NYU Response To Grad Student Sickout Puts Fall Semester In Question

By: Clare Busch | May 27, 2020

On May 6-8, NYU’s graduate students held a three-day sickout to try and force the administration to commit to additional financial support for students in the wake of the novel coronavirus.

The students of NYU are echoing the demands of students at other universities: summer funding, a one-year extension of current funding packages, committing to not have a hiring freeze, and support for undocumented students. But NYU’s refusal to engage with the graduate students is especially galling given the university’s endowment is, by its own accounting, $4.3 billion. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides an additional $25 million of emergency funding for the school.

Sarah Sklaw, 28, is a doctoral student in the Department of History and a member of the student activist group NYU COVID Coalition. She said the university’s reaction to the spread of coronavirus was, from the beginning, ill-thought out and confusingly communicated.

On March 16, NYU President Andrew Hamilton sent out a memo to the NYU community saying all NYU residences would be closed by May 22, giving students less than a week to move their belongings and arrange for stays elsewhere. The university would pro-rate rent and utilities accordingly. The university offers housing at Stuyvesant Town, also known as StuyTown, to a limited number of graduate students. The complex is a housing option on the university’s website. For graduate students who found the housing through NYU, it seemed obvious this residence was NYU housing. Students went about the difficult and expensive task of vacating.

A March 18 email from NYU grad housing then told students they did not need to vacate, but could do so if they chose and pay pro-rated rent. A day later, an email from NYU’s Senior AVP of Student Affairs, Tom Ellet, told confused graduate students in StuyTown this memo did not apply to them and their rent would not be pro-rated. A student I spoke with who was trying to break their lease received only silence and, of course, a bill.

Graduate students said the move-out was just one example of the ways NYU failed to work with students, and why they have lost faith in NYU’s ability to respond to the pandemic.

The university, which has campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, touts itself as part of a global community in its promotional material. Now, some graduate students—both in New York City and abroad—are finding themselves financially stranded and unsure if they should, or even can, return to teach.

For students stuck outside the New York area, NYU is offering students the ability to “attend” the university at local satellite locations. This option comes without any tuition decrease.

Before the sickout, NYU created an emergency fund in response to students’ financial concerns granting up to $500 per qualified person. The university quickly solicited alumni for donations.

Students who applied in the first week or two would sometimes get some of the cash. But  according to NYU’s graduate student union, GSOC, people who applied around April 27 or later had their applications rejected en masse on May 12. NYU did not respond to repeated request for comment on the emergency fund.

The graduate student union is affiliated with the United Auto Workers. Its current contract has a no-strike clause—meaning the union could not sanction the sickout.

The sickout came on the heels of strikes at the University of California campuses, which were also done without union approval. The New School in New York had its own undergrad and graduate student strike, resulting in commitments from the university to lower tuition, a reduction in administrators’ salaries, continued payments to cafeteria staff, among others.

The current contract for NYU graduate workers ends this summer, calling into question whether they will show up to teach and grade for undergraduate classes in the fall. According to Bhumika Chauhan, an international graduate student in the Department of Sociology, the university’s failure to respond to the coalition’s demands means a “strike seems to be the only real way that we can actually put pressure on NYU. Right now, it doesn’t seem like NYU is really listening.”

Chauhan was unable to leave New York and do her field research over the summer. Usually, she and her husband sublet their apartment in the summer. Now, they have to bear the cost of a New York apartment, despite not having guaranteed summer funding. Additionally, Chauhan’s visa restricts where she can work.

For most international students, the easiest place to work is for their university. But if NYU returns to in-person classes in the fall, Chauhan said she is “absolutely not” comfortable with in-person teaching. Having worked as a teaching assistant in the past, Chauhan brought up the difficulty of social distancing on campus. She said, “NYU has said this many times: They have a space issue.”

If NYU is looking for graduate workers to reassure undergraduates about returning to campus, it seems clear that will not be the case.

Hayeun Kim, 19, is a junior in the Department of History. As an undergraduate, her tuition is $54,882 a year. Kim said she relies on a combination of financial aid and scholarships to afford tuition normally. Because of a disability she needs to stay on campus rather than commute. That brings Kim’s total up to at least $74,126 a year.

If the university does not offer a reduction for the upcoming year, Kim said, “I don’t see why I would ever pay as much as NYU’s tuition is to attend online courses or even the social distancing classes. The resources are not going to be the same.”

Sklaw said she would not recommend students enroll for the fall semester after seeing NYU’s response to the pandemic.

NYU President Andrew Hamilton makes close to $2 million annually and has not announced plans to take a pay cut despite highlighting the financial toll of the pandemic on the university.

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