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

By Felix Salmon
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.

23 comments

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Has the the Attorney General weighed in on this decision? Since Cooper Union is a not for profit the AG has significant oversight powers.

Posted by iccindc | Report as abusive

Couldn’t agree more. My own lament for its downfall: http://jordanbowen.kinja.com/the-loss-of -cooper-union-478333312

Posted by Torreycanyon | Report as abusive

Didn’t they recently tear down perfectly good old buildings to replace them with new buildings in order to preserve that free tuition mandate?

Yeah. And I’m pretty sure there was some Magic Beans involved in the deal.

Maybe the Magic Beans were defective. That must have been the issue.

Clearly they need to get some better Magic Beans.

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

Thank you for saying what needs to be said and acted upon.

Posted by Aliquisafrica | Report as abusive

I’m a Cooper alum and a member of the CU LinkedIn group. I have been posting ideas similar to yours and hearing comments from some people ranging from “don’t demonize a building” to a lot of “oh well, it’s too bad but…”.

Posted by MacGuyvert | Report as abusive

Even if wealth mismanagement, real estate blunders, and other errors turn out to be true, the total costs of their gilded starchitect building should be seen for what it really is. Buildings like that are very costly to plan, design, permit, build, commission, furnish, move in to, and operate. If an owner tells you their facility only cost one dollar you better believe the real cost, if all aspects were tallied like the handling of their previous facility, is five dollars and the cost to operate and maintain another 5-7 cents a year. One after another, owners are buying in to staggeringly costly facility choices that create 15 seconds of fame while incinerating organizational culture and wealth and leaving a giant hole where a legend once stood. Iconic schools are supposed to represent oracles of vision, wisdom, and insight but what does it mean when the oracle makes monumental and foundational blunders? Is that a school worth paying for?

Posted by Alex77 | Report as abusive

Sounds like a combination of the usual looting and a bit of and edifice complex. (That’s the technical term for what happens when a company’s management gets so fixated on new buildings that the company falls into the crapper.)

Posted by Kaleberg | Report as abusive

Is there a better example of the desire to spend, consume, and profligacy?
“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.”

When I went to college 30 years ago in CA, it was quite a bargain. Now, due to people like the “trustees” who just think about their own aggrandizement, and don’t give a fig about the impoverishment of the students, we simple allow costs to explode, and as with all else, pay for it with loans…

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

Had this sort of thing happened in the UK, there would be a public authority who could have removed the trustees well before now on complaints from the student body. It seems rather a bad idea for charities to be able to do essentially what they like without prudential oversight.

Posted by DrFuManchu | Report as abusive

This post seems to be coming from left field naive la-la land. Why on earth do you assume some original persons vision from several decades ago was sustainable?

Would you rather they just closed the school? In my town we had a prestigious art school that recently went belly up. Alumni wailed about the cultural loss to the community.

People like yourself tut-tutted about the irresponsibility of the board. But the simple fact was the model was a bad model (25 students and 25 staff and very low tuition). I suspect the exact same thing is going on at Cooper Union.

It isn’t the trustees that are bad, it is Cooper’s vision.

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

Looks like my much longer comment was eaten…

Felix you sound like a naive idiot. I doubt the trustees are the problem, it sounds like the model is the problem. It is not the Trustee’s fault if Cooper’s vision isn’t a realistic one. Would you rather they just close the school?

We had a similar situation with a prestigious art school that collapsed. 25 students, 25 staff, and low tuition. The community and alumni were livid at the board when they closed it, but when they actually looked into saving it it rapidly became clear that the board wasn’t kidding about its lack of sustainability.

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

So their unsustainable strategy of land sales failed (as might be expected). Do you have another, better option that they could have pursued?

Posted by DazeofHaven | Report as abusive

This is the nature of college presidents and trustees.

They want to build big (and frequently unnecessary) buildings, so that their names, or their friend’s names, can be put on it.

Additionally, there is the effect of the US News college ratings, which favor building binges. (That ratings are a cancer on higher education)

I recall over a decade ago, something akin to Cooper Square building at a university in Texas (don’t recall which) and the trustees balked, because they knew that “good value for the tuition” was a core value of the school. (The president quit)

Posted by Matthew_Saroff | Report as abusive

What’s astonishing is the amount of wrong information stated in this article.

the school did not sell the property where the new building is going up. They lease the land to the developer for about $97million and will get about $2,000,000 per year from the taxes on the building ongoing.

The New academic building that other critics hailes as one of the 10 best buildings on the planet when it was built, was paid for by the money from the ground lease, $60,000,000 in donations in the form of naming opportunities, and the value of the new tax revenue stream mentioned above. The two older buildings that were taken down were going to need 10′s of millions of dollars in renovations to make them comply with building codes.

The cost of the New Academic Building, per square foot, is well within line with new construction costs, and cannot be deemed excessive in any way. With that the building has also been give a Platinum LEED Certification for sustainability (the highest level).

No trustee has resigned in shame because they made the right decision to secure the future of the school as difficult as it was to make. Nothing shameful about that.

There are many other untruths as well.
No one should ever trust the author of this article again. He apparently doesn’t see the need to fact check.

Posted by replies | Report as abusive

In 1974, the trustees finished renovating the Foundation Building. Blaming falling stock prices, and shortage of funds, they cancelled scholarships of students who had earned CU 4 year scholarships to pursue math and physics degrees. Math & Physics didn’t use the Foundation bldg.
Remaining Engineers used a plain building at 51 Astor place for over 30 years.Trustees wanted an architectural showpiece & promiseed to Make Money re-purposing the 51 AStor property for residential & Commercial.So we have the only building still standing in NYC that looks like it was hit by a plane; but it’s LEED. CU could never afford it. The trustees should be opening their wallets or going to jail for making a mess & feigning surprise.

Posted by ME78 | Report as abusive

As an alumus of Cooper Union, I am very distressed by the new tuition policy.In the meantime,as a CUNY engineering professor involved with the free-tuition Macaulay honors college, I pledge to provide an excellent interdisciplinary engineering program to all of the 2014 freshman who wanted to go to Cooper Union but choose to come to CUNY. I am just sad that they will not be getting a Cooper degree.

Posted by cooperalumnus | Report as abusive

Felix, you’ve been doing good work on this topic, but I wanted to make one correction. You say:
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”.

I share your consternation over the cost of the “NAB” w.r.t. this current fiscal crisis, but the NYT architecture critic’s opinion of the building is pretty much the opposite of how you paint it:
Yes, the glut of high-concept luxury towers was wearisome. But some great civic works were also commissioned in that era. And given the hard economic times, they may be the last we see for quite some time.

The new academic building at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art is yet more proof that some great art was produced in those self-indulgent times.

Posted by sv.o | Report as abusive

Felix, while I share your frustration with much of what’s gone on with Cooper over the past few years, you made an error in characterizing the NYT architecture critic’s review of the NAB; in fact, he said pretty much the opposite of what you said:

“Yes, the glut of high-concept luxury towers was wearisome. But some great civic works were also commissioned in that era. And given the hard economic times, they may be the last we see for quite some time.

The new academic building at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art is yet more proof that some great art was produced in those self-indulgent times.”

Posted by sv.o | Report as abusive

If you’re going to claim that the Administration and Trustees are lying, at least try to get the facts straight. Cooper did not sell the Engineering Building, it leased it, just like the land under the Chrysler building.

Posted by Tom83 | Report as abusive

While hindsight is always terrific, the need for at least a new engineering school building was very clear to me in 1998. At that time, I took a tour of the school with my two kids, who were looking at colleges at the time.

When we looked at the engineering school, unfortunately, I can only say that the facilities compared very poorly to those of Cooper’s peers. It looked like very little had changed in the 25 years since I graduated, and that made me very sad.

In the end, my kids ended up at Rose-Hulman and Carnegie Mellon. They would not even consider applying to Cooper.

I am very grateful that Cooper’s no tuition policy allowed me to get a degree that I am extremely proud of. But I also know that the world has changed and I would hope that the trustees and alumni would work together to make sure that the school’s finances are stable while also providing the top notch faculty, facilities and equipment that are needed to attract the very best students.

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