When a group of New York University students began occupying the staircase of a campus building last week, they initially planned to stay indefinitely, or at least until their demand for a meeting with the school’s board of trustees was granted. Instead, the students departed within forty hours, after the university phoned their parents, warning of a possible suspension that could lead to a loss of housing and financial aid.
The phone calls — which a memo from the Student Government Assembly described as an act of “administrative recklessness” — startled both students and parents, and have since ignited a debate about how universities should treat campus protesters.
“I don’t believe it is appropriate for NYU to use emergency contacts in this way,” Carlos Matos, a Puerto Rican student who arrived at NYU in November through the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program, tells the Voice. Matos says his father was visiting a relative in the hospital when he was informed by Christopher Stipeck, assistant director of residential life at NYU, that his son’s housing would be in jeopardy if he continued protesting. “After everything that’s happened in Puerto Rico, my parents have enough on their plate already. The one thing they could trust was that I was at NYU, but now their sense of security is destabilized.”
Christiane Riederer, whose daughter Josephine is an NYU sophomore and a member of the divestment movement, says Stipeck phoned her as well, and warned that her daughter would be in danger of losing financial aid, scholarships, and her housing if she continued occupying. “It seemed excessive, when they could have just listened to the kids instead,” says Riederer.
But according to NYU spokesperson John Beckman, the school’s reaction was “in line with our long-standing practice” for when students face a possible suspension. Beckman notes that the protesters — most of them members of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), which advocates against unjust labor practices at the university, and NYU Divest, which has long called for the school to divest from fossil fuel — had attempted a round-the-clock occupation of the Kimmel Center for University Life, which closes at 11 p.m., to protest the school’s refusal to grant them a public meeting with the board of trustees.
Students who disrupt university operations to protest school governance have faced similar discipline in the past. In 2009, eighteen students were suspended by NYU for barricading themselves in a dining hall, in an attempt to force the university to share information on its operating budget, expenditures, and endowment. In that case, “most, if not all” of the suspended students were able to keep their financial aid and housing, Beckman said.
But the school’s policy does typically prohibit suspended students from living in university housing, and federal guidelines attached to financial aid could prevent a suspended student from accessing parts of their benefits package, including the Federal Work-Study program, according to Beckman. (He did not respond to a follow-up question about whether a student had ever lost their housing or financial aid over a suspension related to protesting.)
In last week’s phone calls to parents, Beckman added, the university did not “threaten students about their housing or other financial aid. But it is simply the case that certain possible disciplinary outcomes — such as suspension — would have an impact on those matters.”
Yet several students and parents who spoke with the Voice said that the calls they received from the university last week made clear that continuing the occupation could imperil their financial aid and housing. In the view of those students, the tactic had the effect of targeting those who are financially dependent on the university, and could discourage them from speaking out in the future.
“It’s particularly disturbing that they would threaten those who rely on financial aid and housing, which would disproportionately affect low-income students,” says Olivia Rich, a first-year law student at NYU and member of the divestment movement. “It’s just a really extreme reaction considering we’re asking for something very small, which is just a few hours of time with the people who make decisions at the university.”
Student access to the board of trustees has become something of a flash point at NYU in recent years. Since 2016, activist groups including SLAM, NYU Divest, the Incarceration to Education Coalition, and the NYU College Democrats have called for student representation on the board. So far, NYU president Andrew Hamilton has rejected the idea, claiming it would present a conflict of interest.
But that explanation is specious, students say, considering that the current board — which determines financial aid policies, among other issues, and has previously rejected a student government vote to divest the university from fossil fuels — already appears to be riddled with potential conflicts.
The student activists note that the current board chair, William Berkley, made some of his fortune as the director of First Marblehead Corporation, a private student loan provider that has drawn legal scrutiny for its lending practices. Berkley is also the former owner of an oil and gas company, now owned by Anadarko — an energy company that NYU had direct holdings in until last year. Other board members include BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink, billionaire hedge fund manager and Trump advisor John Paulson, and Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, who serves on the United Arab Emirates’ Supreme Petroleum Council.
“We’ve found that accessing the decision-making body at the university is almost impossible — we don’t know where this board meets, or when, and the individuals are extremely difficult to contact,” says Sarah Singh, a senior at NYU and member of NYU Divest. “I think a lot of the shadiness here comes from the fact that [the board of trustees] might not be able to answer questions that student leaders have for them.”
Until such a meeting is arranged, leaders of both groups say they will continue to push for increased accountability and transparency from the board. For other students, however, the university’s latest reaction revealed that the cost of protesting at NYU may be too high to bear.
“By calling my parents and creating that sense of panic in them, they’re placing me in a situation where now my parents have no more peace of mind,” says Matos. “I’m pushed to stand down or silence myself because I care for them, rather than have a voice in the system.”