Unusual Collaboration

Northeastern University and Hebrew College will combine Jewish studies programs and create a series of academic offerings.
July 6, 2007

You might call it a mixed marriage. Northeastern University, founded by the YMCA, is a secular private institution, a large urban university in Boston. Hebrew College is a small institution, devoted to Jewish culture and education, not that far away in Newton Center. On Thursday, the two institutions announced that they would combine their Jewish studies programs in an unusual collaboration.

At Hebrew, which offers undergraduate and graduate programs as well as a rabbinic seminary, pretty much everything could be classified as Jewish studies. Northeastern Jewish studies has 13 faculty members teaching in an interdisciplinary minor that in the fall will become a major in a university best known for its co-op programs and its offerings in fields like engineering and business.

Officials at both institutions said that the combination of the department reflected realities of higher education. "No institution can truly thrive on its own," said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern.

The collaboration will include cross-registration of courses, joint bachelor's/master's programs linking the two institutions, and library sharing. But the most unusual part may be the idea of combining Jewish studies programs at very different institutions. Undergraduate majors will be open to students at both colleges, using courses offered at both institutions. Additional faculty hiring will be joint, with sharing of costs, and the curriculum will be planned together. At the same time, some ongoing faculty searches -- such as one for a new endowed chair at Northeastern -- will continue as planned, but with the realization of the offerings now available at the other institution.

Jim Ross, director of the Northeastern program, said that its strengths have been in "nontraditional" areas, like Jewish music, Jewish film, and Jewish culture. As a young program and a new major, it doesn't have the breadth of offerings in rabbinics, theology and history that it would like -- and the collaboration presents such options overnight. At the same time, he said he has been impressed that Hebrew's offerings go well beyond the traditional, and said that the two faculties interact well.

David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, said he viewed his institution as "specialized, not religious" and that although it trains rabbis and Jewish educators, it has never been controlled by a denomination. It has also worked closely with other religious colleges, such as its neighbor, the Andover Newton Theological School.

Gordis said that the primary motivation for the combined department is expanding student offerings at both institutions. Hebrew has, however, had some financial difficulties of late, and eliminated about one-fourth of its positions this year -- although Gordis said comparable new positions were created and that the financial picture is healthy now.

He said that financial issues did not lead to the combined department "directly," but that "it's cost effective when you have access to faculty people in fields where one institution is stronger than the other, without needing to make separate faculty appointments." No cash will be flowing from one institution to the other under the arrangement.

Aoun said that the two institutions would be "completely autonomous," but that the Jewish studies program would be jointly run. "This is about faculty collaborating on intellectual interests, and about students collaborating," he said.

While it is still rare for academic departments to be combined, it is happening or being talked about at a number institutions, although more typically at the graduate level.


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