Volume 74, Number 20 | September 15 - 21 , 2004

Talking Point

Time for N.Y.U. to switch the script

By Allen Salkin

N.YU. has changed its tune — but not quite enough.

In an Op-Ed in The New York Post in March after the fourth suicide of the academic year at the school I criticized school officials for their shameful efforts to put a P.R. spin on the mounting tragedies. In their pronouncements, N.Y.U.’s leaders were clearly more concerned with protecting the school’s imperial business aims than with expressing heartfelt sorrow.

I singled out Marc Wais, vice president for student affairs, and John Beckman, a spokesman who tried to manipulate statistics to show that the rash of deaths was not what it is: a suicide epidemic. For asking these officials at the school where I then taught to show more heart, I was disparaged by Beckman. He told The Villager that my criticism “barely deserves a response.” The student-run Washington Square News ran a letter attacking the Post’s coverage and calling my piece “ridiculous.”

A month later I was told that I was not being offered a teaching job this fall despite glowing evaluations from students. A professor in the journalism department told me I was not rehired because there were fewer classes being offered and I lacked seniority. Ironic then that my journalism efforts here in the real world seem to have had a real effect on the way some at N.Y.U. are handling the latest sad death, this one of Joanne Michelle Leavy, a graduate film student who took her own life less than a week after another student at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts died from still-undetermined causes.

In his e-mail to the campus community Wais struck a far different tone than he took last spring. This time he noted immediately his own “deep sorrow” and how this death “tears at our collective heart.” Yes. This is how I, who still consider myself part of the N.Y.U. community, feel. I know it is how others, students, professors, janitors and gardeners, feel. Good for Wais for having the courage to change. How terrible that he had the opportunity to show it so soon.

The same praise cannot be heaped on spokesman Beckman, the P.R. professional. His latest quotes in local newspapers show him back to his old form. In the Times, the first words the reader sees from him are, “These two deaths are not related…” before moving on to what reads as necessary boilerplate from a paid mouthpiece, a vow to strengthen “our resolve to do all we can to insure the well-being of all our students.”

N.Y.U. is to be lauded for its extensive efforts to improve mental health resources and to reach out to the entire student population, off-campus and on, to make them aware of these resources. But Beckman’s every quote reeks of a university culture more concerned with reaching N.Y.U. President John Sexton’s stated goal of being one of a handful of leading universities in the world than with the less sexy task of nurturing the young and vulnerable minds of its current students.

It may be that N.Y.U. is the victim of circumstances over which it has no control. These suicides may not be the university’s fault in any way.

I just wish the attitude of Beckman and others did not make me worry that there is something in the culture of N.Y.U.’s leadership that is to blame.

Salkin, a former New York Post reporter, formerly taught journalism at N.Y.U.

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