relationships, both within and outside of the institution, has served him well as he brought to the office of the President a host of personal and academic connections and friendships that would benefit the Presidency. These relationships would both provide support and comfort to him in his most difficult moments. In specific situations, David was asked to act in ways that might have unraveled or compromised friendships, he was simply unprepared to make such choices.

Beyond the idea of networks, David appears to have effectively combined the attributes found in “democratic, evaluative, and collaborative” leadership models defining different types of institutional decision-makers.

Servant-Leader Model: Another measure of the Ellenson legacy may be tied to the “servant-leader” principle.[6]

“The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. Servant-leadership model is one that promotes such values as collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment.”[7] In so many ways, the Ellenson Presidency embodied this leadership framework.

Symbolic Exemplar: Drawing upon Rabbi Jack H. Bloom’s book, The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar[8], in many ways has added a particular dimension to David Ellenson’s leadership style. As a symbolic leader deriving his authority and power from the tradition, Ellenson has projected through his presidency Reform Judaism’s values and ideas.

Sustaining Commitments: As part of his presidency, David would face key policy choices, especially during the critical fiscal crisis of 2008. He would be challenged to close one or more campuses and to consider other policy choices that would run counter to his principled positions. Principle would trump financial expediency, just as institutional continuity would compete with the pressures to downsize.

Academic Prowess: In a 2006 article entitled The Leaders of the World’s Top 100 Universities a conversation was launched addressing the following hypothesis: “There exists a strong correlation between the individual lifetime citations of a university president and the position of their university in a global ranking.”[9] The authors conclude that those colleges and universities being led by recognized and outstanding scholars, in turn, enhanced the academic and financial standing of their institutions. This study went on to suggest:

“Of the 165 presidents in this study most were either deputy-heads or had led major centers and laboratories before their step to the top position. Maybe a different question to ask is does management matter more than scholarship? As part of the analysis, 23 leaders in UK and US research universities were interviewed. The majority of those consulted stressed that leadership not management was their most important role. Leadership was commonly defined as setting the overall direction, and planning the execution of strategy.”[10]

At his essence, Ellenson is an academic. Intellectual inquiry and the love of teaching essentially define his legacy. In maintaining this unique and special balance in performing his institutional responsibilities while pursuing his academic interests, David would generate over the course of his tenure an impressive set of publications, including several award-winning books, numerous articles, and a series of editorial commentaries while also maintaining a modified teaching schedule. He would receive in 2005 the prestigious National Jewish Book Award in Jewish thought for his book After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity (2004). And more recently in collaboration with Daniel Gordis, he would produce Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa and a forthcoming collection of essays, titled Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice.

His many articles and reviews have appeared in such diverse academic and religious journals and books as The Hebrew Union College Annual, The Journal of American Academy of Religion, Religious Studies Review, The Year Book of the Leo Baeck Institute, Journal of Religion, Modern Judaism, The Jewish Book Annual, The CCAR Journal, Conservative Judaism, The Reconstructionist, and Tradition. His academic lectures have been delivered at such institutions as Charles University in Prague, Ben Gurion and Bar Ilan Universities in Israel, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Colgate, Duke, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. In alignment with the study referenced above, David’s academic standing would serve to enhance the image and status of the College-Institute.

Fundraising Impact: Presidents of higher educational institutions report that development responsibilities represent a primary measure associated with their performance. At a time when the College-Institute has been facing major financial challenges, Ellenson would play a central role in advancing the institution’s fund-raising position. This would be accomplished not only about accelerating the annual campaign of the College but by also significantly growing its endowment. Upon assuming office, HUC-JIR’s endowment was less than $50 million, now as he prepares to leave office that number has quadrupled to nearly $200 million.

Ellenson deserves credit for numerous new initiatives, programs and institutes, and endowed chairs of Jewish study that have been funded or expanded during his tenure of leadership. Renovations on both the Cincinnati and Jerusalem campus along with significant new funding provided by such foundations and families as Tisch, Jim Joseph, Mandel, Schusterman, and the Cincinnati Jewish Foundation have added to the academic vitality and intellectual expansion of the College. During his tenure of service, the College-Institute would raise in excess of a quarter billion dollars to sustain and grow its operations, or some 20 million dollars per year, clearly distinguishing himself and his tenure of service as generating more financial support for the College than all of his predecessors combined.

Growing the Academic Base: Beyond advancing these essential financial resources, the Ellenson Presidency will be marked by the appointment of new faculty on each of the HUC-JIR campuses, the promotion and advancement of faculty into administrative positions, and the expansion of inter-campus cooperation and cross-campus shared learning opportunities through the implementation of new technology. Faculty across campuses are now able to team-teach HUC-JIR’s full-time students as well as educate the growing cohorts of executive program students now able to study with HUC-JIR while continuing to live and work in their home communities throughout North America.

However, as we move away from this moment in time, some degree of separation will permit us to reflect more definitely on this particular era of the College-Institute’s story.

Strengthening and Sustaining the Israel Connection: David’s strong personal and professional attachments to the State and people of Israel represented an essential and significant element of his presidency. During the most critical times of tension within the Middle East, David would affirm the College-Institute’s abiding commitment to the Jewish State and its people, by maintaining the year abroad programs for first year rabbinical, cantorial, and educational students throughout his tenure. Further, he would seek to strengthen and expand the range of academic and professional programs being offered on HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus as a way of asserting the College-Institute’s role and the presence of Reform Judaism in Israel.

Upon Reflection: No doubt, David’s personal religious engagement aligned with his intellectual connection to Judaism and his commitment toward building a coherent Jewish future offers us insights into his mindset. In an interview with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs several years ago, David had occasion to reflect on his commitment to Hebrew Union College:

“My soul is bound to this institution and to the holy mission that animates it,” he wrote. “It has been the greatest privilege to devote my life to this school.”[11]

Steven Windmueller, Ph. D., serves as the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

1 http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/education/college-presidents-tenure-grows-471835/#ixzz2Tr9DNCHI
2 http://diverseeducation.com/article/17189/#
3 http://diverseeducation.com/article/17189/#
4 http://leadershiplearning.org/blog/claire-reinelt/2010-05-18/how-network-leadership-different- organizational-leadership-and-why-un
5 ibid
6 The Servant As Leader by Robert Greenleaf, 1970.
7 http://www.nationalserviceresources.org/files/Leadership for Serving_Communities.pdf
8 Jack H. Bloom, The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar, By the Power Invested in Me, The Haworth Press, 2002)
9 http://www.amandagoodall.com/IHECausalityAugust06.pdf
10 Ibid.
11 http://jcpa.org/article/how-modernity-changed-judaism-interview-with-rabbi-david-ellenson/