As Free as Air and Water– Could Tuition Signal the Death of Cooper Union?
Reporting by Danielle Balbi & Stephany Chung
For many students at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the century-old tuition-free policy is as integral to an education as textbooks, pens and paper are at other universities.
At a time when students across the country are facing rising tuition costs, and the Occupy Wall Street movement has vowed to combat student debt, the Cooper Union community is beginning to organize in order to protect what they see as their school’s founding purpose: a merit-based education that ignores the financial means of its applicants.
On November 7, chairman of the board of trustees Mark Epstein held an open forum to address student, faculty and alumni anger at the suggestion that the school may be forced to overturn its 109-year-old merit-based full scholarship in order to cope with a $16.5 million budget deficit.
Although it began charging tuition to those who could afford it in 1856, the institution eliminated tuition altogether in 1902 in order to allow for a non-discriminatory acceptance policy.
“If [the full scholarship] is removed from the equation, Cooper Union is just another unaffordable educational option looming on the distant, unreachable horizon for the vast number of bright, even brilliant students in both science and art,” said alumnus Dan Witz, who graduated from Cooper Union in 1980 and is now a street artist and realist painter.
Witz, as well as several other alumni interviewed by The Free Press, mentioned that art school would not have been a viable option if not for Cooper Union’s tuition-free policy. “If [I] had to toe the line and pay heavy bills like everyone else these days, I probably would have chosen a different career path.”
To many students and faculty of Cooper Union, the possibility of implementing tuition came as a surprise — it was their impression that the institution had sidestepped the 2008 financial crisis that crippled many other universities.
“The fact that Cooper has been operating at a large deficit for this long came as a surprise to almost everyone,” wrote Andrew Leader, an engineering student, in an email to The Free Press.
Administrators at the institution declined to comment to The New School Free Press. However, Jolene Travis, the assistant director of public affairs and media relations, referred us to current President Jamshed Bharucha’s online message. “This is a structurally unsustainable financial model, and we must act immediately to put our institution on the path to a sustainable future,” he wrote.
As for other options, Bharucha told Art in America magazine that a number of other possibilities are on the table. “Obviously we’ll strengthen our fundraising, though that isn’t easy in this economic environment.”
While sustaining a tuition-free education has proven to be difficult, plans to begin tuition implementation are indefinite and unspecific. Legally, those currently enrolled in the institution cannot be subjected to tuition.
“This isn’t about the students who are going here now,” explained student activist and art student Joe Riley, who has been rallying students against the proposed tuition. “This really goes to show that what we’re fighting for now is the future of the school, for the students who have yet to go to Cooper.”
However, Clarence Michalis, who sat on the board of trustees for 28 years, serving as the chairman for 10 of those years, is uncertain how serious the plans to charge tuition are. He mentioned that the board of trustees has regularly considered the idea during financial scares, until alternative solutions arise.
“[In the past,] we slimmed the school down and tightened things up,” Michalis explained to The Free Press. “It was not only a top priority for the board of trustees to avoid charging tuition, but also an emotional issue for the alumni.”
Though Michalis, who retired from the board of trustees more than two decades ago, now only has limited involvement with the school, he believes that administrators at the institution may be able to avoid charging tuition by thinking up other and more tolerable solutions as has been done in the past.
Cooper Union has often faced financial troubles over the past four decades. However, in recent years the school’s revenue has been diminishing, while its spending has increased compared to past decades. Many students have pointed blame at the former president and the board of trustees.
“I think [there is] a long-term problem with how finances are handled at the school and in this particular crisis, it’s a mishandling of finances by the board of trustees,” explained Joe Riley, an art student and student activist against tuition.
Though unpopular for his lack of transparency and wasteful spending by many students and alumni, former President Campbell, who stepped down last year, was praised by administrators for avoiding a financial meltdown several years ago.
“The college owes [Mr. Campbell] an immense debt of gratitude,” Mark Epstein, chairman of the board at Cooper Union, told Crain’s New York Business News in 2010 as President Campbell stepped down as the school’s president. “What comes to mind is how strong The Cooper Union has become under President Campbell’s transformational leadership and how our long standing reputation for academic excellence has continued to grow.”
However, not everyone thought Campbell did such a great job, and many students blamed him and the board of trustees for unnecessary spending, particularly for the $166 million project to construct a new academic building at 41 Cooper Square from 2006 until 2009, which replaced two older and outdated buildings. Such spending, some believe, ultimately led to the current crisis.
Many students have reported the new building to be underused and unnecessary at a time when the institution should be tightening up its spending.
“Most engineering students think that this building is unnecessary because we used to study across the street in a building that had more of a sense of community, and this one is very isolated,” said Angela Park, a senior engineering student.
In 2006 the school borrowed $175 million in bonds in order to pay for the construction of the new building, according to The New York Times.
However, Epstein pointed the blame in the opposite direction during the November 7 town hall meeting. “Only 20 percent of alumni donate and that’s a failed investment,” Epstein said, according to The Villager. In a claim that angered attendees, he continued, “Four out of five students in this room will become part of the problem when they graduate.”
Cooper Union has, for a long time, had difficulty raising funds from alumni, many of whom are struggling artists. Some previous donors who spoke to The Free Press refused to fund the school during the decade of Campbell’s presidency.
“Cooper relies heavily on outside donations, and people don’t donate when they don’t know where their money is going,” wrote Andrew Leader, an engineering student, in an email to The Free Press.
The school has also suffered due to low revenue because of the city’s real estate market, one of Cooper Union’s key sources of income in the past. Among several estates in New York City, Cooper Union owns the land beneath the Chrysler Building, which provides about $7 million each year. Furthermore, as with other schools in recent years, the institution has received less government support than in previous decades.
A detailed explanation for the current financial situation, which is likely the result of multiple factors, is yet to emerge. Some student activists who spoke with The Free Press, such as Riley, have made accusations of administrative cover-ups and mismanagement of funds, and are calling for an immediate inquiry.
Others maintain that now is not the time to point fingers, until the results of a full investigation are presented.
“Blame or not to blame?” asked Toby Cumberbatch, an engineering professor who has taught at Cooper Union since 1994, in an email to The Free Press. “Until we know how Cooper Union got to this state I don’t think this question can be answered. I do believe that engagement of the entire Cooper Union community in finding a solution to the current deficit and finding a sustainable way forwards can only be achieved by a full disclosure and transparent explanation of the events that brought us to this current situation.”
Many students, faculty members and alumni assert that tuition is simply not an option they are willing to accept.
“When people talk about tuition, I think they think it is about money,” explained Toby Cumberbatch, an engineering professor who has taught at the college since 1994. “But when you talk about tuition and Cooper [Union], it has nothing to do with the actual cash. It’s about all the other intangible assets associated with no tuition.”
Every faculty member, student, alumnus, and past administrator who The Free Press spoke with agreed that it is Cooper Union’s merit-based free-education that makes it the prestigious institution that it is. Because of its high number of applicants, Cooper Union accepts only 9 percent of those who apply, making it one of the most competitive schools in the country. The school claims to accept only the most deserving students, regardless of their economic status, race, gender, or religion.
In 2010, Newsweek named it the “#1 Most Desirable Small School,” a title that would likely disappear in the event that its policy of fully funding students disappears.
Students have vowed to resist the implementation of tuition, though holding off any large-scale action until the situation becomes more clear.
“Right now we are waiting to see what develops next but we are prepared as a student body to escalate the sort of actions we’ve already carried out,” commented Riley, a Cooper Union student who helped organize a walk-out on November 2.
Students have staged small-scale protests, walk-outs, disruptions during administrative speeches, and distributed petitions.
Alumni have been involved as well.
“Many of us alumni have been writing back and forth to one another, signing petitions, sending letters, and so on,” explained alumnus Dan Witz, who graduated from Cooper Union in 1981 and is now a street artist. “I’ve been obsessing over this since I received an email from my alma mater a week or two ago, and was immediately enraged about the mere suggestion that the school might discontinue its tuition-free policy.”
While some students maintained that they will ultimately accept tuition if there is no other option, a few insisted that they would prefer for the school to end rather than deviate from its founding mission of offering an education to the most worthy of it, regardless of their economic status.
Alumnus Jean Marcellino, who graduated in 1960 and is now a successful artist, said in an email interview, “Cooper Union must remain tuition free, and there is absolutely no other option worthy of consideration. If money must be raised, then it must be found elsewhere. If it comes to an end, it must end.”