Ivory Tower2

The Road to Free: Ivory Tower Five Years Later

By Evan Bubniak (ME ‘21)

By 6:15, the lobby outside Rose Auditorium was bustling. At the tables lined up along the walls, students, alumni, and visitors enjoyed sandwiches and popcorn, drank seltzer water, made their own Cooper Union and activist-themed pins. They also explored literature from the spring of 2013, when Cooper students occupied the President’s office on the top floor of the Foundation Building for 65 days in protest of then-President Jamshed Bharucha’s decision to introduce tuition.

They were all there for a planned screening, of the 2014 documentary Ivory Tower, directed by Andrew Rossi, which explores the causes behind skyrocketing college tuition and the impacts it has on education. The film prominently features Cooper Union as an important battleground where the ideal of college as a democratic, public service clashes with a reality where higher education has become a commodity.

As the lights dimmed and the projector warmed up, the appetizer came on: a first-year architecture student project to re-create  the exterior of the Foundation building. The short film, “Building the Cooper Union Foundation Building: a Model of Education,” documents the fabrication process – the sketching, drilling, and assembly of each piece, sometimes from a first-person perspective, culminating with the students wheeling it on the streets up to the New York Public Library.

As the documentary began its discussion of Cooper Union, the audience’s reactions turned emotional. During the director’s interview with Mr. Bharucha, some spectators ridiculed Bharucha’s observation that the ideal of free education was “not compatible with a small class size, highly interpersonal interaction, and providing good compensation”; and again as he equivocated when asked if Cooper had made a risky decision by investing money into hedge funds shortly before the financial crisis of 2008: “One can ask if they were [risky] or not.”

After the film, Mauricio Higuera  (Art ‘13) went up to the lectern and introduced himself, Higuera recorded the clips of the occupation in Ivory Tower. As footage from the occupation played on the projector, Higuera recounted why the founding mission of Cooper Union carried such personal significance to him, not only explaining that he would not otherwise have been able to study art but also describing the administration’s assistance in allowing him to return to see his mother in Colombia after she had fallen ill.

Finally, the audience watched a short film by Ben Morea, an artist and activist who founded the Black Mask activist group in the 1960s to produce revolutionary art. Set against footage from the 1968 garbage collector strike, in which the Black Mask dumped accumulated trash from the Lower East Side at the Lincoln Center, Morea narrated the efforts of his so-called “affinity group” to produce revolutionary art critical of bourgeois society and the ongoing war in Vietnam. After the screening, the floor was opened to questions for Morea, Rossi, and Higuera. ◊

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