New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Editorial: NYU must reckon with its actions at Gould Plaza

The arrests at Gould Plaza three days ago are proof NYU has failed to engage with its community.
Samson Tu
(Samson Tu for WSN)

For several months now, student and faculty protesters have been caught in a constant back-and-forth with NYU. Dozens or even hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators would set up protests on campus, often demanding that the university divest from companies with ties to Israel and close its program in Tel Aviv — and NYU would repeatedly ignore their calls. 

But, as most of campus undoubtedly knows, tensions between protesters and the university came to a head Monday evening, when police arrested 120 protesters at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on Gould Plaza under NYU’s authorization. On the scene, protesters were pushed to the ground and shoved by New York City Police Department officers as they were zip-tied and arrested. A WSN photographer documenting the event was also pepper-sprayed by a police officer, unprovoked.

That NYU’s leadership, faced with one of the largest protest movements on campus in its history, chose to deeply involve law enforcement in campus affairs and allow police to silence students and faculty shows an undeniable disconnect between the university and its community. The administration’s response to the encampment revealed a university that is afraid of its students and faculty, not one that is listening to them.

The images and videos of arrests circulating on social media and in news outlets depicted an upsetting reality: that NYU has caused harm to many of those it is meant to protect, and severed its trust with the university community. That the chair of the student government — the liaison between students and the administration — has said as much should raise alarms for senior leadership, and push it to do a better job of communicating with the student body.

Perhaps concerned over becoming more of a national spectacle — like some of its peer universities that have also had encampment protests on campus — NYU appears to have prioritized its image over its community on Monday. The university has been more proactive at preventing these protests from continuing than some other schools, going as far as to put up a wall of wooden boarding between Gould Plaza and West Fourth Street. 

NYU’s actions suggest it intends to avoid dayslong encampments full of reporters from the nation’s most influential outlets on its campus, and scrutiny from the federal government. The police activity reported near the protest throughout the day is further proof of this; NYU appears to want to present itself as proactive in addressing dissent on campus, but in doing so it has alienated a large part of its community and made productive dialogue with protesters all the more challenging.

Diverging accounts of what occurred on Monday have emerged, with the university saying protesters defied Campus Safety directions and urged protesters — many of whom it said appeared to be unaffiliated with NYU — on the street to cross through the barricades in front of the plaza, and various student and faculty groups saying there were no non-NYU affiliates being allowed to enter the plaza. Protesters have also said the encampment was peaceful, and that they were taking part in a Passover Seder and Maghrib prayer prior to the arrests. NYU, on the other hand, has called them “​​disorderly, disruptive and antagonizing,” and said there had been reports of various antisemitic incidents at the event. 

But rather than investigate reports of these incidents and allow peaceful protesters to continue their demonstration — what would make sense, as NYU advertises student activism as a way to “help create a better world” during college — the university punished all protesters and effectively chilled free expression and academic freedom, despite hailing those ideas as “bedrock principles” of NYU in a universitywide email on Monday.

In its email response to the encampment protest, the university also failed to acknowledge the harm it has done to students and faculty, only briefly mentioning the arrests while placing a larger focus on safety concerns as a result of the encampment. While safety is of course a primary concern, NYU’s response should have prioritized the safety of its entire community — any other approach constitutes a failure of the university to fulfill its most basic responsibility to students and faculty.

NYU could continue to send out more statements and increase law enforcement presence on campus, and it could continue to try to justify its actions on Monday, leading to an unending cycle of university disregard for student and faculty dissatisfaction. But if NYU wants to uphold its ideals and address its failures, it must admit to the harm it caused at Gould Plaza, and find ways to engage with activism on campus that encourage, rather than shutter, the free exchange of ideas on campus.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. Opinions expressed in the house editorial reflect the views of WSN’s Editorial Board.

Contact the Editorial Board at [email protected].

About the Contributor
Samson Tu
Samson Tu, Magazine Managing Editor
Samson Tu is finishing his B.A. degree in politics with a thesis on the state of civil society development in the People's Republic of China. Synthesizing his experience in journalism and training in politics, Samson is going to attend the NYU School of Law after his undergraduate to study intellectual property law. Samson attempts to make sense of Heidegger and Sartre or edits photographs on his 15-hour flight between New York and Taipei. He always prefers the flights to New York. Send an email to [email protected] for ideas about WSN's monthly magazine issues!
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