The shame of Cooper Union

January 11, 2014

The Cooper Union Board of Trustees today managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It was a depressing and yet entirely predictable vote, which resulted in a depressing and yet entirely predictable statement.

You might remember the tragedy of Cooper Union — the way in which a unique and irreplaceable institution was destroyed by the inflated egos of overpaid technocrats. Well, after many months of outcry and outrage, a glimpse of hope appeared in December: a detailed and hopeful 54-page Working Group Report was submitted to the board, explaining how the institution could still, amazingly continue without charging tuition. Today, the board voted on whether to adopt the report.

As Kevin Slavin explains, the stakes could hardly be higher:

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

There’s nothing particularly pleasant about the Working Group Report, except for the way in which it shows just how imaginative and resourceful the Cooper Union community can be. A huge amount of work went into this thing, from a group of people who had one big thing in common: they love Cooper Union, and they know that when it starts to charge tuition, it will die. The student protests which raged all summer were never about a bunch of kids wanting something for nothing. Instead, they were a desperate attempt to protect something much more important and much more ineffable — something Slavin does a great job of putting into words in his post.

For any of us who experienced the free Cooper Union, we know what made it high quality, when it was already lean and poor.

It wasn’t the compensation for the professors, who work for far less than they could make doing most anything else. It wasn’t the studio space for the artists; in 1990, my sculpture studio was half of a 6-foot desk in a hallway. It wasn’t the dorms (we never had them when I was there, and we never wanted Cooper’s money to get spent for them.) It wasn’t state of the art labs for the engineers…

And it wasn’t the idea that we, individually, didn’t have to pay. I wouldn’t have had to pay if I’d gone elsewhere (and I had that choice.) Had I gone elsewhere, I wouldn’t have had to work as hard to help support myself.

But Cooper Union chose me, and I chose Cooper Union. I didn’t go because it was free for me. I chose Cooper Union because it was free for everyone. And anyone who actually experienced that knows that the only way to jeopardize the quality of the education there is to charge for it…

For many of us, Cooper wasn’t even the cheapest way to go to school. And it certainly didn’t offer the best facilities, campus, labs, studios, athletics, or dorm life. It was always about immense sacrifices.

So the question is: why did we go? We went not because of the financial value of free — that is, zero tuition — but rather, because of the academic value of free…

At Cooper Union I was paid poorly, and I was proud of it. I would have worked all day just to be able to teach at Cooper Union at night. I would never have done that in an institution that charged their students.

Because “free” affects far more than than a fiscal bottom line. It affects the intentions, behavior, ambition, and performance of everyone in the system. In other words, it determines the academic quality.

The minute that Cooper starts charging tuition, it loses its soul. It becomes a second-choice college in the most expensive part of the most expensive city in the world, which will never regain the kind of love and loyalty among its students and teachers that produced the summer’s sit-ins and the fall’s Working Group Report.

Now on some kind of objective basis, looked at by passionless bureaucrats, it might actually be a better university. The students will have more space and light, the teachers will be better paid, the engineering labs will be more spiffily outfitted. Slavin’s post is addressed to a fellow trustee who was making exactly this argument — that adopting the plan would cause Cooper to become a “low quality institution”. But as I wrote back in April, high-quality universities are actually much more commonplace than the institution which has proudly stood in Astor Place for the past 150 years. And when Cooper Union starts charging tuition in an attempt to match its “competitors”, it will in the process lose something much more important.

After all, the quality of tertiary education has never born any relationship to its cost. Americans have never paid more to go to college, but few would argue that today’s undergrads are therefore better educated than their counterparts of yesteryear. When the Cooper trustees talk about “ensuring the quality of the academic program”, they’re talking about something which means pretty much whatever you want it to mean. And they’re also adopting the language of every other public and private university in America. Rather than proudly holding themselves out to be different, unique, special, in exactly the way that Cooper has done for well over a century.

As Slavin says, Cooper Union will always have shortcomings. But only if it’s free will those shortcomings be “a source of pride, of worthy sacrifice, a reason to fight, and strive, and someday, to give back”.

Instead, Cooper Union has dissolved into utter banality: “The board will constitute a group of trustees to work with faculty, students, administration, staff, alumni and friends,” we are told, “to clarify the mission for the 21st century and to develop a strategic plan for implementing the mission.”

Worse, for all the pro forma expressions of goodwill in the statement, the Trustees’ decision was foreordained, by dint of the bar they set:

The board has reluctantly concluded that the Working Group recommendations cannot — by themselves — be prudently adopted as a means to assure the institution’s financial sustainability into the future.

What this ignores is that exactly the same thing can be said of the alternative course of action — charging tuition. No one really has a clue what Cooper’s finances will look like once tuition starts being charged, how much they will be improved or even whether they will be improved. It seems obvious that if you charge tuition, then you’ll at least be financially better off than if you don’t charge tuition — but in the real world, especially if you have a genuinely needs-blind admissions policy, that’s not necessarily the case. Charging tuition requires a whole new cohort of highly-paid administrators, and could well end up making very little difference to the bottom line.

The result is that we have a very real chance, now, that Cooper Union will end up with the worst of both worlds. Here’s Slavin again (his post really is extremely good, you should read it):

There are deep sacrifices to be made in the Working Group’s plan. But those of us who went to a tuition-free Cooper Union know from sacrifices. And we know the difference between sacrifices made on principle, and sacrifices made on discount. We back the painful financial plan that addresses principles.

Attending a free school of sacrifices taught me something about what free meant. Building a half-price school of sacrifices is to succumb to the culture of Cubic Zirconium and Corinthian Leather.

The point here could not be clearer. The Working Group’s proposals make sense if, and only if, Cooper Union remains free. And yet no sooner does the board meet to double down on its decision to charge tuition, than it takes those proposals as ideas to be imposed even on students paying $20,000 per year:

The Working Group plan puts forward a number of recommendations that are worth pursuing under any financial model…

While we cannot now restore the full tuition scholarship, the board will commit itself to exploring Working Group recommendations.

This is not going to work. What’s more, the trustees have to know, in their heart of hearts, that it is not going to work. Something which is romantic and beautiful when it’s free becomes simply shabby if you start trying to charge tens of thousands of dollars a year for it. The current students know it, the current faculty know it, and prospective students certainly know it: already applications to Cooper have plunged. The trustees know it too; but they will ultimately always vote in accordance with the preferences of their overpaid president, and his dreams of “building a global brand”.

The stated reason why the Trustees didn’t adopt the Working Group plan is that it’s fiscally risky — but this is a group of trustees, remember, which seriously considered closing the entire school down, for a few years, as a solution to its financial problems. There are risks with any plan — but only one plan keeps Cooper free, at least for the time being: only one plan preserves the founding vision of Peter Cooper. It was incumbent on the Trustees to at least give that plan a shot. And they failed to do so. For shame.


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