SLAM blasts N.Y.U. on tuition critic’s treatment

Robert Aschermann, a SLAM organizer, speaking at the Sept. 18 protest.   Photo by Yannic Rack

Robert Aschermann, a SLAM organizer, speaking at the Sept. 18 protest. Photo by Yannic Rack

BY YANNIC RACK   |  Students at New York University staged a sit-in two weeks ago to protest the university’s alleged retaliation against a debt-laden student.

Nia Mirza, a freshman from Pakistan, was promised a housing exemption to offset the cost of studying at the university’s Washington, D.C., campus, allowing her to move in with relatives in Virginia instead of living in student housing.

But when she requested a change to her living arrangements, asking if she could move in with a cousin who lives much closer to the campus, administrators told her to immediately move to N.Y.U. housing or withdraw from the university.

The school’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) staged the protest on Sept. 18 to call attention to what it charges is unfair treatment and “retaliation” against Mirza, based on the fact that she started a petition against N.Y.U.’s whopping tuition fees earlier this year.

“I’ve had three friends drop out in the midst of fighting the student debt campaign,” Robert Aschermann, a senior and one of SLAM’s organizers, said at the protest. “And I’m not about to see a fourth good friend of mine drop out because N.Y.U. doesn’t care about us.

“We want N.Y.U. to remedy this situation,” he said. “If they’re so insistent that freshmen live on campus, give Nia free housing. If they don’t want to give her a $10,000 discount, then allow her to live with her family.”

In an abrupt U-turn, the university has now offered to allow Mirza to apply for financial aid to meet her housing costs.

“The dean called me and clarified some stuff, starting with that I’ll be required to live on campus, and secondly that — since affordability was the problem — I would need to file an appeal and they would try their level best to meet my needs,” Mirza said in a phone interview last week, adding that she was, however, still wary of the university.

“I think that because of the pressure, yes, my issue might be resolved. But I would expect them to do the same with me and other students in the future.”

Mirza’s problems with the school started even before she began studying there.

In a petition that has collected around 5,500 signatures so far, she detailed how the tuition figure she was quoted before enrolling at N.Y.U. suddenly went up after students paid the enrollment deposit — meaning the cost of her first year of college jumped to $71,000, several thousand dollars more than her family had put aside.

“This happened when ‘early decision’ students had taken the decision to enroll and withdrawn applications from other schools, as the decision was binding,” she wrote in the petition.

SLAM argues that the school’s backtracking on Mirza’s housing exemption was retaliation for her comments about the high tuition costs. On Fri., Sept. 18, around 25 students who had gathered for the protest negotiated with an administrator to gain access to the university building at 726 Broadway, where they planned to stage a sit-in in the office of Beth Haymaker, the school’s director of global programs.

The students were eventually allowed into a meeting with the university’s dean of liberal studies, Fred Schwarzbach, and John Beckman, N.Y.U.’s chief spokesperson, instead.

“We talked a lot about student debt, and how N.Y.U. talks about being a place for everyone and diversifying, but not being able to make sure that [those students] are staying in,” Ascherbach said afterward. “They wouldn’t talk a lot about Nia’s case.”

Beckman said later that the accusation of retaliation against a student was “complete hogwash” and that the university generally denies requests for exemptions to the housing policy — in fact, he said, it only granted a single exemption to the freshmen-housing rule over the last three years.

“N.Y.U. doesn’t retaliate against students because they seek additional financial aid or policy exemptions,” he said. “Thousands of students every year do that, and common sense should tell us that the fact that N.Y.U. cannot always honor every request is not retaliation.”

Although Beckman noted that federal law prohibits colleges from speaking about a particular student’s circumstances, he offered a hypothetical explanation.

“If the university found itself in the position in which an administrator had incorrectly told a student that living in N.Y.U. was not mandatory…in such a case, we might try to honor our mistake by granting an exemption, but only if that exemption were in line with our regular standards, including living with a close relative,” he said.

“If the student’s living circumstances changed, the exemption would no longer be valid, and the student would be expected to live in N.Y.U. housing, as is clearly required.”

Beckman also noted many colleges — like Amherst, University of Chicago, Yale and Stanford — require freshmen to live in campus housing.

But Ascherman wasn’t convinced.

“They say this wasn’t a case of retaliation, which just proves our point even more — that N.Y.U. doesn’t care about students at all, because this is how they treat the average case,” he said. “We would hope that this is retaliation because the scenario is so bad. The fact that it’s the normal operations of this university is horrifying.”

Students at the rally also raised more general concerns about the high cost of attending N.Y.U., one of the country’s most expensive colleges.

“This is zooming in on a larger issue, which is that N.Y.U. is unaffordable in its housing, in its tuition, and there’s also a lack of jobs,” Ascherman said.

SLAM is working to increase wages for students who do part-time administrative work for the university, demanding they be paid $15 an hour — much like fast-food workers, who will soon earn the same amount across New York after years of labor protests.

As for Mirza, she said her personal victory would not have been possible without the organized support of her fellow students.

“I owe 90 percent of this to SLAM and 10 percent to my own effort,” she said. “I’m very happy, and I’m convinced that the university is going to help me. But I also feel they’re inconsistent.”

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