NYU Bullshit and Students that Give a Damn

Classic NYU.  From Alicetiara\'s Flickr

Classic NYU. From Alicetiara's flickr

This Friday, a protest led by the East Village Slacktivists will step up the heat building from from the Bowery Wine protest last month by targeting the Economakis townhouse, followed by a move to protest at an NYU Dorm. The NYU jab is an interesting one, which raises questions for myself as someone pretty much totally offended by NYU’s politics, but who also attends the school

First let me say that much of my writing on this blog is happening because the venerable NYUinc blog has been down for a good few weeks. (We seem to have lost our domain registration…) NYUinc is a student run, independent activist newspaper for the NYU community that puts out an annual Disorientation Guide for new students, as well as providing regular news and commentary on the politics of NYU. Once the ‘inc gets back online, I’ll probably write about it here, and my post volume will go down (slightly).

Lets face it: NYU has problems, of which buses are only one. The picture above was taken at the GSOC grad student union strike in 2005, when NYU arrested half a dozen of its students before taking a case to what amounts to the labor law Supreme Court to deny the right of grad students to form unions. That’s not all: since then, the school has begun a massively risky and dangerous venture in Abu Dhabi, aggravated local community members by pushing out local grocery stores, threatening to demolish public housing as well as historic buildings without consultation with the community, and forked over money for the destruction of Washington Square Park. All this while raising student tuition above the rate of inflation for over 20 years in a row, and taking money from corporate criminals. (believe me, there’s more where that came from – the shit hits the fan come September)

Seriously, it’s bad. Which is not to say that there’s no reason to go to school at NYU.

Assuming we agree education has some intrinsic value, I think folks should pursue the education they desire, wherever that may take them. NYU has some educational perks – a noted economics department, a top ranked analytic philosophy program, a stable of excellent Marxist academics, and the Gallatin School, a unique interdisciplinary school that allows students to design an individualized degree.

But wanting a degree does not give you a free pass on politics. Anyone involved with what they know to be a corrupt institution will try to distinguish themselves from the greater mass of evil people – “Oh, I’m not one of those bad cops…” or “I’m not like other Republicans!” – so I know what it sounds like when people such as myself play personal defense in the face of problems such as NYU’s. In cases such as these, the onus falls on someone involved with a flawed institution to prove themselves with action that challenges the institution they otherwise support.

That being said, NYU throws some wrinkles that should give pause to those seeking to judge its students. First, our school is fundamentally undemocratic. Despite the amount of money NYU students put into their school, they get little control out. The Abu Dhabi decision was protected by a gag order on the students that knew until last October. Student Councils advise advisory boards that then advise the Board of Trustees. John Sexton acts like a total prick towards his students. How student tuition gets used by the administration remains a total secret – students have demanded for decades for budget disclosure, but keep getting stonewalled. (The group Students Creating Radical Change will continue its push for disclosure through next year, hopefully with a splashy event near the beginning of September)

Many students I talk to express a great deal of skepticism towards NYU. The others that don’t are brainwashed/totally unaware. For those that know about NYU’s problems, 4 years of tuition hikes and mind boggling bureaucratic bullshit beat any energy from that frustration into a resigned pulp. These students often graduate in a state of agitated apathy, frustrated at their school, but with little they can do about it. The others remain ignorant, to this day.

So, here’s how I try to prove myself. NYUinc is one step – NYU needs an alternative media archive that prevents the administration from controlling the school’s institutional memory. I want new students to dig up the immediate past so they can get started on changing shit ASAP. Activism is another step – I’m part of Students Creating Radical Change, and other groups interested in challenging our school on student democracy, gentrification and worker’s rights.

Here’s my challenge to the Slacktivists and other folks upset with NYU: make NYU students your allies. They have more in common with you than you think. I know a contingent of them willing to sign on to challenge the school we attend.

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9 responses to “NYU Bullshit and Students that Give a Damn

  1. I am definitely one of those students willing to sign on to challenge various bureaucratic and corporate leanings of the university. I think the disclosure of the budget should be our number 1 goal as not only will it allow us to hold NYU accountable for its prior transgressions, it will also keep them from using our money in corrupt ways in the future. Great post, D!

  2. NYU has never even pretended to be a democratic institution. It is a business, and like any other business it is concerned with keeping itself afloat. I don’t think students can even be considered shareholders in this business–perhaps intellectual shareholders, but certainly not financial ones. We give NYU tuition with the expectation that they will give us a degree. Shareholders in a business give the business money with the expectation that they will get more money. There is no reason to believe or even hope that NYU will disclose the budget for any other reason than out of the goodness of their hearts. They are NOT beholden to us as shareholders.

    John Sexton is perhaps the only reason that NYU exists as the prestigious institution that it is today. In the late 80’s NYU nearly declared bankruptcy and J-Sex came through and with some pretty deft financial and geographic maneuvers and salvaged the university.

    Additionally, it is a total fantasy that NYU is a wealthy institution. My bet is that one of the main reasons they won’t disclose the budget is because they would be extremely embarrassed by the size of our endowment compared to peer institutions. This is because, also until the late 80’s, NYU was a commuter institution on par with local community colleges (not knocking community colleges). It has only been in the last 10 years that NYU has been able to build a network of wealthy alumni that have been able to give chunks of money for the endowment. The reason NYU is so expensive is because they literally can’t afford to give more money, but they know it’s a problem and they’re working on it. NYU finances are such that the university survives financially from year to year unlike any of our peer institutions. They all have cushy endowments to lean back on in times of trouble, and give student scholarships and better aid packages.

    As for the real estate issues, there no doubt that NYU has some. But, its arguable that its the only way the university can get any wealth barring gifts from alumni. Tuition rates certainly won’t get better if the university remains low in capitol.

    Anyway, all this is an attempt to say that NYU is not trying to be evil, but that there are definitely structural issues that keep it from being the best institution that it could be. No doubt it has problems, but there are reasons other than the prickishness of John Sexton and the “politics” that they exist.

  3. Dear Kate,

    Given your somewhat in-depth knowledge of the university and its corporate structure, I’m thinking you’re not a student but an administrator, or at the very least you work for the university in some capacity along with being a student.

    First, NYU students are investors; they invest in a degree. The value of that degree is dependent upon the reputation of the institution they attend. NYU students, in fact, do wish to maximize the return on their investment. They may not be speculators, but it’s not like they’re 3rd parties.

    Second, NYU students are customers. As a student at the law school, I can tell you that the NYU administration (not faculty) acts as if the school exists to give them a cushy job rather than to provide the best service possible to the students who have purchased that service, a quite pricey one at that.

    Third, the notion that NYU owes nothing to its students and that students have no right to have a say in its governance is absurd. NYU is not a normal business; it is a public university with tax exempt status. The modern university was developed as a sort of guild in the middle ages; students would join not just to learn, but for collective security. Students took pledges to physically defend fellow students from violence, just as cobblers and blacksmiths did for their ilk. Students were in complete control of the faculty and staff, and could ouster them at their leisure. Simply put, universities exist FOR the students (and to facilitate academic research and writing by professors), not to maximize profits.

    Fourth, I haven’t heard of much (until this Abu Dhabi campus issue) animosity towards Sexton. It’s true that Sexton is responsible for the prestige of the law school, of which he was the dean for many years. He became the president of the entire university in 2001. While certain parts of the university have a pristine academic reputation, the university as whole does not.

    Fifth, the NYU endownment is relatively large for a public university at 2.5 billion in 2007.

    And finally, students have plenty of reason to be mad at NYU. I myself, and I’m sure many students, have long standing ties to NYC and plan to live hear permanently upon graduation. Any deterioration of the surrounding neighborhoods will redound to us. I would have no problem with NYU building more dorms if not for the fact that they rent those rooms to students at market rates, unlike, for example, Columbia, which subsidizes housing and does not attempt to profit off of students via housing. Similarly, if NYU needed more classroom space, and so wanted to convert the Met Supermarket space into a classroom or performance space etc…I wouldn’t have that much of a problem with it (though it certainly would hurt the livability of the neighborhood, and I live on 2nd ave. literally 1 block away from the Met). But that’s not what they want to do. NYU wants to evict Met so they can rent that location as commercial space at market rates.
    The essential problem is that the individuals and institutions who control NYU have parochial interests; future employment opportunities will be brighter if they can claim credit for rapidly expanding the university. Positive relations with students and the surrounding community does not translate into marketable human capital quite as easily.

    Ultimately, an alliance between NYU students and community members against the NYU administration is proper and will benefit both parties. A ton of NYU students chose to study here because of the unique cultural value of the surrounding neighborhoods, and are appalled at NYU’s blatent disregard for its adverse ecological impact.

  4. Pulling off a 40,000 student university in one of the most expensive and active city neighborhoods in the world is going to come with a lot of challenges.

    The problem with NYU Inc is that it’s a fringe media source where every post is some variation on — NYU is bad for X and Y. I read it all last semester and it just became intellectually stilted. All the writers seemed to agree with the other writers and no matter how detailed the editorials were — few NYU students have reason to read.

    What NYU needs is not some ‘Alternative’ fringe publication, but a new publication that can become a forum for an entertaining (not just editorial shoving) conversation about the school.

  5. And just a full disclosure.

    That’s what’s trying to happen here:


  6. err… full disclosure would be saying that you write/edit/own(?) nyulocal, cody. disclosure isn’t telling us it exists – that’s a plug.

    EDIT: Cody is the publisher, my bad.

    Honestly, I don’t even think NYUinc intends to be a newspaper for everyone at NYU – our mission statement says pretty clearly that its a news source for activists at NYU, and that’s not really a problem to me.

  7. I am the publisher. There are about 20 others that work on it — it’s a disclosure because I suggested an idea that I am also pulling together.

    What is an activist? I have a hard time understanding what would make someone not an activist.

  8. I’m not going to hash this out with you in the comments of my blog. I’m a little baffled why you would take this up here (or take it up at all). You’re being petty.


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