What are the three biggest challenges you face as director of a Jewish Studies program?

Jean Axelrad Cahan

University of Nebraska at Lincoln

The challenges faced by a Jewish Studies program director no doubt vary greatly according to geographical location, surrounding university culture, available funds, and so on. In the case of my own program, the challenges are not what might seem to the outsider as the most obvious. The Great Plains, with a relatively small Jewish population and distance from large urban cultural centers, might seem to be on the fringes of Jewish life, but in fact the Jewish communities are vibrant and in some cases growing, have no difficulty attracting significant cultural and political figures as interesting speakers, and are very supportive of academic Jewish Studies programs. Political tensions are minimal, compared to other parts of the country; there are various reasons for this, but the general level of civility and nonconfrontational patterns of behavior are not to be discounted. It is rare to encounter open, unrestrained prejudice or hostility to ethnic and religious difference.

The biggest challenge for me has been to decide which approach to take in seeking to recruit faculty. Since the Center for Judaic Studies by itself cannot serve as a tenure home for a faculty member (only departments can do that here) we can seek to have FTE (full-time equivalent status) assigned to our center, and with that to pursue joint appointments with other units; or we can let the FTE remain fully in other units, and negotiate with chairs of other units/departments for teaching, research, and service contributions to the center. The advantage of the first approach might be that we would have better control over our curriculum. The disadvantage is that joint appointments tend to become problematic during the tenure process and later during discussions over merit pay increases. So we have opted for the second approach and have generally had little difficulty in obtaining the agreement of other departments to "give up" courses so that a faculty member can teach something for us.

A second challenge involves recruiting Jewish students. Though our classes are filled with non-Jewish students, these students usually lack even the most elementary acquaintance with Jewish religion, history, or culture. This means that time has to be spent in each course providing some background. It also means that our Jewish student organization, though very active, has limited possibilities for growth. With UNL's acceptance into the Big Ten conference, we hope to find connections to larger Jewish communities in the Midwest and enjoy exchanges among both faculty and students in the future.

The third main challenge that I face is staying informed about interfaith as well as current political questions. Although I would like to bury myself in my own teaching and research in philosophy, the somewhat public nature of my position makes it important to remain aware of current events and be able to respond to questions from the community media, the student newspaper, and colleagues on campus.