A coalition of students, faculty, and labor unions held a protest Tuesday against what organizers called the “ruinous financial practices” of New York University, Cooper Union, and The New School, three of New York City’s most prominent universities.
Though they share the same Manhattan neighborhood, the schools are operating at vastly different scales: NYU has some 58,000 students, Cooper Union has 950. And each university is in the midst of its own, distinct, controversy. At NYU, an aggressive and controversial expansion; at the New School, a fight by graduate students to unionize; and at Cooper Union, an administrative decision to begin charging tuition for the first time in the school’s history.
But Tuesday’s protest was the first time students and faculty from the three universities have banded together. All three schools are united, protesters argued today, by a pattern of fiscal schemes — bad investments, expensive construction projects, administrative bloat, and weak financial aid — that have indebted students and harmed the universities. Organizers called it a “protest against the corporate university.”
“All three schools have been badly damaged by these practices,” said Mark Crispin Miller, an NYU professor and one of the protest’s organizers, to a crowd gathered in Washington Square Park. Protesters held signs reading “NYU — the 80,000 pound gorilla in the room,” and “Say no to NYU 2031” against a skyline dominated by the NYU halls and centers that ring the park.
“NYU represents the cutting edge of everything that’s wrong in US higher education,” Miller told BuzzFeed News. “They don’t behave as a not-for-profit university should.”
Speakers at the protest criticized NYU’s threadbare financial aid offerings, which one student and sex worker said contributed to an “epidemic” of prostitution among students struggling to afford sky-high tuition and living costs.
At the core of the protest was opposition to “NYU 2031,” a plan by the university to spend billions of dollars of 20-year program to develop two million square-foot of real estate for use by the school. Though opponents of the plan lost a three-year court battle earlier this summer, allowing it to proceed, many NYU faculty and neighborhood organizations remain staunchly opposed, calling it unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible in the face of NYU’s high levels of student debt, which are some of the worst in the country.
“This is a real estate deal, pure and simple,” Miller told protesters. “It’s reckless and needless.”
NYU has set out on a path of global growth that is unprecedented for a private non-profit university — especially one with NYU’s prestige and cachet. In addition to the ambitious NYU 2031 plan, the university has set its sights on expansion worldwide: it has built gleaming new campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, as well as outposts everywhere from Sydney to Buenos Aires to Accra.
NYU says that it “must grow” — that expansion is what will allow the university to compete for faculty and prestige with the Ivy League schools whose endowments dwarf NYU’s. Relative to schools like Columbia and Yale, NYU is highly dependent on its students’ tuition dollars, rather than the heft of its endowment.
Since the 1970s, NYU has transformed from a financially unstable regional school into a prestigious international powerhouse, with top-ranked business and law schools and an enormously popular undergraduate program. Though it is ranked 32nd on U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top colleges, NYU is, according to the Princeton Review, the third-most-popular “dream school” for parents and students — outstripping Princeton, Yale, and UCLA.
But the university’s financial aid practices are also notoriously stingy — the Princeton Review has consistently named them “worst” in the country. NYU’s students are among the country’s most indebted: on a list of the schools where graduate students took out the most loans, NYU had the fourth-highest tally in the country, just below the massive for profit college the University of Phoenix.
At the protest today, one anonymous NYU student, wearing a mask as she spoke, said she resorted to prostitution to afford food and rent. “I was a model student, used as a poster child for the university,” she said. “The vast majority of the students I worked with were NYU students. Student prostitution is an epidemic here.”
Miller and other opponents of NYU's administration have pointed to reports of lavish spending on professors and administrators — including providing loans for vacation homes of top professors and a $685,000 exit bonus given to a departing vice president. And the university’s expansion plans in Abu Dhabi have also attracted controversy. A 2014 New York Times investigation found that workers on the NYU-Abu Dhabi campus faced "grim" conditions, including forced labor.
Cooper Union, a tiny but prestigious liberal arts college a flew blocks from NYU, has been embroiled in its own fight over university finances and student debt. Since its existence, the school has been entirely free — a policy that changed in 2013, when the school's precipitous financial situation forced the administration to begin charging tuition. That decision caused uproar among students and faculty, who staged a week-long occupation of the university president's office, and, in 2014, filed a law suit to block the university from charging tuition.
Cooper Union's financial problems, many have argued, are rooted in the mismanagement of the school's assets and endowment, as well as the ambitious construction of a $175 million building that was financed mostly through debt. The university's endowment is now worth less than it was at the height of the financial crisis.
Toby Cumberbatch, a professor of electrical engineering at Cooper Union, also blamed a glut of highly-paid administrators. "Most of the twenty years I've been at Cooper Union, we've had one vice president," Cumberbatch said. "Now we have six. We have a whole raft of administrators, senior people, to manage 1,000 students."
At the 10,000-student New School, graduate students have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to form a union, hoping to amend a law that has so far prevented the unionization of graduate students. The New School's students pay the sixth-highest net cost in the country, some $42,000.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. She covers the intersection of business and education.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.