College head to step down

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Hebrew University announced yesterday its president will step down after a major donor decided to cut nearly in half its financial support over the next five years.

Rela Mintz Geffen, a sociologist, had led the predominantly graduate institution for seven years.

Geffen's planned departure comes just weeks after The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore stated it will cut its annual contribution to the university from $1.1 million to $600,000 over the next five years.

With the planned cut and realization that The Associated would no longer serve as the school's primary fundraising agency, the university's board of trustees decided it needs a president with fundraising experience, said Adina Lav, a spokeswoman for the university.

"We really need someone who is a crackerjack fundraiser," said BHU professor and former dean Barry M. Gittlen, who will serve as acting president until an interim president is appointed.

Geffen was traveling to Israel yesterday and was not available for comment, Lav said.

The Associated's grants have represented between 40 percent and 60 percent of the school's budget, but Erika Pardes Schon, chairwoman of the school's board of trustees, said Geffen's departure is not directly related to the funding decrease.

Geffen had planned to take a yearlong sabbatical during the next academic year, the trustee said. Geffen will retire in 2008, but she will be available to the university as a consultant, Lav said.

After years of strategic planning, the board has decided to add more responsibilities to the role of president, emphasizing cultivation of major gifts and donor stewardship, Schon said.

"Years ago, a national campaign would not be feasible," she said. "We are now in a different position."

Baltimore Hebrew offers master's degrees in Jewish education, Jewish studies and Jewish communal service, to prepare students for jobs at Jewish organizations. The university also partners with other institutions for joint degree programs; the school's faculty teaches undergraduate courses at nearby liberal arts colleges and universities.

"We are in fact servicing these academic communities with our faculty," Schon said. "We are the go-to place for all Jewish faculty."

Matt Freedman, The Associated's chief planning officer, said the organization still supports the university's mission of lifelong Jewish learning, as it has for 80 years.

"We believe very much that there should be access to Jewish learning in the Baltimore community at all levels," Freedman said. But the organization has decided to focus its resources "around programs that will not exist unless the Jewish community owns them and supports and enhances communal life," he said.

"It is no longer the case as it once was that academic institutions other than those owned by the Jewish community would be opposed to providing any kind of Jewish curriculum," Freedman said.

Founded in 1919 as a Jewish teacher's college, Baltimore Hebrew University remains one of five nondenominational colleges in the country that have a Judaic academic focus but are not rabbinical training schools, officials said.

"We are sort of like a department of Jewish studies in a larger university," said Gittlen, a professor of biblical and archaeological studies. The other so-called "Hebrew colleges" are in Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland and Chicago, Lav said.

Primarily a graduate college, BHU confers about 20 percent of the country's master's degrees in Jewish education, according to officials. Those students typically go on to teach at Jewish day schools or religious after-school programs, Lav said.

Overall enrollment has declined by more than 70 percent since 1994, when the university had about 370 students, according to data compiled by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Last year, there were about 100 degree-seeking students enrolled, most of them full-time graduate students, as well as several hundred part-time adult students participating in noncredit programs. This spring, the university conferred two doctorates and 13 master's degrees.

Officials attribute the drop in enrollment in part to a mission change in the late 1990s, when the university decided to focus on graduate studies.

Admissions director Laurie Kott says graduate enrollment has grown in each of the past three years.

Schon, of the board of trustees, attributed the growth to successful national recruitment, with more than half of its enrollees coming from outside Baltimore. "We are no longer the local institution that we used to be," she said. "We're very much on the national map of Jewish education."

Recently, the small university has also found a growing niche in nontraditional Jewish education, particularly in its five-year-old Me'ah program. Named after the Hebrew word for 100, Me'ah is a 100-hour certificate program in biblical studies and Jewish history that caters largely to an older population, Kott said.

Baltimore Hebrew also needs to find a new location by 2010. The Associated, which owns the property, will use the university's location next to the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue to house four existing social services programs that will be consolidated, Freedman said.

But because the university is expanding its programs "this does not jeopardize our programs at all," Schon said.

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