Give Back, NYU – Response to the Take Back NYU Occupation

Last night 64 students barricaded themselves inside the Third
floor of Kimmel.
They listed a set of demands and today press from
around the country will be putting NYU in the headlines. NYU Local had an embedded reporter who blogged for 6
hours straight

I find it peculiarly ironic that a group of students who (presumably) oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine choose occupation as their method of communication and conflict-resolution last night.  

It is even more confusing to me that my peers, so dedicated to their activist lifestyles, did not enlist the most necessary tactics of activism in their demonstration yesterday evening. Take Back NYU – I am asking you for self-reflection.  Do you think occupation is effective?  Or have you merely hosted a publicity stunt void of accomplishment?  As a fellow student activist who believes in your ability to make a difference, I write to you asking for clarification, transparency, solidarity, and sincerity.

You must be specific.  Your demands are a presently a convoluted web of controversial topics, tangling the Israel-Palestine conflict, human rights abuses at Coca-Cola, institutional transparency, and access to NYU resources.  A lack of focused calls to action means you risk losing potential supporters who may disagree with specific demands.  You also risk gaining supporters who cannot communicate the complexity, and will not help you advance your cause.

Separate your complex agenda by Goal and Sub-Goal.  Form separate coalitions or committees who will fight tirelessly for specific issues, and have a core mission statement simple enough that diverse groups will agree to.  

And logistically, provide a downloadable or e-mailable template letter that you would like supporters to send to Administration and “the world”.  You will get more people to send them, and there is less risk your mission, especially being so complex, will be hijacked by people with ulterior motives.

You must be transparent.  Make accusations by name, or else people will never be forced to respond.  Who are the ‘war profiteers’ you want investigated?  Name them.  Who will be on the proposed Finance Committee?  You?  With transparency comes quantification. NYU budgets count by dollar, militaries count troops, and micro-finance programs count loan repayment rates.  What are your measures of success?  Number of students ‘on board’ and if so, how are you counting?  I personally would not rely on a count of Facebook Group members – we all know the trivial way in which students join these Groups, and no action is required of a student on a Facebook Group.  We find the same conundrum at the United Nations, where international laws can be created and suggested, but never enforced.

You must be sincere.  Faux radicalism will not suffice.  You have risked very little by barricading yourself in Kimmel and I am surprised that you are demanding amnesty for all parties involved.  Real change means real risk: willing to go to jail or to die for this cause if it consumes you so completely.  AIDS activists lay down in front of 5th Avenue traffic knowing they were going to die anyway from lack of antiretroviral treatment.  After decades of struggle they have received affordable treatment (yet over 7 million are still in need worldwide).  Respect the legacy of these activists, and time it takes for change to happen when institutions are involved.  And beware those who love the spirit of the revolution for revolutions sake – they can abandon you when stakes become too high, or when they graduate out of the victim role.

You must secure solidarity creatively.  I understand you are ‘occupying’ in solidarity with other students internationally, but where is shared set of goals?  The collective vision?  Make sure every reporter you talk to knows this – you create the headlines.  Logically, if you want NYU Administration to change its behavior, you must pressure and encourage other private University Administrations to do as you demand NYU does.  Do any other private Universities disclose their budgets?  Why would NYU be the first?  Put yourself in Sexton’s shoes – if you will not change his incentive structure, who or what will?

I commend your efforts to get two dozen student groups on board, and listing them online.  However you must expand your efforts.  Form solidarity with Stern (or Wagner Finance!) students; considering the complexity of NYU’s budget, I would hope that anyone eventually given access to the budget has passed a certain course in finance and would be qualified to properly read and fully understand the details.

And realize that your time here is short, and institutional change takes time.  Galvanize incoming classes, or pressure Princeton Review to include measures of institutional transparency in how a student can rate colleges.  Cultural change requires an all-angles approach.

I respect your persistence and dedication.  I simply expect more of my peer activists.

Evoking Maslow, I gently remind of the very violent occupations, genocides, diseases, and wars that plague our world this moment.  You have included some, though haphazardly, in your demands.  These matters deserve our focused attention and energy.  Gratitude is due for the immense resources NYU has provided our student body, and it is our job to maximize available resources and relationships to reach our goals.

An opportunity was lost last night by not being more specific, and I fear the ‘occupation’ further perpetuates a stereotype of neo-liberal, melodramatic NYU students.  Your demands are legitimate but your presentation and performance does not communicate this yet.  

I believe there are opportunities now to be specific, to leverage partnerships, to make real change.  A final activist suggestion:  Reconsider your core engagement statement.  Instead of asking students to ‘take back’ NYU, why not demand NYU to ‘give back’ to students?  Demand that NYU give back to students, to the community, to people suffering around the world.  

Think about the NYU Sustainability Taskforce members, the hundreds of Be-a-Changemaker grant awardees, the Reynolds Social Entrepreneurs, the thousands of talented, compassionate NYU students living every day of their life to make positive social change across diverse disciplines and mediums – here you already have an unbreakable foundation of students giving back to NYU that you can use as a key point for negotiations!

I understand that change movements are complex, political, and rife with potential for misunderstandings that are out of your control.  All of my suggestions are intended as constructive criticism, because I do believe your highest goals of transparency must be reached.  I hope you will refocus your efforts and restructure your goals to achieve measurable steps towards an NYU culture of greater social justice and institutional accountability.


Kate Otto
NYU Wagner Student 2009

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