It’s time to air Cooper Union’s dirty laundry

April 24, 2013
Sangamithra Iyer's excellent article in n+1 highly enough.

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If you want to really understand the importance of Cooper Union and its century-long tradition of free tuition, I can’t recommend Sangamithra Iyer’s excellent article in n+1 highly enough. And it contrasts greatly, of course, with the official statement from Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees, saying that the college is going to stop being free very soon: beginning, in fact with the students entering in September 2014. The statement is curiously upbeat, for a decision which essentially marks the death of Cooper Union as we know it. And it’s chock-full of the kind of doublespeak which is all too easily deciphered:

After eighteen months of intense analysis and vigorous debate about the future of Cooper Union, the time has come for us to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive well into the future…

Under the new policy, The Cooper Union will continue to adhere to the vision of Peter Cooper, who founded the institution specifically to provide a quality education to those who might otherwise not be able to afford it…

Maintaining the highest standards of excellence means that we must constantly aim to improve through investment…

Although we appreciate that these decisions are difficult for everyone to accept, we look forward to working together with all of you to building a future that will ensure the preservation of Cooper Union as a great educational institution that remains true to Peter Cooper’s founding principles.

The fact is, as Iyer clearly lays out, that charging tuition runs in direct violation of Peter Cooper’s vision and his founding principles. Indeed, the original Cooper Union charter held the institution’s trustees personally responsible for any deficit, while ensuring that education was free to all enrolled students.

Over the past 40 years or so, however, Cooper Union has been living beyond its means, financing structural deficits by periodically selling off various bits of land that it owned inside and outside New York City. That’s clearly an unsustainable strategy, and it finally came to an end when Cooper Union sold off the last sellable plot it had — the old engineering building at 51 Astor Place, which is now becoming a big ugly office block. The proceeds from that sale failed to remotely cover the costs of building the fancy New Academic Building at 41 Cooper Square — a building which the NYT’s architecture critic, Nicolai Ourourssoff, declared upon its opening to be an icon of the “self-indulgent” “Age of Excess”.

But here’s the most astonishing thing, at least to me: no one seems to care how this happened, no one has been held responsible, no one has been blamed. The current trustees talk vaguely about how they “share your sense of the loss” of free tuition, but they don’t apologize for their decision, and not one of them, as far as I can tell, has resigned in protest or shame.

Make no mistake: Cooper Union suffered a massive failure of governorship, and its trustees have abandoned the principle which underpinned the entire institution. A trustee is someone who governs for the benefit of others — and Cooper Unions trustees have failed, spectacularly, in their first and highest role, which was to preserve Peter Cooper’s tuition-free institution.

And after failing so miserably at their own jobs, the trustees then had the nerve to announce, right in the middle of dropping their bombshell, that they expected the current students of Cooper Union to give more to the institution! Never mind that Cooper Union will never be the same again, and that the whole reason why it is so beloved has now been jettisoned. Start donating today, and maybe future students might be able to save a few hundred bucks on their future tuition bills. Or maybe the president will just get a raise to $1 million a year. Who knows: the trustees seem to be capable of anything.

There’s a lot of recrimination going around right now, and the entire Cooper Union community is in desperate need of some catharsis; the trustees, collectively, and over time, managed to break the very thing that they were entrusted to preserve. Cooper Union’s students, and alumni, and faculty, and supporters all deserve a full accounting of exactly how that happened, and who was primarily to blame. It’s in the nature of institutions like boards of trustees that they are very good at protecting the guilty, but in this case the trustees have to come clean. No one will ever trust Cooper Union, or its trustees, or its president, unless and until such an accounting is made public. And, justice demands it.


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