Messages for Jewish and YU Student Journalism

*** Edit: I wrote this post assuming that the survey in question was research for an article intended for publication in a YU student newspaper. The public announcements pointed in that direction, but I learned afterwards that Ms. Sominski’s research was in preparation for an article assigned as schoolwork. This begs (screams, pleads) the question of why YU responded so harshly to a class assignment, but does not negate the need for balance and sensitivity in her survey as discussed in item 2.

I also believe the items below have legs, irrespective of Ms. Sominski’s intentions for her research and article.

 

Okay, I feel the need to weigh in on the sex-survey-YU-scholarship-revocation situation because in my Facebook feed I see only one set of opinions being voiced, which strikes me as unfair.

Below are three messages I can see based on the facts on the ground, which are, at present, a handful of outraged Facebook posts (some invoking humor, some an outpouring of love to the student who was affected, but outraged nonetheless). So, as a disclaimer, I know this is not a well-researched opinion. Regardless, people are speaking up in support of Ms. Sominski based on these few facts. When in Rome…

 

1) Dialogue should be a common goal.

It may be time for a discussion about promiscuity within the YU student body. I’ve been out of YU for just a little while, so I wouldn’t know. But I think we can all agree that an important opportunity is being missed here by both parties.

Sex survey + heavy-handed YU response + outraged Facebook comments = 0 dialogue.

Ms. Sominski instigated her survey because of deeply-held beliefs. I don’t know her well at all but from reading the survey (both last week when she originally posted it and again this morning) and the flurry of recent Facebook activity I imagine that they read something like the following: Freedom of expression and sexual expression, free press, individuality, embracing modernity. YU students act promiscuously and we should talk about it instead of pretending things like that don’t happen here.

YU, too, acted out of deeply-held beliefs, first and foremost of which was probably “protect the institution.” This on its own is insulting (and worthy of further discussion).

Edit: YU’s response seems wildly out of proportion to the incident, almost to the point that we wonder if there is more to the story, perhaps even something on YU’s part that Ms. Sominski is unaware of. Given the facts on the ground, though, it seems that YU acted impulsively and has yet to explain their decision or give Ms. Sominski an opportunity for appeal – a further wrong.

However, protecting the institution also on some level means protecting Jewish ideals, namely that consensual sex is great so long as it’s between a married couple at the proper time, according to halacha. We know people are not perfect, but if students are acting in opposition to halacha, why flaunt it in a public forum?

Were a true discussion to take place, Ms. Sominski and like-minded friends could discuss promiscuity on campus, expressing their beliefs and different opinions on promiscuous behavior, while then giving a YU-appointed rav or official (or both) the chance to explain theirs. The forum would probably end without either side convincing the other to fully take on the other’s beliefs, but hopefully some measure of understanding or at least of being heard would have taken place.

The current action-reaction cycle does not create meaningful dialogue.

 

2) Do Your Due Diligence
***Edit: Though the survey was preliminary research for an article that was assigned for a course, I don’t think that negates the need for balanced, careful research on a sensitive subject. The survey was very poorly done.

First of all, It was sent to a completely un-random sample of Facebook friends rather than a true random sampling of students or the entire student body. Aside from smaller errors (bits of it ending up in Russian, and needing to be grammar-proofed once more), the survey was missing a number of important data collection questions like “how old are you,” “how many semesters have you been at YU,” “how much religious (Jewish) instruction have you had,” “do you believe that being shomer negiah is an ideal,” etc. An upgraded Survey Monkey account could have allowed more questions to  be added. (I have been told that there are discounts available when Survey Monkey is used for educational purposes, but have not checked into this)

Furthermore, the survey was explicit to the point of being shocking and offensive to students who would have selected the options “I was Shomer/et negiah and still am” or “I was Shomer/et negiah and am re-considering” in response to the first question. With an upgraded account, Ms. Sominski could have diverted the survey takers based on their answer to the first question, creating two (or three) similar sets of questions based on the taker’s experience. This would ensure that more students would be comfortable completing the survey.

Edit: If Ms. Sominski’s intention for the survey was to break through writer’s block, to use it as preliminary research for a “draft of a draft” of an article for class, posting it publicly on Facebook was not the proper platform. 

Finally, there are a number of university officials who provide guidance to student journalists (Edit: whose time could surely be made available even to students working on a class assignment). When a student wants to broach a sensitive subject, and approaches it with care, intelligence, and yes, sensitivity, YU is happy to discuss the parameters for doing so, ie. what will not get you into trouble. Ms. Sominski could have approached a YU official and avoided the shock and pain of having her residence scholarship revoked. She would have been given clear guidelines, and perhaps even redirection to a sociology or psychology professor who could have helped with that survey revision.

A sensitive subject deserves to be treated with care.

 

3) Actions, on Facebook or off, have consequences.

Of course, you are allowed to write what you want, but this whole situation is a sharp reminder that actions have consequences. This is actually the whole point of journalism. But sometimes actions have unintended consequences. Remember when the Beacon Girl article got that paper’s funding pulled two years ago? Remember when a Commentator article about YUNMUN last year got a TABC rebbe fired? So yes, it’s an obvious message but bears repeating.

Edit: YU’s consequences seem so out of proportion to the incident that it is absolutely no wonder that no one, especially Ms. Sominski, could have predicted them.

I hope Ms. Sominski continues to have the courage to stick through despite the unintended consequences and wish her the best of luck in procuring other funding for her residence at Stern.

Because, finally, I am not completely convinced that YU is against their rights in revoking her residence scholarship. Like many Catholic colleges have moral codes for their students (without protests and outrage), shouldn’t a Jewish college also be allowed to dictate the moral codes it sets for its students? Shouldn’t a university be allowed to revoke a scholarship it had granted?

It’s not so simple. I don’t think there is any clear good or bad guy to this story. I think it comes back to inviting meaningful dialogue. I hope that the situation can be turned around so that this objective can be reached, this time, that we shouldn’t have to wait until the next time someone tries again, and the next, and the next.

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