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/ February 22, 2012
Occupy Student Debt Campaign Protested NYU 2031 Yesterday

Yesterday afternoon, two towers were erected on Gould Plaza outside of Stern. Precariously built out of cardboard boxes in about two minutes, these towers cost little more than the price of the paint that was used to decorate their exteriors. The buildings that they were supposed to represent, on the other hand, will take the next nineteen years—until 2031—to be completed. At an estimated cost of $6 billion, these real, non-cardboard buildings are a great deal more controversial than the ones that were made by piling boxes on top of one another.

The Occupy Student Debt Campaign, a subcommittee of the Education and Empowerment working group out of Occupy Wall Street, brought the issues of student debt and NYU’s 2031 plan together yesterday when they held a rally to draw attention to the financial aspects of the expansion. The Campaign, launched back in November, is based on the four principles of free public higher education: zero-interest student loans, fiscal transparency at private universities, and the writing-off and forgiveness of student debt.

It consists of three pledges: the debtors’ pledge of refusal, the faculty pledge of support, and the non-debtors’ pledge. According to its website, the debtors’ pledge of refusal, which currently has 3,189 signatures, is “a nonbinding promise to withhold loan payments after a critical mass of refusers has signed on.” Essentially, it is a threat of a debt strike, and it is meant to call attention to the number of students who are already defaulting on their student loans because they are unable to pay them back. A total of 4,495 people have signed the three pledges so far.

Together with GSOC, NYU’s graduate student union, and NYU4OWS, the Occupy Student Debt Campaign expressed its opposition to the plan and to its likely result of increased student debt through a series of People’s Mic speeches yesterday. Between chants of, “It’s time to stop the plan!” and, “NYU, we won’t let you keep building off our debt!” a mix of students and professors, including members of NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, stood among the cardboard boxes and spoke of NYU’s injustices towards the members of its community.

There is already opposition to the expansion plan from members of both the NYU community and the community in which NYU is located, but the Occupy Student Debt Campaign is approaching it from an angle that emphasizes the very tangible effect that it will have on students. “The amount of money that NYU’s spent so far in mounting its campaign to have the rezoning and other ordinances approved by the city council has come from the general operating budget—student tuition,” said Andrew Ross, a member of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and an NYU professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. “And since the administration will not provide any of its own accounting of how they’re going to pay for this $6 billion project, our reasonable estimate is that student debt will be the most likely source of the revenue. It’s the only revenue stream that NYU has that it can depend on.”

Going back to one of the Campaign’s original four principles, it seemed that the root of the problem was NYU’s lack of transparency. Without any concrete answers from the administration about where exactly this $6 billion is coming from, the speakers repeatedly returned to this overriding issue. “NYU lacks any sort of fiscal transparency, like most private universities. We don’t know exactly how they’re planning to fund everything, but we can only assume that debt is key,” said Stuart Schrader, a PhD student in American Studies and an organizer with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign.

As with anything related to the expansion plan, members of the community came out to express their disapproval and show solidarity with other protest efforts. Joining the crowd of almost 100, they cheered as organizers piled the cardboard boxes, which were labeled with “NYU 2031” and “$6 BN,” on top of one another, literally constructing a building out of student debt. If these efforts are successful, those towers will be the only buildings to have that label.