Approximately an hour into the first Town Hall meeting of the semester with university president John Sexton, there was an outburst from a girl sitting in the crowd. “Mic Check!” Scattered members of the audience abruptly chanted back in unison, “Mic Check!” NYU Stands with Occupy Wall Street (NYU4OWS) had come prepared with an entirely different agenda for the meeting.
Using the People’s Mic, members of NYU4OWS recited sentence fragments that were repeated back by the rest of the group to an audience of bewildered students and appalled staff members: “We are outraged with NYU’s connection to investors responsible for the current financial collapse!” “We are standing in solidarity with students and workers worldwide to fight for the right to education.” “Those of us who do have the privilege to afford an education continue to stand in solidarity with students worldwide.”
As soon as the initial shock dissipated, smartphones popped up around the room as students scrambled to record the scene. Sexton’s expression started at confusion, made a brief stop at amused, and finally settled on annoyed.
The protesters composed about a quarter of the students in attendance. “Today we also stand in solidarity with the residents of Greenwich Village whose concerns and disapproval of domestic expansion were also ignored by this administration,” they continued. Sexton chuckled to himself, as if entertained that this is how the subject of the Village expansion finally came up.
Outbursts from the protesters became increasingly distasteful. The protesters shouted over Sexton and cut him off whenever he attempted to quiet them down. Some of the comments made by various protesters even incited negative reactions from their fellow NYU4OWS members: “Are you equating us to terrorists by saying we “hijacked” the meeting?” one protestor asked. Another implied that the number of study abroad sites offered by NYU was a subliminal racist jab and a reference to the 100 names of Allah (a fact that Sexton had to correct—the protester got it wrong).
The protesters fell silent for a few minutes as Sexton was able to return to a student’s inquiry about financial aid. When the Student Senate chairperson noted that there was a process in place for expressing concerns and that utilizing that channel would give remarks more legitimacy, the NYU4OWS protesters “Mic Check”ed again.
“What avenue is there when you filter our questions through your [expletive] fishbowl?” one speaker asked. Then turning on the mediator said, “You’re a tool.” Most of the protestors then got up and silently left the room.
The Chairman of the Student Senate who mediated the meeting refused to comment on what had occurred. However John Beckman, Vice President for University Relations and Public Affairs, took a minute to comment on the meeting:
“I’ve gone to virtually every one of John’s town halls over the last ten years—since he’s been President—and a lot of them have had tough questions and I’ve never seen John fail to answer anybody’s tough questions. So, I think what disappointed me about the display at this Town Hall meeting was that there was absolutely no interest in hearing what he had to say. It was really just an episode of one person wanting to talk over somebody else. We’re a university, we are one of the last places in our society where you can really find the time and space to have thoughtful discussion about something. We don’t really need to talk over one another. It’s not talk radio, it’s not partisan TV. I believe that it was born of real desire on the part of the people who participated in it to be heard and to see issues that were important to them addressed. But I think it was an unfortunate way of going about it.”
The senior faculty members in attendance were evidently shaken by the outburst. Several security guards who had been standing outside the door to the meeting room had stepped inside at the sound of the ruckus.
“What concerned me the most,” Beckman continued, “was that we’re in a setting where the president of the university has made himself available to ask questions. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just pose the question and wait for the answer. It’s perfectly fine to disagree with or dismiss it. That’s how it works sometimes. In a university, we can afford to listen to each other.”
The meeting proceeded more or less normally after the impromptu occupation of Kimmel 808 dispersed. Still, an intensely awkward feeling continued to linger in the room. When the meeting was finally over, the “occupation” seemed an unnecessary outburst done in poor taste.