When I received President Andrew Hamilton’s email discussing NYU’s current financial situation last week, I expected it to contain the usual insistence that the administration is doing its best to support the NYU community and to praise the community’s resilience through a chaotic time.
Instead, my needs as a lower income student during a pandemic — and the needs of thousands of other NYU students — were thrown in my face. The email didn’t even acknowledge how devastating the pandemic has been for students before it began citing expenses related to sustaining the NYU community as the primary factors that have put NYU in a supposedly unsustainable financial position.
While NYU touts its diversity and the number of Pell Grant recipients it accepts each year, Hamilton’s latest email suggests that NYU does not want to actually support low income students when it isn’t convenient for it to do so.
COVID-19 has had a significant financial impact, especially on schools. As social distancing guidelines have shut down in-person operations, most institutions — including NYU — have lost millions in refunds to students for services that are no longer available, including housing and meal plans. Some schools have also had significant shares of their reserves wiped out as a result of COVID-19’s impact on the stock market. These are not expenses that institutions could have foreseen, and I understand that COVID-19 has cost NYU a noteworthy amount.
That being said, the email should have communicated the financial fallout of COVID-19 without implying that the expenses of students in need are to blame. Instead, the message immediately details how refunding students for housing, meal plan and course-related fees, flying students home from study away sites and providing students with emergency aid have left NYU in an unsustainable financial position. In doing so, the administration shifted the blame onto students for needing financial assistance during a crisis. These are the same students NYU has repeatedly pointed to as proof of its commitment to financial diversity.
As the university blames those in need, it fails to reflect on its own outrageous spending practices. NYU has loaned administrators money for vacation homes and spent billions gentrifying Greenwich Village even when students have protested the university’s expansion. President Hamilton himself makes over $1.5 million a year, not including his yearly bonus. For NYU to point to student-related expenses as the chief cause of its financial troubles is to blatantly disregard its continued commitment to pouring billions into overpaying the administration and investing in real estate.
NYU’s financial situation isn’t completely clear, since the university refuses to release a full financial report. But the university’s 2017 tax returns reveal that NYU has chosen to pay administrators millions and underfund vital student resources. Student needs have not been NYU’s financial priority until the administration needed to cast blame for their current struggles.
Because of COVID-19, I don’t know when I will be able to work again, or how I will continue to afford vital services like therapy without a solid income — and I’m lucky enough to not have to worry about having a roof over my head and groceries in my pantry. But many students and employees at NYU find themselves not only worried about their own finances and job prospects, but dealing with rapidly changing family financial situations as well. Several of my classmates don’t know if they can afford to come back to NYU next year due to the impact that the pandemic has had on their finances.
Regardless of how much money NYU has lost during COVID-19, the fact remains that the university continues to pay administrators high salaries while presidents of other institutions take pay cuts to save money. To write a statement complaining about being in a difficult financial situation not only overlooks the actions NYU could take to improve its situation beyond blaming students, but it demonstrates gross insensitivity to the financial strain that many students are enduring right now.
I can’t say whether NYU’s financial situation is as desperate as it made it out to be in the email, but I do know that complaining about finances and blaming student-related costs while sitting on a multi-billion dollar endowment and paying administrators millions overlooks the needs of low income students and their families right now. NYU can tout its commitment to affordability and brag about its low income student population all it wants, but by publishing statements that blame student needs for causing financial strain during a crisis without acknowledging the impact on students themselves, it reveals that it’s grudging to actually offer low income students the financial support they need when it comes down to it.
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Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]nyunews.com.