Cooper Union’s murky finances

By Felix Salmon
November 9, 2011

In the immediate wake of the greatest financial crisis in living memory, Cooper Union looked like a genius. Remember this article by John Hechinger? Here’s the headline, if you don’t:

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In particular, Hechinger credited a low-risk investment approach at Cooper Union.

The expansions stem from Cooper’s decision three years ago to ratchet back the financial risk in its endowment, enabling it to avoid the losses that have racked its peers. The college renegotiated a lease to lock in a future income stream from its key property, sold another parcel at a favorable price, raised its cash holdings and picked investment managers that hedged against stock-market declines.

Administrators say they wanted to be especially careful because of the school’s no-tuition policy, which leaves its budget largely dependent on investment income…

John Michaelson, who heads Cooper’s investment committee, said other schools could benefit from taking a lower-risk investing approach.

You know how this is going to end, don’t you.

As Cooper Union officials try to quell the uproar over news that the college may start to charge tuition, some students, alumni, faculty members and college trustees are advocating an inquiry into how the school got into such serious financial trouble.

One bit of the story stands out: it seems that the endowment was leveraging its bets with borrowed money — and has been doing so since 2006.

Cooper Union spent $166 million on a new academic building at 41 Cooper Square, replacing two outmoded buildings. To help pay for that and other projects, and to retire old bonds, it borrowed $175 million in 2006.

The college also invested $32 million of that borrowing in its endowment, calculating that the endowment investments would earn a higher rate of return than the interest Cooper was paying on the loan. That turned out to be a bad bet when the recession hit.

There’s still a lot of murkiness surrounding Cooper Union’s finances, which don’t seem to be quite as bad as the NYT — or, for that matter, Cooper Union president Jamshed Bharucha — is making out. The endowment is still near its all-time high, with the most recent number being $577 million, while the annual deficit right now is $16.5 million. You can call that unsustainable if you want — and Bharucha does — but there’s no immediate threat to the college here.

Certainly the financial situation at Cooper Union is murky: former president George Campbell Jr is quoted in the NYT as saying “that Cooper’s financial problems had always been well documented in public records like financial statements, reports on trustees’ meetings and his annual addresses on the state of the college”, but I can’t find any of those statements, reports, or addresses on Cooper’s website. Guidestar has the 2009 Form 990, but it’s a bit out of date, and it’s not easy to understand — especially the $319 million in liabilities, including $175 million in “secured mortgages and notes payable”, which help result in total annual interest expenses of more than $10 million. (Salaries and wages, by contrast, the only larger item on the expense statement, are $22 million.)

So I’m very sympathetic to calls for an audit at Cooper Union. There’s no reason that the college’s finances should be this opaque — and the idea of creating a “task force” to investigate options seems designed to ensure that a lot of that information remains confidential. At the very least, the task force should be charged with putting together a detailed history of Cooper Union’s finances right up to the present day, and making that history public for all to see. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to believe anything we’re told about what’s going on there.

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