Student protesters at New York University called on the school to divest from companies that profit from fossil fuel. (Sarah Singh)

Student protesters at New York University who had refused to leave a university building overnight departed peacefully Tuesday after administrators warned them of potential disciplinary action.

Protesters said that they worried about the possibility of losing housing and financial aid after they stayed overnight in a student center and that their parents and emergency contacts were startled by phone calls from an administrator.

“We fully respect students’ right to exercise free speech and to protest a university position,” said John Beckman, an NYU spokesman. “But disrupting university operations is not the same thing as dissent, and it subjects students to disciplinary proceedings. The university told them repeatedly that it expected them to leave when the building closed at 11 p.m. and that they were welcome to return and resume their protest the following day, but that if they insisted on staying, they could be subject to university discipline proceedings.”

After a small group of students stayed overnight Monday, they were told the university would begin a discipline process. The protesters left the building Tuesday before it closed. On Wednesday, they were told that because they had not stayed another night, they would not be subject to discipline.

For several years, NYU Divest, a student group, has asked the private university’s endowment to divest for environmental reasons from companies that profit from fossil fuel.

“Although NYU Divest is not an official student group, the group was accorded multiple meetings with senior university officials — including the president — as well as with trustees during 2015-16,” Beckman said.

In 2016, the board of trustees responded to a resolution passed by the school’s University Senate: “There is agreement among members of the board that global warming is real and is a serious transnational problem. And there is no dispute by the board with the general consensus and the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion that human agency is at the heart of climate change,” the board’s chairman, William Berkley, and NYU President Andrew Hamilton wrote on behalf of the board of trustees.

They described efforts the university has made toward environmental sustainability and the conversations they had with representatives of the University Senate and NYU Divest. They wrote they had decided not to divest because they believe the university’s endowment should not be used for making statements and were not persuaded that such an action would have a significant impact.

The challenge of climate change is pressing, they wrote, and they would continue to seek areas where NYU could have “a more tangible impact.”

Students with NYU Divest and Student Labor Action Movement have continued to advocate for more transparency and a greater voice for students on the board, including a student trustee. Last week, protesters stayed in the admissions office, demanding that trustees hold a two-hour town hall led by students, that the board take another vote on divestment and that a student trustee be added to the panel.

When administration officials declined that demand, 19 students intensified their efforts by staying on the stairway of the Kimmel Center for University Life and remaining there overnight.


Some student protesters at New York University stayed overnight. (Photo by Alex Domb for the Washington Square News, the student newspaper, which first reported the story .)

“We were told we would be risking disciplinary action,” said Sarah Singh, a senior from New Jersey who is a member of NYU Divest. “We reiterated the fact that we were attempting to hold a trustee town hall.”

According to protesters, the 19 students were called in to student-conduct disciplinary meetings Tuesday, and they ended their protest. “After meeting with the office of student conduct, several students’ parents were called. . . . Students received panicked phone calls from parents,” Singh said. “Everyone occupying was over 18 and a legal adult, so we felt that was ludicrous on behalf of the university. We are working with different ally groups to spread our shock.”

Beckman said that NYU doesn’t punish students for free speech or dissent and that the school did not threaten students over their housing and financial aid. But he noted some types of discipline, such as suspension, could affect housing and financial aid.

“In line with our long-standing practice, we have let the students’ parents know that their sons’ and daughters’ status as students may be affected,” he said.