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.
Ostensibly Respectable Academic Is In Fact A Hack: it’s a hardy perennial, and an enjoyable one at that. The best example is Inside Job, where big names like Ric Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard got their well-deserved comeuppance. And it’s a genre I’ve indulged in myself: last year, for instance, I spent 4,500 words on a paper by Bob Litan, showing how he lies with numbers to arrive at his paymasters’ predetermined conclusion.
I have a piece up at Architect Magazine on Cooper Union, and the real (if slim) possibility that it will lose the tax break from which most of its current income flows. Cooper Union will get $18 million this year in “tax equivalency payments” stemming from its ownership of the land under the Chrysler Building — money which would normally flow to New York City in the form of property taxes, but instead gets diverted to Cooper Union for its own uses. Do the math, and that works out to about $18,200 per enrolled student — a much greater subsidy than New York City provides to any of the students being educated at its own colleges.
It’s tragic that Cooper Union has decided to start charging tuition. The fateful announcement was made by Mark Epstein, the self-aggrandizing chairman of the board of trustees, and was greeted with dismay by thousands of Cooper students, faculty, alumni, and friends.
James Stewart has an important column on Cooper Union today: if you read it carefully, it hints at how much further Cooper might yet fall from its founding mission of providing free education. Cooper’s trustees are press-shy these days, but Stewart snagged an on-the-record interview with one of the most important ones: John Michaelson, the chair of the investment committee.
This time last year, I wrote about the pressure that public companies face to grow at all costs, and how destructive that pressure can be. Growth is, weirdly, inimical to longevity: if you want something to last for a very, very long time, then what you really want to create is something large — but not huge — and which doesn’t need to grow at all. The world’s oldest companies are nearly all family-owned affairs; they’re big enough to keep those families well-off, and they tend to produce goods or services for which there is a steady demand across the centuries. (Hotels, for instance, or wine.)
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:
Andrew Martin has a very long, and not particularly illuminating, article about college indebtedness in today’s NYT. The title of the piece is “Colleges’ Debt Falls on Students After Construction Binges”, and it’s almost 3,000 words long, but somehow Martin fails to even hazard a guess as to the degree to which colleges’ debt is falling on students after construction binges. We’re certainly told that it’s happening:
When we last checked in on Cooper Union, it was an opaque morass of murky finances in desperate need of some sunlight. President Jamshed Bharucha has made all the right noises: he told Brian Boucher, for instance, that “if you have a financial problem, you need to put that out there, along with all the possible options”. But the fact is that since he arrived in July 2011, he has released little more in the way of financial information than any of his predecessors*, while making it clear to his favored media outlet (the Wall Street Journal) that the conclusion of the current process is foreordained: Cooper Union is going to start charging tuition, after more than a century of being free.