Alumni demonstrate in Washington Square Park, question value of higher education

By Kavish Harjai, Staff Writer

Alumni from NYU and other universities protested student debt and questioned the value of higher education in Washington Square Park.

On Nov. 21,  the alumni spoke out about the lack of respect and job security and rising costs for liberal arts and performing arts degrees. Many received a master’s degree in performance studies from NYU, while others obtained bachelor’s degrees in a variety of subjects, including political science and theater.

The protest was a scripted performance based on posts from the blog, “The Grace Period,” which alumni have updated daily for three months.

“I have been trying my hardest trying to do what I have to do as an artist just to get by,” Arndt said during the performance. “I have been living paycheck to paycheck and making the challenging sacrifices of time and labor to make it work. But I am exhausted.”

One of seven protest organizers, Sydney Arndt received her master’s degree in performance studies in 2013 and said the protest was intended to create a public discussion about issues facing alumni and students.

“We really hope to achieve an open dialogue … of this epidemic that we are experiencing in the city and especially at NYU,” she said.

NYU spokesman Philip Lentz said a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed NYU ranked eighth in the nation for starting salaries of humanities and social science graduates. He said the average starting salary was $45,129 while the national average in 2012 was $36,824.

The park was full of chalk written statements, such as “The Cost of Education is a Crime.”  In addition to writing in chalk, the alumni allowed passersby to write their  name and cost of their degree on a poster.

The organizers picked Nov. 21 because it was the final date before graduates’ debt begins collecting interest.

Lentz said the recently started Momentum Campaign, which aims to raise $1 billion for financial aid, will begin in the spring 2014 semester and provide some funds for graduate students. The campaign comes after an increase in the percentage of a student’s tuition covered by the average university grant, from 34 to 55, over the last 12 years.

“NYU was expensive, and the $15,000 scholarship that I twisted their arm for was just a drop in the hat,” organizer Jenna Tamimi said during the performance.

Lentz also said the university’s location and extensive network of study away and portal campuses offered students a unique college experience.

“We firmly believe in the value and quality of an NYU degree,” he said.

At intermittent points during the performance, the protesters chanted in unison, “Art is the only power we have.”

“I think it is true that we are all facing student debt,” audience member and European School of Economics student Nicholas Calle said. “This type of protest has power because it encourages people to talk and tell people about the problem.”

Rachel Lewis, a CAS senior, said the protest only recognized the problem and did not mobilize action.

“I think a lot of students understand what the problem is but to go about fixing it is something that we need to start talking about,” Lewis said. “I don’t know what [the protesters] are doing to solve the problem.”

Tamimi said there was a bigger turnout than expected, with about 20 people watching the performance. The organization of alumni said their next protest will be scripted based on the comments people wrote on the poster, and Arndt said the organization will continue updating the blog and may perform cabaret for their next protest.

“I think [the performances] are going to be endless,” Arndt said.

Kavish Harjai is a staff writer. Email him at [email protected]