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Give Us Something Other Than Suicide To Talk About

Five years ago, a friend and I watched as maintenance workers drilled eight-foot tall, half inch-thick pieces of Plexiglas into the sides of the...

Five years ago, a friend and I watched as maintenance workers drilled eight-foot tall, half inch-thick pieces of Plexiglas into the sides of the railings at New York University's Bobst Library.The railings, which encircle the library's central atrium, weren't high enough to prevent students from climbing over them-and where, from the library's tenth floor, they would tumble to their death.Since 2002, there have been at least 10 suicides at NYU The most recent ended the promising career of a 37-year-old computer science professor, Sam Roweis, who jumped from his university-owned apartment on Tuesday night.While all universities struggle with suicide, and while NYU's suicides are no more frequent than those that occur at a number of other large research universities, ours nevertheless seem to feel more public, more scrutinized.NYU, much like the city itself, is a place where the sheer number and density of people lathers tragic events like these into a kind of anxious foam. In the days or weeks after a suicide, there is a kind of perverse, gossipy attention, as if it were all that NYU had to talk about.There are few shared conversations, little in the way of social structure to cobble together the 16 schools and 50,000 students that make up NYU Unfortunately, the university is not a "close knit community, a large community of small communities," which President John Sexton evoked last fall in an email to the NYU student body following Andrew Williamson-Noble's suicide.Part of the difficulty, of course, is that the university's "campus" is more or less a series of purple NYU banners used to distinguish otherwise ordinary city blocks. Absent are quads and green spaces that allow for shared social interaction. But the larger issue is simply the issue of size: NYU is huge. Its bureaucracy can be formidable, and its students, perhaps even its professors, often feel lost in the fray.
So what really connects people at NYU, then? What might bring awkward freshmen, junior faculty, and administrators into a conversation about what they share, their common interests, their similar experiences, and especially, why they are willing to subject themselves to wearing such an awful shade of bright purple?NYU is, in fact, an extraordinary place with great potential for bringing together students from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds and walks of life; this is what I've always loved about teaching here. Many of my students have thrived in the frenetic energy of the university and its ultra-urban locale. And I've loved my doctoral program, finding ample support within my department.But the Plexiglas barriers reveal much about the extent of its problem and the university's misguided attempts to somehow compel order.NYU needs to respond to the issue of its largeness not by fencing in its students, or offering ad hoc solutions like extended hours at the student counseling center, but by emphasizing what makes the university great, and how its students, faculty, and administration can feel to be a cohesive unit.We need to think about what we share, why caring for one another not only alleviates some of the anonymity that abets suicide, but creates a community held together by common beliefs and values. One thing we might celebrate is the great diversity of our backgrounds, economic and otherwise. Another might be NYU's identity as a private university whose emphasis is on social justice and public service.And while I respect President Sexton's message to NYU last fall that "you belong in and are part of a community that cherishes your presence, you are loved," the words ring false for anyone who ever has stood in a crowded line at the Silver Center, where most of the undergraduate courses are held, waiting for an elevator-a crowd of people who seems to have more or less nothing to say to one another.We need something to talk about other than the latest suicide or administrative attempt to stave them off. NYU needs to work on constructing a community with a deeper sense of shared purpose-well before it needs to erect more Plexiglas barriers.Damien Stankiewicz is completing his Ph.D. in NYU's Department of Anthropology.Image of Bobst Library via David Silver's photostream at Flickr

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