Marcus Michelen (BSE ‘14)
It’s difficult for a school to maintain an identity over long periods of time. Students are constantly entering and leaving, as are professors and administrators (albeit at a much slower rate). When adding technology- and curriculum-related changes, institutions of higher learning are required to change in order to keep afloat. How does a school keep its own unique identity during these periods of change?
When approaching this topic, I’m reminded of Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus. Plutarch presents a ship—referred to as The Ship of Theseus—in which the Athenian youth returned from Crete. The ship’s thirty oars were damaged, and so the Athenians replaced them. Boards were broken, and so stronger wood was put in place. After many years, the Ship of Theseus consisted almost entirely of new material. The question: is the ship still the Ship of Theseus?
Aristotle asserts that there are four causes (or ways) to describe an object: a material cause (what the object is made of), a formal cause (how it is designed), an efficient cause (how and why it changes) and a final cause (the end-goal of an object).
The ship, it could be argued, is still the Ship of Theseus because it still has the same design and the same form; its formal cause does not change. Similarly, the ship could still be the Ship of Theseus because it still serves the same end goal; its final cause does not change.
If we tie these arguments back to identity in institutions of higher education, we can say that a school keeps its identity if it maintains the same design and still serves the same final purpose.
Consider, now, our school. As we all know, a dramatic change is about to occur this September as we begin to charge students for the first time in over a century. Can we say that this new school is still The Cooper Union? Looking at it from strictly an Aristotelian perspective, I don’t think we can.
Let’s first look at our formal cause: implementation of tuition is a clear change to the school’s design. At its root, the model of this school used to be that students exchange nothing more than their time and energy for an education. This exchange—the key aspect of design of this school—will be dramatically altered in September.
Now examine our final cause. In charging tuition, we change from educating for the purpose of educating to educating for the purpose of financial gain. It goes further: when discussing Bharucha’s salary with a friend, I mentioned that our president makes nearly twice as much as Obama. My friend responded by saying that he doesn’t think Obama does the job for the money. With the sheer amount of money that Bharucha receives annually—more than 700,000 in total compensation—it is impossible to claim that Bharucha isn’t financially motivated. With absurdly high salaries for higher-ups such as Bharucha, and Campbell’s notoriously fat bonuses, it’s clear that Cooper has been transforming into a school that serves to benefit its leaders—just like any other business. If this claim seems a bit over the top, consider that Bharucha’s annual compensation is enough to pay one year of half tuition for 35 students, an entire class of architecture students. Choosing to keep a single administrator over 35 students shows that the end-goal of this school is no longer to educate students: it is to make a profit for our leaders.
Less obviously, our material cause changes as well. Colleges cycle through students every four years, but ideally the kind of student entering stays the same. It remains to be seen whether the incoming students will be at the same academic and creative level as current students, but there will be one change that will necessarily occur. We students at Cooper have a very specific relationship with our education since we are not paying for it. When paying for an education, one’s relationship with their education changes, for better or for worse. At an open forum, a community member compared this to paying for sex: clearly, paying for sex differs greatly from not paying for sex. The difference isn’t merely the amount of money exchanged. The new students will have a different relationship to their education—this may not necessarily be a bad thing—than students did in the past. The implementation of tuition results in a student body that is significantly different than all bodies that came before.
This new school is no longer The Cooper Union. I propose—however dramatic it seems—that this school changes its name. Institutions of higher education are already modern-day Ships of Theseus; there’s a fine balance struck between changing and maintaining an identity. We’ve changed so much from a material standpoint (the New Academic Building, overpriced men and women in suits) that we need to be especially careful about how we much we change before we begin to turn into something else completely. To make matters even worse, Cooper is in the process of altering its mission statement. If that doesn’t indicate a severe change in identity, I don’t know what does.
Admittedly, a name change is unlikely to happen, as the name “The Cooper Union” is a big selling point for donations as well as incoming applications. It makes little sense from a business perspective to change the name of the school, but it makes perfect sense from a logical and moral point of view. This is simply a different school; it deserves to be labeled as such.