The week her death was announced, my Comp 102 students were debating “Snow White and The Wicked Queen,” a groundbreaking essay by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, pioneers in the field of feminist literary criticism.
“Female bonding is extraordinarily difficult in patriarchy,” the authors wrote. My class read out loud contradictory but passionate reactions to this statement.
The emails we received announced that Dr. Edith Neumann, OBM, the provost of our university, Touro University Worldwide and its residential college, Touro College Los Angeles (TCLA), died on February 17, 2018. In my sadness, I spoke to my students about the bond that had developed between Edith and me. Our provost, a modern professional woman, knew how to support and empower women – and men, for that matter – by practicing the ancient virtues embodied by the Eshet Chayil, the Woman of Valor.
“I wasn’t ready to retire, so I started a second career,” Edith told me, regarding the start-up she created with her husband, Yoram. Both educators, raised in Israel, were pioneers in the field of online learning. Yoram had years of experience in the IDF and developed degree plans that drew many students from the Israeli and US militaries. The online university model the Neumanns created is now being imitated all over the world.
It was a mid-life career setback, Edith told me, which inspired her to redirect her talents. She began her career as a nurse, then acquired an MS in industrial engineering and a PhD in medical sociology from Boston University. Moving to Southern California, she became a dean for the School of Health and Education at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Although she won a prestigious teaching award, her position was eliminated for budgetary reasons.
Between 1998 and 2007, Edith and Yoram developed Touro University International, “the first regionally accredited online university that offered undergraduate, graduate, and PhD programs fully online.” Over the course of nine years, student enrollment at TUI rose from 0 students to 7,391, generating $270 million in revenue for the non-profit Touro College and University System, whose founder, Dr. Bernard Landers, had backed the Neumanns’ vision.
In 2007, the Touro College Board sold TUI in a highly competitive and profitable bid, and in 2012 Edith and Yoram returned to Touro to develop the new online Touro University Worldwide. Under their leadership, TUW rapidly gained financial and academic success, with student growth of 440%.
I will never forget my long, heartto- heart talk with Edith in June 2015, when I made the one-and-a-halfhour drive in traffic to Los Alamitos, having requested a personal meeting.
My small, brick and mortar TCLA, where I head the English department, had become a division of TUW; in 2012, Edith became our provost and Yoram our CEO. Initially, I had resented being forced to reconstruct my syllabi to suit TUW’s blueprint. I struggled with my aversion to terms like “online learning environments,” “student learning outcomes,” “interactive threaded discussion,” “project- based learning,” etc. The joy of teaching for me is in my immediate interaction with my students; I never feel as alive as when I find myself in front of a noisy circle of young people arguing about their responses to literature. I am grateful for our small classes and even for our small budget that results in a dearth of technology, allowing me to practice my beloved Socratic method.
My dean, Dr. Esther Lowy, OBM, a formidable woman who founded TCLA in 2005, was a no-nonsense person with an New York University PhD in mathematics and little appetite for educationalese.
Nevertheless, she trudged to Los Alamitos for weekly indoctrination sessions about the importance of “Program Learning Objectives” and “Student Learning Objectives” and the absolute need for coordination between the two. I attended some of these meetings with her, despite my prejudices against online education and technological innovation.
Esther, who taught “Overcoming Math Anxiety,” was, like me, an old-fashioned teacher. Eventually, however, we both came to realize that despite her engineering brain, Edith fostered the same educational values in her online realm that we practiced in our classrooms – values rooted in our common Jewish heritage.
Reluctantly, I had to admit that my courses benefited from the added structure the Neumann pedagogy imposed. And Edith was so warm, gracious, and hospitable! She fed us lunch, invited us to share reactions, and made us feel at ease and at home – as if we were part of her extended family. Like any Jewish grandmother, she loved to brag about her little ones.
Above all, Esther admired Edith’s courage in openly battling breast cancer; she noticed how Edith never allowed either her illness or her treatments to interfere with her commitment to her mission. Only when Esther was hospitalized in late November 2014 did I discover that my dean, a heroic woman in her own right, had been fighting a more advanced stage of the same disease as Edith – only privately – and that she had been empowered by the example Edith set.
I went to see Edith at the beginning of summer 2015, after Esther’s death.
Our college was going through a difficult transition and I was not sure I wanted to stay. Edith had worked with our interim dean, appointed him, and knew his strengths and weaknesses.
I was impressed by the provost’s frankness. No bureaucratese or educationalese entered her remarks. She advised me to be patient and optimistic.
“Are you sure you don’t want to teach an online course?” She opened her master computer and proudly showed me pages from the classes offered by her “outstanding” online faculty. “I can look at any time and know exactly what is going on in each course,” she said. Clearly she looked often.
Edith shared with me her experience with challenging work relationships.
“Men sometimes think,” she told me, “that because I have a soft voice, I can be pushed around. I never raise my voice, but those who work with me know that I am consistent and persistent and never back down from what is important to me.”
Indeed, Edith had a gentle demeanor, a soft voice, a warm manner and an ever-present smile. Thinking of her, several Virginia Woolf phrases come to mind: “feathery” on the surface, “but bolts of iron” underneath.
The artist Lily Briscoe thinks this is the magic combination required by high art; she thinks this as she completes the painting of a woman she reveres as an “artist of the social realm”: Mrs. Ramsay, a character based on Virginia Woolf’s mother, whose accomplishments as a loving mother, supportive wife and gracious hostess Woolf celebrates and elevates in To the Lighthouse.
Did Edith realize that she was importing those “soft” qualities once associated with “the feminine realm” to the techie world of online education? Anyone willing to wade through the Neumanns’ prize-winning article, “A Robust Learning Model (RLM): A Comprehensive Approach to A New Online University,” will discover the ancient secret of their pedagogy: successful learning depends on tight bonds between teachers and students, where the latter must feel their educators’ sincere devotion to their success. Faculty must respond to emails within 24 hours, evaluate assignments within 72, interact often, set clear goals and offer ample opportunities to fulfill them.
Edith always practiced what she preached. Despite her numerous responsibilities, she answered my emails quickly and attentively and if circumstances interfered with the 24-hour rule, she explained: “Dear Irina. I am having my IV. So I will respond to you later in the afternoon.
I am meeting to discuss this with him in the morning tomorrow.”
“Dear Irina, thank you very much for thinking about me and sharing your article with me. We are super busy here, and I keep on fighting.”
Like the Eshet Chayil, the Jewish Woman of Valor celebrated in Proverbs and praised by husbands on Friday nights, Dr. Edith Neumann always opened “her mouth with wisdom.” Her “tongue” always was “guided by kindness.” She “was robed in strength and in dignity,” and she “smiled at the future.”
The author is a Los Angeles writer and chair of the English Department at Touro College Los Angeles. She is the author of Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story. You can contact her @bragin_irina.