Column: Lucy Parks and the Movement Against Student Debt, Pt. II

By Emma Scoble

This is a continuation of a previous story, found here.

But who would be able to bring about such change right now? Specifically within NYU, the answer seems to point towards the Board of Trustees. However, repeatedly, through our discussion, I noticed a general distrust of NYU’s Board of Trustees. “We don’t really have hope of convincing the Board of Trustees. We know which companies the work for such as Fox News, Chase Bank…. Those are the two biggest red flags,” said Lucy. “[There are also] a lot of [trustees from] retail companies,” said Cayden, “which is questionable when NYU is the second largest private property owner in the city…and is looking at expanding.” Lucy continued, “Basically, we know that the people on the Board of Trustees are business men and their interests are not NYU and this is not their main job. We don’t really have much hope of convincing Sexton, the president who will come after him, or the high up admins because we have seen and watched the work they are doing.”

SLAM members expressed a wish that there would be professors would be on the Board or even simply a more diverse set of alumni who are not all successful business people. Blake mentioned, “70% of public [universities] have 1 or more students serving on their boards of trustees. We don’t have any—or any faculty members.” Thus, SLAM members feel that as far as the Board of Trustees are concerned—their pleas are falling on deaf ears, and the only option is to have all of the students on their side to force change.

Debt closet one finger

Photo courtesy of Lucy Parks

In all fairness, it is important to point out that the NYU Board of Trustees comprises about 70 members whose responsibilities are to create policy and strategic plans, review and implement programs, promote, and fund-raising for NYU.  All trustees are extremely successful in their professional fields, each thereby bringing expertise, knowledge, and powerful connections to the table. Because all of the board members already have well compensated, and time-consuming jobs and 80% of the board members are alumni, it can be assumed that these members want to contribute to their alma mater or to the advancement of youth in general. Part of SLAM’s distrust of the board appears to stem from a belief that the members may have conflicts of interest. However, as an outsider, it seems as though SLAM also feels a disconnect to the Board of Trustees because of a perception that the board is entitled comprised of wealthy conservatives who represent corporate and establishmentarian interests.

“At the end of the day,” said Cayden, “what SLAM is really doing is not reflected by our specific demands. We are finding ways to build power…we could be given all of these [demands] and have them taken away 5 years later unless we build a structure in which we shift the power dynamic in universities,” Cayden stated. Lucy continued, “[As students] we should be able to say, ‘these are our needs.’ And have them met…We need a more democratic system…There is a very long and inspiring tradition in the United States of student organizing groups being able to build power within universities.” Ultimately, SLAM wants to see a shift in power from administrators and the Board of Trustees to students and professors, reflected by an un-financially burdened student body and a higher paid staff of professors.

So, what has SLAM done to further their goals? Their facebook page, NYU Debt Stories has been exceedingly effective in furthering debt-awareness and combatting the perceived social taboo in talking about financial difficulty by offering an anonymous forum to share personal stories and struggles. “People are just a little emotionally constipated about debt. It pushes you down in a lot of ways and you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, let alone dealing with it. Debt Stories is trying to start a conversation. We have over 100 debt stories right now…Reading all of them will make you cry,” said Lucy. True enough, the page has flourished, especially in a student culture that so whole-heartedly embraced NYU Secrets. SLAM has also authored a pamphlet that describes how to deal with your own debt as well as information about the larger student debt problem.

However, SLAM’s most dramatic action was an act of performance art in the center of Bobst Library’s ground floor atrium during finals week last semester, timed between a class change for maximum viewership, “…the theme was ‘NYU tuition takes the clothes off of students backs.’ [One female SLAM member] stripped, [and] we had someone dress up as John Sexton…holding a sign that said “big business.” Someone representing NYU tuition yelled, ‘Time to pay your tuition!’ She took out some dollars from her pocket, [and] threw them on the floor. Tuition yelled, ‘More! More! It’s not enough!’ So, she threw her clothes on the floor until she was naked. We [made so much noise that] we filled the entirety of Bobst. There was quite a crowd…” explained Lucy while laughing. Blake added, “Everyone was one the staircases looking down at us like what the f*** is going on? [But,] the point of it was that it then led into [the delivery of] a letter [that] had our demands around student debt to the office of John Sexton on the 12th floor.” Will there be more naked protests? I asked. “Maybe, probably.” said Cayden with a smile.

To anyone who is in a similar position to Lucy’s, currently debating whether or not to drop out or take on loans and accrue more debt, Lucy said, “The main factors are what you’re studying and what you want to do with your life. Like, if someone wants to be a teacher, I would say, get your degree. Paying off your loans is going to suck, but you can’t do what you want to do without your degree. But for me, I can…be a political organizer and artist…without a degree…[You have to ask yourself…] is it worth the specifically NYU degree?” To this point, Cayden added, “It’s important to point out that education serves two purposes: employment credentialing and the pursuit of knowledge…” and iterated that one must ask themselves if dropping out or transferring means sacrificing personal fulfillment in intellectual pursuit and whether or not it is worth it.

To everyone else, indebted or otherwise, the conversation of student debt is fraught with taboo, frustration, and allegations of administrative corruption—and it does not have to be. Student debt has become a paramount problem, increasingly taking the center stage in national debates about the economic futures of our generation and those that follow. SLAM and its members have called attention to the inequalities in access to affordable, higher education, but that does not mean that they necessarily have all of the right answers to problems present in the current system of high education. What SLAM has done is have the courage to speak out and start the dialogue of change. Clearly, the university business model must change because higher education should help students get ahead, rather than saddling them with debt, even before they go out into the real world.

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