Part 1: The Occupation Begins
On November 16, the part-time faculty union of The New School in New York City went on strike to advocate for increased compensation and protection of benefits. Classes were cancelled over the three-and-a-half-week strike, as part-time, untenured professors make up almost 90 per cent of the university’s faculty. Twenty-two days into the strike, students from The New School announced their occupation of the University Center building on the picket line.
During the strike, some students reached out to the group Student Faculty Solidarity (SFS), which had been coordinating student support for the strike, and raised the idea of an occupation. “The actual heavy lifting work of figuring out how it would look happened about two days before” Sam*, one of the students who approached SFS, said in an interview with the Daily. “As soon as [the occupation] started, it was a matter of, well, now it’s not up to us because we’re just the catalyst for this in a sense. We were shocked by the turnout.” Sam estimates that on the first night, approximately 100 students slept over, and over the nine days of the occupation, upwards of 1,000 students interacted with the occupation in one way or another.
The organizational practices of the occupation coalesced spontaneously, but they were informed by years of precedent. The New School has been the target of four previous student occupations since the first in 2008. “It kind of just happened, to be honest” said Sam. “The planning really went up to the point of going inside the building, and like the first hour inside. We were like, ‘this is the thing that we will figure out when we walk inside.’” Sam remembered that when they first went inside the University Center which they would be occupying, someone who had participated in previous occupations at the school asked, “When is general assembly?” Sam’s friend, who had participated in the 2018 occupation of the New School cafeteria explained that during that occupation students held a general assembly every evening. Sam recalls: “I remember thinking, ‘oh, that’s like … crazy’ or something. But cut to now – we had like two [general assemblies] every day for nine days. Some of them lasted like six hours plus.”
It was during one of these assemblies, from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. on Friday, December 9, that demands were proposed and discussed. The occupiers discussed one demand at a time until they reached a consensus. Then, at 11:00 p.m. the following Saturday, it was announced that the union and the administration had reached a tentative agreement, and the strike ended. “It was a very charged night,” said Sam. “The evening of getting the call and talking to the union people was very emotional and really complicated because it was a matter of feeling like we lost a really big moment to change a lot of things because it was already being resolved.”
A new, longer list of demands was finalized at 6:00 a.m. the next day. These demands reflected the changing situation now that the strike had come to a close. “We’re now in a situation where the students have grievances,” Kirk Anderson, a student at the New School, said in an interview with the Daily. “Their semester has been completely steamrolled. They’re really appalled by the university’s behavior. That stage of the occupation really became about students building community across campus, stepping up into leadership roles, and addressing some of the more systemic issues of the school.” These new demands encompassed immediate concerns like an updated grading policy for the semester of the strike, deadline extensions, a tuition and fee freeze, and more. There were also demands targeting structural issues like increased financial transparency; the resignation of the President, Provost, and Vice President; and the disbandment of the Board of Trustees. “We acknowledge that we need a board of trustees,” said Anderson. “We acknowledge that those trustees need to include wealthy investors. But we would prefer that those wealthy investors be vetted by the larger New School community. Ideally, they would be involved in education, and they couldn’t just be appointed or bought in – that the New School community could say, ‘no, we don’t like that person, get them out.’” Concerning increased transparency from the administration, Anderson commented: “We want meetings between students and leadership to be accessible to everyone and not be behind closed doors. And we want financial transparency and for the larger community to be involved in creating the budget and managing the budget.” Regarding upper administration, Anderson said: “President, provost, and vice president of operations would be elected by the community. It’s not necessarily pulling apart all leadership and administration and replacing it with a student governing body. But we want the community to be able to vote on who gets put in those positions and be able to recall them or reschedule that appointment.”
On Monday, December 12, occupiers held a vote of no confidence for the current administration and the Board of Trustees. Anderson estimates that roughly 500 people attended the event where the vote was held. This number included students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents. The vote coincided with the founding of the “One New School Coalition.”
“This vote, the successful founding act of this coalition, expresses that we have no confidence in this current administration and the trustees. We rather have confidence in ourselves as ONE NEW SCHOOL to continue the fight for returning the university to community self-governance,” reads the One New School website. Students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents participated in the vote, whic produced a result of 421 for and ten against.
“I think the way it operates now, it’s not an organization, it’s the school” said Sam. “It’s everyone who’s not an admin and who has a stake in this. It doesn’t really have clearly defined borders, and different people take it up and do things with it.”
“We’re still very much in the beginning of everything,” said Sam. “So it’s a matter of also figuring out what [One New School] looks like, and if it will dissolve very quickly because it served its purpose, or if it will solidify into what school will end up becoming.”
Part 2: Community and Solidarity
The occupation did not only consist of the general assemblies. Between these, occupiers were holding a variety of events, including musical performances, reading groups, panels, lectures from New School professors arranged by the graduate students of the New School for Social Research, visits from other New York City-based student activists groups, and more. “There were always more things happening than I knew were happening,” AJ Medeiros, a student at the New School, said in an interview with the Daily. Even though they had been among the the original planners of the occupation, they noted that “all of a sudden there’s like five things happening on the same day, at the same time, that I did not even know about.”
“It was cool because you really got this spirit of not needing to know anything to pull up into those spaces, and you really can just walk right in off the street,” said Medeiros. “This is, again, the advantage of the horizontal consensus model – everyone’s on the same page. We’re like, ‘yeah, no, we want you here. We’re going to let you in.’”
Medeiros talked about other advantages of a horizontal model – in which participants make decisions together without establishing an organizational hierarchy – describing how the fact that anyone with questions about the occupation and its objectives could have the opportunity to speak and could receive better answers to their questions: “The fact that it’s a more open space for communication allows those questions to get answered in a more full way.”
“It’s not really often, even in a seminar space, that you get as much space as you need to say what you need to say, and sometimes we go way off the map. And we’re there for that too, right?” Medeiros said. “There’s not a lot of places where you can walk in off the street, be handed a plate of food, and a microphone.”
“There were so many people from different schools that everyone was kind of using their thing to do some stuff,” Sebastian Johnson, a recent graduate of the New School’s Jazz program, said in an interview with the Daily. Like McGill, The New School is organized into multiple colleges and schools (the equivalent of faculties), and according to Johnson, there is not usually much cross-interaction between students in different schools.
“Most people are always just like, man, it’s really weird how there’s no community at [The New School],” said Johnson. He said many people realized for the first time that they were not unique in the fact that they did not know people from other schools. “Then [the occupation] pulled us all together. So there was a lot of cross interaction, and then that illuminated a ton about how [The New School] works because you really only had a good analysis of your own program and you really didn’t know of the school as a whole, or of other programs, and you suddenly got that.”
This new understanding between different segments of the school was not restricted to the student population. According to Johnson, most students rejected the idea that it was their professors’ fault that they were out of class for weeks: “Students deciding to go and support the faculty was a big shift in development of consciousness for a lot of us. All the faculty were always super surprised. They kept talking about how supportive students were,” said Johnson. “Support was really strong. And so I think when the strike ended, people participating already had this consciousness that there was this kind of solidarity. Anti-upper administration [sentiment] at New School is so high right now.” Johnson said that previously everyone had been complaining about their own problems with the administration and that, after, people came to understand how their issues were entwined with those of others at the university. “Suddenly it was like all students were exposed to what part-time faculty were dealing with and they were aware of what they were dealing with. And it just was kind of this realization that it was a shared issue, shared struggle.” When it came time to determine how the occupation would move forward, and after participants formed the One New School – which is meant to represent all non-administrative segments of the school instead of just the students – it did not feel like a strange concept. “I think that we were already all primed to be like, there has to be faculty student connection and solidarity because it was just already on our minds.”
Part 3: Student Space and Self-Reliance
The One New School’s founding statement reads: “The One New School Coalition — at its founding on December 12, 2022, amid increasing global labor mobilization — wishes to affirm confidence in ourselves, in each other, rather than the current University Leadership, and to bind us into an active political body, and to hold ourselves accountable for continuing the emergent struggle for a renewed, more just New School.”
Occupiers felt that “holding themselves accountable” meant more than just expressing a lack of confidence in the administration. It also meant creating spaces that the university’s leadership – for one reason or another – was not creating. In this process, there was a general focus on community building, education, and accessibility.
Johnson said that the goal of the occupation was to “make space which is way better than the space the university made” so that occupiers could communicate to the The New School (TNS) community: “‘Hey, look, we just made an amazing space with free food and community and teaching events and actually getting to talk to the crazy professors who teach here. We made that here and you can come and see it. The university can’t do that, but we can do that.” He said that rather than a purely subversive or disruptive action, the occupation became “almost the opposite.” He said many of the occupiers’ attitudes towards the administration was: “‘Okay, we’re just going to ignore you, and we’re going to use the space to just do something better here. Even though we don’t have the administrative power, we’re going to find ways that we can do stuff better or do our own thing here, with the goal of having people come to us because we’re doing it and you’re not.”
Making this kind of space within the occupation involved a lot of considerations. Medeiros talked about an increased level of community, openness, and consensus among students, as well as practical concerns like accommodations for disabled students. They explained that many disabled students who felt shortchanged by the university’s disability services led an effort to commit the occupation to greater inclusivity. This involved creating sensory rooms and establishing the practice of using hand signals to show agreement instead of clapping at occupation meetings.
Another important consideration was food accessibility. Free food was provided to occupiers through individual donations and funds from the student senate. Johnson explained how the focus on food accessibility tied into the larger problem of a lack of “spaces for community” at TNS. He described how the cafeteria in the University Center was really only used by students living in dorms, who are required to be on the meal plan, because it is prohibitively expensive. “The cafeteria should be [a space for community], but it’s not because nobody can go there.”
“We don’t have student spaces,” said Medeiros. “The only comparable [student space] – and it is not comparable – is the underground box that is like, the people of color students space, right? No one even knows that’s there.” Medeiros thinks the lack of space is caused by infrastructure and the fact that the school is located in downtown Manhattan. “Maybe a walkway between two buildings is the closest thing we have to a place to sit down and not be either in a classroom or on the sidewalk. Right? We can’t even sit on the stoops. Even that’s technically illegal.” They said students get so accustomed to the lack of space caused by infrastructure that they stop looking for spaces to call their own and assume they will not find any. “It becomes internal and we walk around with it. So even though it’s in the infrastructure, nobody thinks to maybe just turn any stair set into a place to hang out. Because it’s not something we’re thinking about as an option. We’re not thinking about the spaces [in the university] as ours even though we pay for them out of pocket.”
When asked if they believe it’s the TNS administration’s responsibility to provide those student spaces, they said: “Yes, it’s their responsibility, but will it be their work? Maybe not.” They pointed out that in some cases the administration should handle these issues – specifically requesting that the POC space be moved above ground – but they also emphasized the importance of students leading the charge on determining the spaces they need. “We can’t necessarily rely on upper leadership to understand the type of spaces that we need to get together in. I think there’s a lot of willingness to negotiate between student-led power and infrastructural moves from the administration. And I think a lot of those [negotiations] could be done by now, actually.”
The idea that the non-administrative TNS community can begin to achieve a new version of the university without waiting for the administration to enact change shaped the culture of the occupation, and it is also shaping future plans.
“One New School will now start conducting school like we believe school should be conducted,” said Sam. “That means making participatory processes for decision-making in classes, in entire departments, student and faculty involvement in curriculum building, transforming what the pedagogical structure looks like and where and how and what it means to do things.” The occupation demands, said Sam, to serve as a signal for how this process can begin, a “horizon of what we want the university to be.” While some of the document demands concessions from administration, “some of it is signalling to particular people in those positions to actually conduct those things, to do those things.” An example is the grading policy demand, which Anderson said initiated a process in which students and the part-time faculty union communicated with professors to encourage them to adopt the grading policy proposed by students. Of course, not every professor agreed, but many of them did.
As of now, the students feel that the occupation was a success, especially in raising consciousness, building a sense of community and solidarity between different parts of the university, instilling faith in their own potential, and creating a vision for a version of the New School that is more responsive to the needs of the community.
Medeiros described the experiece of having first-year students approach them to talk about the sense of community they felt at the occupation. “I never felt any semblance of community other than the ten people I know, at any point up until now. And I’ve been here for four years.” said Medeiros. “So that really touched me because I was like, ‘right, we’re also just trying to make a more complete life here.’” Of their time at the occupation, Medeiros said: “I didn’t intend to enjoy being a student so much. I like the idea of being an educator. If we made this sustainable, if this could be an actual way to live a life, I would love to be here.”
“It was more of an educational experience than I’ve gotten in four years of jazz school,” said Anderson. “I was put in a community where I was learning more and meeting more people and having the kind of university experience that is idealized when you imagine what it’s going to be like going to college, or when colleges tell you what it’s going to be like to come to their school. This is the ideal times ten. It was really overwhelmingly positive, and it’s such a stark contrast to the actual lived experience and reality of what it’s like to be at the university. And we made it happen without the administration. We used their building and that was it.”
He added: “I think whatever campus you’re at, there are way more opportunities for students to be involved, for students to come together. Maybe it’s true that it takes some kind of catalytic event like a strike or an occupation for that much involvement to happen, but there’s potential there that’s not being accessed. I think most schools have a student senate probably, but I think also most schools would acknowledge – like our school – that the student senate is kind of symbolic and they don’t really represent the needs and the desires of the student body, at least in a diverse sense. So there can be more participation and perhaps that’s a way to start. For me, it got the wheels turning of, like, ‘oh, it could be different. It doesn’t have to be this way.’”
*This name has been anonymized.