NYU’s mandatory ethics homework for student protesters includes ‘The Simpsons,’ Wikipedia

NYU is requiring students it says violated policy during recent protests over the war in Gaza to complete written assignments on character, morality and ethics, according to documents reviewed by Gothamist. And unless they successfully complete the work, the students were told that they could be banned from campus and have a disciplinary note on their transcripts.

The assignments include a five- to six-page “reflection paper” to be written by students in a specified font, with prompts like “what have you done or need still to do to make things right?” Students are asked to list “who was affected by the incident” that led to the disciplinary action, including “society as a whole” and “property.”

Other student protesters are being required to complete modules in a 49-page “Ethos Integrity Series” that seeks to teach them about “moral reasoning” and “ethical decision-making.” They must rank a list of 42 values, including patriotism, family, and security and safety, in order of importance to them.

NYU students who spoke to Gothamist said they were given the assignments at disciplinary hearings after the NYPD dropped charges against them for their involvement in recent protests and encampments on campus. They were found to have violated school policies, including for “antagonizing behavior” and unauthorized use of school spaces during the protests.

Several students who were instructed to complete the assignments told Gothamist they will file grievances or appeal the requirement, saying it amounts to a forced confession for actions they see as entirely ethical. A spokesperson for the university, which is holding its main graduation ceremony on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, said reflection on the experience is “a vital lesson.”

The disciplinary writing assignments have various due dates. Some students graduating this week said the assignments aren’t yet due and should not affect their ability to collect their diplomas.

Protests and encampments that have taken place at universities across the country have also roiled NYU as students and their allies demand that the university divest from companies associated with Israel, close its campus in Tel Aviv, and refrain from disciplining student protesters. On April 22, the NYPD forcibly removed the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at NYU’s Gould Plaza, leading to 133 arrests — about half of them of people affiliated with the university — according to NYU.

Most arrested students have had their criminal charges dropped, according to faculty supporters, but they now face sanctions from the university. There’s a political backdrop to the university’s approach: Congressional Republicans have threatened to take away federal funding from schools where protests were held.

NYU spokesperson John Beckman did not answer specific questions about the assignments but said in a statement: “Reflecting on the consequences of your actions is a vital lesson, which is why educational assignments in student discipline cases are common throughout higher education. These kinds of sanctions, which ask students to think about the impact of the choices they’re making, are often in lieu of suspension.”

Beckman added that the exercises were not created for this particular situation. They are among the most common sanctions used in the school’s student disciplinary processes. His said the point of the reflection papers is not to change students’ values, but to think about how their actions might impact the larger community.

But some NYU faculty say the sanctions require students to claim that their values don’t align with the protests they were arrested over.

NYU “didn’t think that calling the police on them really served to actually discipline them on a moral and ethical level, so this is how they are responding,” said Meira Gold, an assistant professor who is a member of NYU Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine. She described what students are being required to do as “false confessions” and called the written assignments an attempt at “re-education.”

“The students are being banned from justifying their actions, they’re being forced to just tell the university ‘here’s why we were wrong and you were right,’” she said. “It’s very fascist and authoritarian.’

Beckman said he was dismayed at some faculty members’ lack of support for the sanctions. “It’s very disappointing and very telling that [Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine] is treating them so dismissively,” he said.

In the Ethos Integrity Series modules, students are assigned outside reading on other entities’ ethical standards. The 49-page document includes links to a copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the website of the Boy Scouts of America, as well as broken links to the websites of companies Ernst & Young and KPMG. Students are also sent to Google’s “About” page, which doesn’t mention the word “ethics.”

“It’s written by corporate business people who are trying to teach students about morals and ethics,” Gold said. “It’s so ridiculous that they think they have some kind of moral superiority, when many of the students will point to capitalism as part of the evil here.”

Students are also directed to read the Wikipedia page for the Bible’s Ten Commandments and watch the “Lisa Gets An A” episode from “The Simpsons,” in which Lisa cheats on an exam.

A footnote indicates that the definitions for ethics in the document come from, run by an association called the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, which consults corporations. One student protester said the association has on its board an executive from Boeing, a military contractor criticized by protesters for supplying weapons used by Israel in Gaza.

The students spoke under the condition of anonymity, concerned that they could be punished further for speaking out.

One student said they were arrested after throwing a bag in front of a bus taking protesters to jail but their charges were eventually dropped. NYU then got the student’s name from the NYPD, they said.

“If I don’t submit this reflection essay, which is an incredibly patronizing reflection essay, they will not let me back on campus,” said the student, who graduates this week. The essay is due on May 18 and the student said they have “no intention of submitting it,” even though it will preclude them from attending campus events in the future.

One question on the reflection essay requires students to say whether their involvement in the incident that led to the disciplinary action “align(s) with your personal values.”

This student, who grew up in the Middle East and was given two days’ notice before the disciplinary hearing, had protested to demand that the university disclose its ties to institutions in Israel.

A doctoral student whose trespassing charge was dismissed and who now must submit a reflection paper said they were flagged because of their arrest record with the NYPD. The student was set to graduate on Wednesday and is filing a grievance with a graduate student union to object to the mandated essay. The student said the threat of a censure on their transcript, which school documents indicate is the punishment for not submitting the assignments, would be a “huge red flag” for admission into post-doctoral programs.

Another student said they are working with lawyers to appeal the decision, because the penalty of a ban from campus would prevent them from going to work at their on-campus job.

“These are in essence coerced confessions,” said professor Rebecca Karl, president of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which advocates for free speech on campuses. Karl said it was unclear who would evaluate summitted papers. And because students must write that their personal values conflicted with their participation in the protests, she said she was worried they “will further chill academic freedom on our campus and in the nation.”

“There’s no compelling reason why the university has to do this,” said Karl. “They already had these students arrested. They’ve already had the crap scared out of them in one way or the next. The idea that the university is intent on permanently damaging these kids’ futures is so anti-education, so anti-care, it’s breathtaking.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the entity that created the assignments. The assignments were created by NYU, according to a school spokesperson. It also misstated the date of the student protest. It was April 22. Finally, the story has been updated to include additional information from the NYU spokesperson.

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