Dennis BeaverApril 17, 2020 • By Dennis Beaver

In March of this year, many colleges and universities all across America began switching to distance teaching with Skype, Zoom or other web-based, video-conferencing technologies. For some classes — depending upon a student’s major — sitting in front of a computer monitor, listening to an instructor lecture, has worked out well as there still is value being received for tuition paid.

But what if you are a music, dance or acting major? “Angie,” who attends New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, contacted me and asked, “Do they really think that sitting in front of a laptop is the same as a performance? You attend an arts school because it is a career in the arts  — acting and voice — that you want to pursue.

“These are skills that require hands-on, actual practice and rehearsals. We have paid for an education that cannot be delivered through distance learning, and we feel entitled to a refund of some percentage of the almost $30,000 in tuition paid per semester.”

Angie is not alone. Thousands of people have signed a petition to the NYU Board of Trustees, asking them to refund a portion of Spring 2020 tuition paid “for the resources, universally deemed crucial to arts education, lost in the recent switch to remote teaching,” as one student wrote.

Response from the Dean

New York University is one of the wealthiest schools in the United States with an endowment of 4.5 Billion Dollars. So, don’t go telling me that they can’t make a refund to students who have accidentally become bait and switch victims. And you would think that an understanding dean would see it that way. Not so fast.

In an email sent to students, Dean Allyson Green made it clear there would be no refund, explaining that “the school has to continue to pay faculty and staff, also rent for facilities and studios across town, even as they shut down.”

In other words: let’s victimize our students.
But there’s more, as attached to Green’s email was a video of herself dancing and lip syncing to  REM’s “Losing My Religion.” Talk about an insult! Even with two left feet I can dance better than this nincompoop!

 What are other Schools Doing?

On the condition of strict anonymity, I spoke with deans at a number of colleges and universities across America. All agreed that room and board charges must be refunded. For students who were on “Year Abroad” program, their return airfare plus tuition reimbursement was offered for those unable to complete course work.

In general, I found the smaller, faith-based schools to be far more willing to make some kind of a tuition adjustment. When they saw Dean Green’s video, most commented that it was an insult to NYU Tisch students and alumni.

One Lawyer’s Opinion

I ran these facts by Uniondale, New York-based attorney Natalie Jean-Baptiste. If her name rings a bell it is because a recent You and the Law column featured an interview with her about some student loans that, contrary to popular belief, are subject to being discharged in bankruptcy.

“While these Tisch students are in school, there is no pressure to begin repayment, so handling this issue is much more in the area of contract law,” she points out, adding, “We are looking at a pure breach of contract question. Has NYU breached its contractual duty to their students by taking their money and not delivering the promised education?”

Of course, the obvious answer is, “yes,” until we ask “why?” and must accept the fact that it is the government who shut the school down.

“In contract law that is called Force Majeure, some event or act of God beyond the control of the parties has prevented the contract from being performed. So, yes, Tisch can’t hold regular classes, and you can’t teach dance over a laptop, but this does not mean you can keep the students’ tuition,” she strongly argues.

Is NYU a Trustee for the Students’ Money?

The law does not like to see someone’s profiting from another’s misfortune. If NYU Tisch can’t deliver an equivalent educational product through distance teaching, then what should become of the student’s paid tuition?

Natalie argues, and I agree, that those funds should be thought of as being held in trust.

Perhaps they can be applied to a following semester, or refunded, but to allow the school to keep the money is unfair. They are doing nothing to earn it. In contract law, this would be called a failure of consideration coupled with unjust enrichment.

My hope is that Tisch students are able to find an attorney who is better on the courtroom dance floor than Dean Green will ever be. NYU Tisch need someone competent to fill that role and quickly.      

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.