Date: September 10, 2020
TO: The NYU Community
FROM: NYU President Andrew Hamilton

Dear NYU Community Members,

As a provost, a vice-chancellor, and now a president, I have written a good number of start-of-year September greetings. This year’s will certainly stand apart.

For one, I have been struck by how quiet the start of 2020-2021 has been. Normally, that might be a source of concern; this year, it is a point of pride. It signifies that many students and faculty have availed themselves of the flexibility we built into this year’s academic program and are studying or teaching remotely. It also indicates what care people are taking in following the new health and safety rules. And as students have undertaken quarantine, moved into our residence halls, undergone COVID-19 testing, settled in to study at the tables beside the Library atrium, or simply found a place to sit around Washington Square, I have observed conscientious mask-wearing and physical distancing, and groupings that have been small and consciously well-spaced. Our Public Health Ambassadors, who have so commendably stepped forward to give emphasis to our health and safety practices, report much the same.

Yet in the public discourse about restarting classes at colleges and universities, there is a strong tone of doubt – that college students cannot be relied upon to do what is required to act safely. NYU has already suspended more than 20 students this semester. And events like this past weekend’s gathering in Washington Square Park, with troublingly spotty physical distancing and mask-wearing, tend to amplify that skepticism, because it appeared to be just that sort of gathering that has sparked COVID-19 outbreaks at other universities.

But there is more to the story than that. Not only is it unclear how many in the crowd were actually NYU students, but the overall student reaction was also very telling: overwhelming criticism, not approval, of those who ignored good COVID-19 health practices. This reflects an understanding that a small number of people acting indifferently can alter the course of the whole semester for thousands of others. To me, the widespread disapproval demonstrates that the center of gravity on campus is an embrace of safe practices, care for others, and concern about disrupting our academic program. While the University will continue to enforce its safety rules, including using appropriate penalties, in the long run it will be the kind of standard-setting that we see most students insisting upon that will prove to be the more potent, effective, and far-reaching instrument for keeping each other safe.

For this generation of students — already grappling with the pressing challenges of inequality, inequities in our criminal justice system, racism, political divisiveness, climate change — COVID-19 is a particularly tough test. Nevertheless, when I look at NYU’s students — young people who study hard, focus on their goals, build impressive records of achievement, apply themselves to problems, push for social justice and change — I see precisely the kind of perseverance and self-discipline that earlier generations have summoned to confront the difficulties of their time. I believe our students today are no less capable than previous generations of rising to what is being asked of them.

That is all to the good, because we will need to be diligent. We should be part of the effort to maintain the hard-won progress New York has made in reducing coronavirus transmission. The strict guidelines for COVID infections at colleges set by New York State reinforce that.

As I wrote last month to faculty members, administrators, and staff who have worked so hard to prepare NYU for the fall semester — notwithstanding the many hardships in their own lives — I wish I could tell you with certainty when things will be better, when we can readily and easily enjoy one another’s company around a table, or give a hug of encouragement or a handshake of greeting. I cannot.

But I can tell you that we have done a great deal of work over the summer to prepare for this semester; that we have solid safety and health plans in place in which we can have confidence; that our faculty are as committed to the research enterprise and the education of our students this semester as any other; that we are prepared to take whatever additional steps are required to keep our community safe; and that whatever hurdles we encounter — and there will certainly be some — we will face them together, drawing strength and courage from one another.

I hope that you and all those in your lives are coping well. I thank you for your steadfastness, forbearance, and community-mindedness, and wish you the best of luck with all your academic endeavors in this most unusual year. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay strong.


Andrew Hamilton