The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself: An Interview with Michael Yaroshefsky

by Sam Norton

As a sophomore, I have now witnessed three distinctly different USG presidents.  The first, Josh Weinstein ’09, was widely characterized as a fighter, someone who wasn’t shy about picking battles with Nassau Hall on controversies that he felt were of great importance, and consequently left office with mixed reviews.  By contrast, his successor, Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10, has been dubbed a conciliator for his willingness to work with Shirley Tilghman and other administrators on a range of reforms, leading to a long and highly praised record of achievement.

It is still unclear which of these two styles the USG’s new president, Michael “Yaro” Yaroshefsky ’12, will employ.  So far, a few months into his presidency, he appears to be following the Diemand-Yauman model. Hopefully, he will be able to replicate his predecessor’s success as he navigates the complex issues facing the USG today.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss with Yaroshefsky his views on a number of such difficult campus issues, as well as his vision for the future.  In interacting with Yaroshefsky, one is struck by his abundant energy and seemingly boundless optimism.  His sunny outlook, combined with his pledge to hold “fireside chats,” are reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt.  Whether through his trademark broad grin, or cheery greetings in e-mails (“howdy,” “aloha”), Yaroshefsky conveys the sense that he loves his job and relishes the opportunity to meet its challenges head-on.

Perhaps his enthusiasm is a product of the long, winding road that has taken him to his current position.  On his arrival at Princeton in the fall of 2008, he immediately launched himself into campus politics, as one of the many candidates running for president of the class of 2012.  He lost that race, and, undeterred, went on to campaign for class senator, a title which he did not win, although an audit of election results later showed that he had in fact received the highest number of votes.  (When offered the seat that was rightfully his, he declined).

After being rebuffed in his bids for elective office, Yaro began to immerse himself in the technocratic side of student government, serving as chair of the USG’s IT committee.  In that capacity, he worked closely with Diemand-Yauman on such initiatives as election reform and transparency.

It was on this experience that Yaroshefsky based his candidacy for USG president.  However, his entreaties met with a mixed reaction from Princeton students.  In a three-way race for the presidency, he failed to clear the 50% vote threshold required to avoid a runoff, and eventually eked out a narrow victory against Jack Altman ’11.  Judging from such sources as the anonymous comments section of the Daily Princetonian website, Yaro seems to inspire intense feelings, both positive and negative, among the student body. The accusation of “toolishness” is a common refrain.

But, publicly as well as privately, Yaro appears unconcerned about his image.  When asked how he intends to reach out to those students who voted for one of his opponents, he responds, “I hope that what we accomplish, and how we accomplish it, will enable me to earn the confidence of those who may not have originally supported my candidacy.”

On the major issues facing Princeton, as well as on national politics (he dubs himself a “rational moderate”), Yaroshefsky lies well within the mainstream of student opinion.  When questioned how he feels about the University’s gender-neutral housing policy, he stated: “I am very happy that we are testing the waters of gender-neutral housing.   My administration will likely not have to make decisions regarding this policy, but if we do they will be based on the results of this trial.”

Similarly, on the subject of arming Public Safety, Yaro displays a cautious attitude toward giving guns to campus officers that dovetails with the sentiments expressed by Princetonians.  After attending a Whig-Clio Senate debate on this topic in February, he said, “Both sides presented reasonable arguments, but at the end of the day I am still unmoved from a position of indecision.  If I have any temporary leaning regarding this issue, it is usually one of a mild preference to maintain the status quo.

Going forward, Yaroshefsky wants to focus on implementing his agenda in accordance with the wishes of the student body as demonstrated through online survey data.  During the campaign, he outlined an ambitious agenda that included 24 separate initiatives.  In determining which of these items should be prioritized and which will be abandoned, he declares that “[o]f the ideas I had, the ones we are prioritizing are those which students indicated are important by way of the priorities survey and those which my colleagues on the senate also feel strongly about.”  He acknowledges that facets of his platform may have to be jettisoned: “We may abandon ideas that we deem infeasible or less beneficial than other projects where we should be devoting our resources.  I hate to have to say no to some great ideas, but our limited resources necessitate that we perform triage.”

In his reliance on the active participation and involvement of the student body, Yaro’s approach is comparable to that of Diemand-Yauman.  Indeed, Yaroshefsky holds the man he replaced in high regard, especially in terms of relations with Nassau Hall.  He tells me that, “I like how Connor worked well with administrators, and I will continue that strategy.  The administrators have our best interests in mind, but sometimes they can benefit from the suggestions we provide that come from a perspective they do not have.”  On the crucial matter of grade deflation, he eschews a frontal assault on this reviled institution, instead pursuing, as Diemand-Yauman did, an incremental strategy.  He seeks to ameliorate its negative effects by promoting awareness about the policy, while undermining its foundations by gathering additional data on its impacts.

Transparency and making the USG more accessible to students are some of Yaro’s favorite themes.  “Fortunately,” he said, “I think the USG has recently been quite effective at providing transparency.  Yet that does not mean we cannot do more.  The USG website is going to be full of information to share, but also ways to get involved.  I want to empower students to do more than just see through the USG; I want to empower students to participate, too.”  He also hopes to shake up the organizational structure of the USG, proclaiming that the “most substantive change from last year may be how we go about dividing up the work and achieving our goals.  I have placed considerable emphasis on beginning with the end in mind and having a formal plan of attack.”

Looking ahead, Yaroshefsky, the first sophomore elected USG president in 17 years, is considering potentially running for a second term, which he calls “a wonderful and unique opportunity that I will not pass up without thinking it through.”  However, this prospect is by no means a certainty at this point.  He envisions that he “will only run again if I am still convinced I am the best candidate for the job and if my first term was a positive experience.”

Yaro brings great promise to his presidency.  There is no doubt that he is immensely talented in many ways.  What remains to be seen is whether he will be able to actualize those talents in order to bring about positive changes for the student body.  His personal attributes are likely to play a role in the outcome of his administration, for better or for worse.  His ever-present optimism could spur him to persevere in the face of the difficulties incumbent upon his office, or, alternatively, lead to a sense of nonchalance about the problems present on our campus.

Similarly, Yaroshefsky’s technocratic background and gradualist approach could be both an asset and a liability.  Like Diemand-Yauman, he might be able to work behind the scenes to push Shirley Tilghman and Nancy Malkiel to endorse reforms, but a slight deficiency in the passion and fire that Weinstein possessed might leave him incapable of mobilizing students behind his initiatives, a crucial element of any move that takes on entrenched policies.  The solution lies in synthesizing the best aspects of both Diemand-Yauman and Weinstein, along with his own traits, depending on what is required in specific circumstances.  If Yaro can achieve this delicate balance, his presidency is sure to reap immense benefits for the student body.

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