Cover Letter

Illustration by Oscar Bray

NYU’S Decision to Cancel Study Aways is Hypocritical

NYU has treated the study away experience, supposedly the bedrock of the Global Network, as the most expendable aspect of its operations.

Oct 11, 2020

On Oct. 6, a characteristically long and confusing email from the NYU Office of Global Programs sent shockwaves through the NYU Abu Dhabi student community. It read like an advertisement for NYU’s Go Local program, with several sentences extolling the virtues of an obviously discriminatory policy. Meanwhile, the decision to cancel study away for the Spring 2021 semester, a decision that removes an intrinsic and fundamental aspect of the Global Network experience, was relegated to a short throwaway line in the email. Unfortunately, there can be no greater metaphor for the apathy and irrationality with which NYU approached this decision.
There are no easy decisions during a pandemic and no institution should be faulted for prioritizing public health. Indeed, NYU would like us to believe that the institution falls in the latter category. But such claims fall apart when one looks at the university’s actual implementation of a hodgepodge of different schemes, where supposed public health concerns apply differently to different groups of students. If the university has decided to be extra cautious when it comes to study away semesters, it has also simultaneously decided to treat the virus with Trumpian disdain when it comes to its other operations. In the same email, the Office of Global Programs indicated that the “plan is to offer courses in person at all the global sites and degree-granting campuses, provided local laws and rules permit it.”
In New York, this will likely mean the arrival of thousands of international students. Like most study away hopefuls, most international students will require visas. Like most study away students, they will come from different parts of the globe. Like many study away students, they will be young adults experiencing New York City for the first time during a global pandemic. In such a case, what could be a compelling rationale to exclude study away students and include all international NYU students? Perhaps the university has access to a private epidemiological model which indicates that an NYUAD or NYU Shanghai student studying away in New York is more likely to contract the virus than an international student studying at their “home campus.” But in the absence of access to such clairvoyance, one can only question the decision.
To add another layer of hypocrisy to this fiasco, the university has also chosen to extend the blatantly illogical Go Local program, which allows local residents to study at locations where they do not require a student visa. It assumes that student visas, rather than public health concerns, are the primary impediment to study away. This is frankly absurd at a time when most major study away locations, including New York, London and Florence, come under jurisdictions that have resumed the issuance of new student visas during the pandemic. In fact, some NYUAD students were even able to obtain visas for the fall semester itself and are currently studying abroad in New York.
Thus, for no compelling reason, the university has decided to provide students with privileged passports, mostly from the West, with access to study away opportunities that were denied to everyone else. The color of one’s passport has always determined how much one can engage with the Global Network. But now, NYU has effectively set up an institutionalized mechanism to entrench this discrimination.
This hypocrisy was evident in the fall semester itself, as explained by this article. At the time, however, one could have argued that the university deserved some benefit of the doubt. The Go Local program seemed like an imperfect yet practical solution in a world where there was little clarity on visa restrictions. It also helped reduce the density of students on portal campuses. But now, the Office of Global Programs has had at least six months to prepare for the spring semester. They had six months to ensure the issuance of student visas, as they will likely do for international students at NYU. They had six months to come up with a policy that did not discriminate based on passport strength. And at the very least, they had six months to write a clear and empathetic email that adequately reflected the gravity of the situation.
The repercussions of this decision will not be limited to idealistic global leaders desiring an authentic study away experience. It will also reverberate for faculty and staff across the Global Network, especially at smaller sites. What will happen to NYU London’s instructors or NYU Accra’s staff? Has their employment been secured, or will they also receive a pithy email imploring them to be excited about “Go Local”?
Perhaps the cruelest irony of this entire fiasco is that the crisis could have been an opportunity for NYU to reaffirm its commitment to the Global Network as a means of tackling global challenges. By maintaining the network during the pandemic — a global challenge par excellence — they could have ensured that the experiences of students across the network would also remain truly global. After all, this was the approach of NYUAD’s administration which managed to accommodate a significant number of students from across the globe on campus, a task arguably as logistically complex as restarting the study away program.
Instead, NYU has treated the study away experience, supposedly the bedrock of the Global Network, as the most expendable aspect of its operations. The study away program was abandoned first, with the abrupt closure of study away sites in Feb. and March and it will be resurrected last, hopefully in the Fall 2021 semester. When push came to shove with a genuinely global challenge, the university’s lofty rhetoric about its commitment to the global network turned out to be just that: rhetoric.
It is easy to see the pandemic as a once in a generation event; a bump in the smooth road to John Sexton’s utopia. But this is an epoch in which once in a generation events occur annually. The possibilities will be imperiled by the worst global recession since World War II. Geopolitical tensions will threaten the future of some study away sites and portal campuses. The rise in majoritarianism and nativism poses an existential threat to the inherently international nature of this institution. If the Global Network University is to survive these challenges, it will require exceptional leadership and more importantly, a deep commitment to the values that underlie this institution. If this crisis is any indication, NYU’s current leadership is not up to the task.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Managing Editor. Email him feedback at
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