THE PRICE OF FREE EDUCATION: The Mission of the Cooper Union

By MC Love (AR’24) and Martina Duque (AR’24)

Most colleges in America treat students as consumers. Education and program have become commodified and commercialized. The problem with this is that education becomes less affordable while the model of higher education loses credibility. The colleges begin satisfying a consumer rather than holding students accountable.

Personally, I didn’t know what Cooper Union was until I applied my senior year. The only two people that had any idea were my college counselor and my art teacher. I was the second person in my high school to ever apply. I found it charming that Cooper does not boast about their alumni even though Cooper has an extensive and awe-inspiring list of faculty and alumni. Cooper supersedes acceptances based on legacy and standardized testing. The individual student interests Cooper more than the numbers game. America teaches children that numbers define their worth; they receive number grades throughout school until taking the ACT and SAT which places them on more dehumanizing scales. Eventually, they apply to a college that accepts them for their numbers and then they and their families sacrifice more numbers to pay for it. And for what? To graduate with a good enough grade and try to get a job with enough figures to sustain a comfortable lifestyle? That’s not a pleasant reality, especially when considering the disproportionate nature of the game. When I came to Cooper, I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a part of the algorithms and that my peers felt the same.

There are several reasons that Cooper currently isn’t free. Most of those reasons have to do with poor leadership within the Board of Trustees during the early 2000s. The President at the time, Jamshed Barucha, would later claim that Cooper had no choice but to charge tuition. Maybe it seemed that way after years of mishandling deficits, providing unnecessary benefits, giving out excessive compensation, and a new building that cost $175 million followed by a series of bad investments. At the time Cooper began charging tuition, Jamshed received $700,000 compensation and a free townhouse. The President of Harvard at the time, received $899,000 while overseeing 12,000 faculty, 21,000 students, and a $30 billion endowment. Jamshed denies his compensation being comparable, claiming that “[Harvard] doesn’t have a fraction of the problems [Cooper] has… not a fraction” (Ivory Tower). Cooper also provided faculty with “healthy” compensation and over-the-top insurance coverage. Charging students tuition was arguably a cop-out to cutting expenditures and reevaluating the cost of free education.

The members of the Board of Trustees who decided on charging tuition did not have the mission of Peter Cooper in mind. Instead of fighting for Cooper’s legacy, they wanted Cooper to gain the prestigious accolades and fancy programs that other schools boast about. Those schools boast about their programs to attract customers, but Cooper is not those other schools. Cooper wasn’t built for fancy accommodations that ignite student debt and it especially wasn’t built to provide healthy compensation for the President or a new building at the expense of students. The Board was biased, unfocused on upholding Peter Cooper’s legacy, and unrepresentative of the school.

Even though charging of tuition was the end result of Cooper’s economic crisis, it is only one of the many options that was proposed. Before discussing Cooper’s current situation, it is important to understand the people in charge of decision making and the proposed futures of Cooper that we could be living now.

What better way to do that than reading the minutes of a leaked Board of Trustees meeting? On September 19th 2012, the board members and president Jamshed gathered to discuss the plan of action for Cooper’s financial deficit. If you are interested in reading the transcript yourself, find the pdf here. If you want a more cinematic experience, Cooper students acted out the meeting in 2013 during the now famous occupation of the president’s office (The Politics of Destruction). For those of you who would rather get a quick rundown of the meeting, keep reading.

There were three options as to how the board and Cooper would deal with the long-term economic problem. The first option was shutting down the school temporarily. The closure would last about 5 years and would allow Cooper to accumulate money to pay off its debts. For Jamshed, it would have provided the opportunity to have a clean slate and rebuild an interdisciplinary school that could operate on a low or inexistent tuition. This option would have been catastrophic for both the students and faculty of Cooper. It would have been impossible for Juniors and Seniors to transfer to other schools, and the promise of four years of tuition meant that Cooper would have to keep funding student’s education even at other institutions. The second long-term plan was to merge with another university, which implied selling the Engineering school or leasing 41 Cooper Sq for a period of 3 to 5 years. The third proposal was ending Cooper’s history of being free by charging tuition. In this meeting, Jamshed proposed reducing the scholarship by 25% rather than the 50% tuition given today.

As for the short-term solutions, there were also a couple of solutions proposed. One would be selling the dorm building at 29 3rd Ave as a way of generating additional funds. The retail spaces on the two lower floors were considered to be the most valuable assets. As an alternative to housing, a developer with a new 500 bed dormitory building was willing to lease space for Cooper’s students. Borrowing more money was proposed as a last resort although Metlife was not inclined to give it out easily considering the deficit the school was in.

Here are some quotes pulled from the transcript of the board meeting that occurred in 2013. We do encourage you to read through the entire transcript. Part of the mission of the student activists involved was to gain total transparency of the board. We hope that this brings awareness to the current situation that affects all of us and inspires you to keep pushing towards Peter Cooper’s mission.

LONGTERM SOLUTIONS

Closing the School

-        32:00:00: “I’ve always thought if you close a place down and you start with a clean piece of paper and you say how can we build a school for $30 million a year in operating costs, with the same free tuition that it’s always had.” MB

-         1:37:33: “Jamshed, you’ve never talked about this, wouldn’t this be the option that truly gives you a clean piece of paper after dealing with all the incoming flack. That says: I, Jamshed, am now ready to reinvent for the 21st century a technical or arts-oriented college or university… Why not?

1: 38:14: “Sure, it’s a fantasy of every college president, get rid of these characters… [laughter in room] and start to build a fabulous institution” JB

-        1:48:55: “We are an educational institution and the charter mandates a school of art and it calls for a polytechnic—the engineering school — as resources are sufficient. The reading of the attorney is that we could, if we close the school of art we could conceivably argue that architecture is sort of like art. But that would be a case that would have to be made. If we close the engineering school we could conceivably argue that architecture is sort of like engineering [laughter in room]” JB

Merger with another school

-        32:00:00: “the idea of a partner, either a merger partner for a part or all the school, or someone could buy out the engineering school for example. I mean NYU bought out Polytech.” MB

-        34:03:00: “Stanford was interested in getting in to New York City and bid on a project. Maybe they could lease some of this building for some period of time, and we retain the option to take it back with 3 or 5 years” MB

-         36:46:00: “Stanford wouldn’t keep the faculty. Not this faculty.” SL

36:48:00: “Well no it wouldn’t change overnight but over time it would change.” MB

37:00:00: “This is not a research faculty.” SL

Tuition or partial tuition

-         1:19:29: “So 75% scholarship is you charge say $10,000 per student or something?” TD

1:19:55: “That sounds like too big of a scholarship to me… But you know this we can do down the road” RL

1:20:02: “Well if it has to be lower then it has to be lower” JB

-        1:20:06: “Well I think the report indicated that in terms of your deal that if you go immediately to 50% then you lose an enormous amount of selectivity” RL

SHORT TERM SOLUTIONS

Selling the dorm

-        2:26:24: “The thing about the dorm is that there is an alternative that is potentially available for us which allows us the benefit of getting income off of that building. There is a developer who is developing a rather large dormitory – 500 bed – right by Tompkins Square Park. They would make 100 beds available to us on long-term lease. There’s little downside to us” TW

 

-        2:26:24: “We’re trying to balance getting money off the dormitory by selling it, but still have reasonable alternative that would allow us to continue to recruit students from outside the area which is important to our diversity” TW

Borrow more money

-        2:26:24: “MetLife does not appear to be too inclined to do anything more but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go back to them” TW

OTHER NOTABLE COMMENTS

-        2:38:30: “In the beginning of the spring semester once we have our sort of plan in place it’s likely that we will have to alter our mission statement, which currently articulates full scholarships for all. We’re sort of keeping an eye on how those two are connected” LC

-        3: 26:54: “She’s a strong person and she’s a woman. We could use more females on this board. [laughter]. Can I have a motion for that?” ME

-        4:01:10: “I think that the group outside represents a … it’s not representative of the student body but it’s a group that’s very passionate. Many of them are ill-informed or misinformed and many of those are not ever likely to be…because… they don’t understand. Are there any art graduates in the room? [laughter] Mark is an art graduate with an engineering’s brain, [laughter] so he doesn’t really count. [laughter] The ones who are quantitatively receptive are coming along.” JB

-        4:08:37: “Most art students don’t feel that that have much stake in the establishment, that’s why there’s mostly the engineering view and it’s also reflected in this board” JB

-        4:13:55: “I’d also suggest… please just make sure your papers are put away” LC (before students walk into board meeting)

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