MLK Scholars Call Out NYU for Tokenism, Performative Activism and Lack of Communication
Despite a commitment to increase funding for the MLK Scholars Program, students who are in the program received no updates following the university’s announcement — until they shared an open letter criticizing the administration.
Jul 27, 2020
In the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, NYU promised to increase financial support, programming, and admitted students for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholars Program — a merit and additional need-based scholarship for undergraduates from all NYU schools, following Dr. King’s legacy of activism, social justice, and change. MLK Scholars’ initial feelings of relief about the promised financial support turned to anxiety after administrators reportedly provided no further updates for over a month. Worried about the August 4th tuition payment deadline, some MLK Scholars penned an open letter calling NYU out for tokenism, performative activism, empty promises, and lack of communication.
Established in 1987, the MLK Scholars Program upholds Dr. King’s vision of ending “racism, poverty, violence, and war” for everyone, emphasizing service to others. The scholarships are not solely awarded to Black students. NYU’s Chairman of the Board William Berkley and President Andrew Hamilton, who issued the Memorandum “Needed Change and Needed Action” on June 17, 2020, outlined NYU’s 2020-2021 plans for fighting racism and injustices faced by marginalized communities. For MLK Scholars, Berkley and Hamilton stated an “investment of an additional $6 million per year” would help double the program to 60 students per class, enhance financial support, and increase programming.
All students who spoke to WSN said they enjoy the program’s values, fellow students, and program leaders, but feel university administrators did not hold up their end of the bargain in supporting MLK Scholars and Dr. King’s legacy. Those interviewed said they received no communications or timeline since the Memo about the enhanced financial support for the 2020-2021 school year until they penned the open letter. Steinhardt sophomore Alex Chapman wrote the letter with eight other scholars because of the lack of communication.
“When the email came out in June, we had responded to [Program Director Bernard Savarese] about that and other questions,” Chapman said. “He was replying to other questions like travel colloquia and honors programs. But we weren’t getting answered about funding.”
MLK Scholars believe NYU used performative activism to boost its image of an ally, rather than support its statements with concrete actions. Like Chapman, Gallatin sophomore Pilar Cerón is frustrated with how her fellow scholars, who she believes are some of the most brilliant people she’s met at NYU, have been devalued.
“I definitely feel that us as MLK Scholars, and honestly a lot of the other scholarship programs, are tokenized and used for diversity brownie points,” Cerón said. “NYU doesn’t really value us as the complicated people that we are because if they did value us they would one listen to our needs and to try to meet those needs.”
Despite a tuition increase during the pandemic, their scholarship amount remains the same. GLS sophomore Marleyna George says the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and College Scholarship Service Profile — determining factors for scholarship aid — does not accurately portray her single-parent family situation.
“It comes down to: do I want to graduate and let my mom take on debt that she might not be able to pay back anytime soon or do I want to give up on my own dreams and protect her,” George said. “That’s not the kind of position anyone at 19 should be in. To put us in those positions and talk about [NYU’s] commitment to communities of color is insulting.”
Scholars told WSN they fear next week’s decision on scholarship funding if family situations, the pandemic, and opting out of NYU Housing are not taken into consideration when allocating $6 million investment into the program. CAS sophomore Scarlett Gonzalez and her family are still recovering after being infected with COVID-19 in late April.
“This is a strange time to be looking at my finances. We racked up a lot of bills and medical costs,” Gonzalez said. “My family wasn’t even hospitalized, but [COVID-19] does take a toll on your body afterward. My father kept having to go back to the doctors because he has pain in his body all the time and same with my brother.”
This is not the first time MLK Scholars have seen a lack of communication and disorganization from the program. For the Washington D.C. Travel Colloquium — an opportunity to engage in service to other s —students expressed they did not know where they were staying or what community service they were doing until a few days before. Additionally, GLS sophomore Dianney Mascary believes the program’s discussion-based freshman seminar class does not meet the program’s goals in furthering the students’ service to others with applicable tools.
“I just feel like [as] a program founded in the name of Dr. Martin Luther King and that’s focused on activism, we should be doing more,” Mascary said. “They’re not really giving us the opportunity to be activists.”
MLK Scholars from prior cohorts express how NYU’s Board of Trustees slowly cut funding for the program long before the nationwide protests. Like the current freshman seminar, the discussion-based sophomore seminar with travel colloquia and programming used to exist for graduates prior to 2020.
“The year before the class of 2020, they stopped the sophomore seminar,” CAS 2020 Graduate Morgan Smith said. “There’s not a lot of structured programming to sustain active involvement in being an MLK Scholar as you continue your time at NYU […] I wish it had been a little bit more structured for upperclassmen because the feeling of community, in a sense, dissipated.”
Scholars agree that the program having adjunct professors and administrators, who have other responsibilities, contributes to its lack of transparency. Tisch junior Deborah Shonack told WSN her 2018 admittance email and website specifies the scholarship award is renewable for four years (eight-terms) of study. Now, the program’s administrators and financial aid office are telling her they will not cover her senior year because her double major goes over 128 credits. Shonack told WSN the credit-limit is not found on the MLK Scholar’s website.
“[My advisor] told me at some point financial aid decided that I had to graduate by May 2021 and the option of getting my aid extended was low, if anything, which I found strange because nobody told me that,” Shonack said. “I find it contradictory that NYU says it’s expanding the program and aid and wants to support MLK Scholars while simultaneously forcing me to graduate early because without my scholarship, I can’t afford to take classes senior year.”
Savarese sent an email on July 22, 2020, to address scholarship funding, plans for a working group, hiring a full-time director, and crafting a new Common Application question geared toward the program. The program sent emails to some scholars on July 25, 2020, with some having renewable increases up to $20,000, while others received emails stating they were “not eligible” due to “limited funding.” While scholars told WSN that they are grateful for a response, they believe those emails would not have been sent without their own activism — the open letter.
George believes NYU needs to focus more on education rather than behaving like a business.
“We want NYU to know that we see through their words. NYU continually shows us that it is a business before it is a school,” George said. “I saw no difference between NYU saying Black Lives Matter and every other brand who said we’re not racist, please continue to buy our products. As far as I’m concerned, NYU owes us reparations.”
For more information, the Carrd site consolidates the open letter, google form for signatories, student testimonials, and an email template demanding administrators to deliver on the Memo’s promises. In response to NYU’s inaction, students created the Instagram account @nyufundmlk which features a video released July 23, 2020, highlighting their message.
Email Roshni Raj at [email protected]