Category Archives: Opinion

What is Your Legacy?

What’s Your Legacy?

Stop what you’re doing. Take a good look around. Look out the window and look out into the hallway. Have you spoken to anybody outside of your school today? If you’re an engineer, have you talked to an artist today? Artists, have you spoken to an engineer today? Architects, have you left your studio today?

The school has been crumbling at our feet. It’s been slower in the past, albeit, but things seem to be deteriorating at an accelerating speed. I feel as though relations between the schools are more estranged than ever. In times of strife, it’s easy to withdraw into our comfort zones. It’s easy to decide to focus on your work, to say fuck the school I’m going to just do me and get the hell out. It can’t possibly fail, it’s been standing for 155 years, why not 155 more? This passivity will be the death of the Cooper Union.

This passivity will be the death of the Cooper Union.

What do you want to look back on in five years? Will you be ready to look back? How about 10 years? 20? 30? How about 50 years? Let’s look back.

What are you most worried about right now? Is it your calculus final? Completing a model? Finishing your sculpture? Is it that HSS essay that’s due the day before break? These present obstacles seem the most pressing. They’re easy to look at, to face, to conquer. You can count on the power of a single individual and you have the skill set necessary to complete the task. That’s what you go to school for. To gain the necessary skill-sets in order to be successful and innovative in the field of your choosing.

But how do you fix a school? Do you know how to do that? How would you even start? Sign your name on a petition, make a meme, say “I know it’s bad and I don’t like it but it’ll work itself out.”

What will this school be like once we have a paying class? We will no longer be the Free School. There’s the New School down the street, but somehow the Free School has a better ring. Now we will be the “School that was Once Free”. The melodrama of our situation will resound in the nomenclature.

Can a school divided stand?

So come next year, assuming that indeed, we are charging tuition, Cooper will be caught in a divide. It will be both the Free School, and The School that was Once Free. Two schools. Can a school divided stand?

But you go to the Free School, so it’s all cool. Those kids who go to the School that was Once Free won’t be here till next year and that’s practically a lifetime away.

Your inactivity is perpetuating the cultural shift which will eventually destroy the Free School. You are a frog sitting in warm water, not noticing that it’s getting hotter. You’re sleepy, drifting away, but you’re slowly, degree by degree, boiling away.

Jump out.

So what do you see yourself leaving behind? You’ll eventually leave this school. You personally won’t have payed a dime towards tuition and you’ll be patting yourself on the back for having escaped the binds of throttling student debt. But what will be left? A school that is but a shell of its former self. The seniors will graduate, the current juniors, the current sophomores, and last, the current freshmen. And who will be left? The Free School will have been abolished, its ideals forgotten, its legacy diminished, its future dismal.

Will you be the class that enabled destruction?

And how is your class going to be seen? Will you be the class that sat quietly, twiddling their thumbs, letting the Board destroy 155 years of tradition? Or will you be the class that stood up, and said “This is a Free School and it will stay Free!” Will you be the class that enabled destruction? Or will you be the class that took action, unified, and changed the paradigm of student empowerment?

Think about what you’re leaving behind. Think about your legacy.

A Voice Lost in the Commotion

Saimon Sharif (ChE ’15)

With the flurry of campus-notice emails and torrents of Facebook discussion threads regarding the incidents happening about campus this past week, I feel it necessary to present some words Peter Cooper wrote in a letter to the Board of Trustees on April 29, 1859. It is my sincerest hope that we, as students, take these words to heart and consider their relevance given our current circumstances.

Desiring, as I do, that the students of this institution may become pre-eminent examples in the practice of all the virtues, I have determined to give them an opportunity to distinguish themselves for their good judgment by annually recommending to the Trustees for adoption, such rules and regulations as they, on mature reflection, shall believe to be necessary and proper, to preserve good morals and good order throughout their connection with this institution.

It is my desire, and I hereby ordain, that a strict conformity to rules deliberately formed by a vote of the majority of the students, and approved by the Trustees, shall forever be an indispensable requisite for continuing to enjoy the benefits of this institution. I now most earnestly entreat each and every one of the students of this institution, through all coming time, to whom I have entrusted this great responsibility of framing laws for the regulation of their conduct in their connection with the institution, and by which any of the members may lose its privileges, to remember how frail we are, and how liable to err when we come to sit in judgment on the faults of others, and how much the circumstances of our birth, our education, and the society and country where we have been born and brought up, have had to do in forming us and making us what we are. The power of these circumstances, when rightly understood, will be found to have formed the great lines of difference that mark the characters of the people of different countries and neighborhoods. And they constitute a good reason for the exercise of all our charity. […] We should always remember that pride and selfishness have ever been the great enemies of mankind. [Humans], in all ages, have manifested a disposition to cover up their own faults, and to spread out and magnify the faults of others.

I trust that the students of this institution will do something to bear back the mighty torrent of evils now pressing on the world. I trust that here they will learn to overcome the evils of life with kindness and affection. I trust that here they will find that all true greatness consists in using all the powers they possess to do unto others as they would that others should do unto them; and in this way to become really great by becoming the servant of all.

These great blessings that have fallen to our lot as a people, are entrusted to our care for ourselves and for our posterity, and for the encouragement of suffering humanity throughout the world.

Op-Ed: On Authenticity

Marcus Michelen (BSE ‘14)

When I saw the subject line “Important Update on Student Representative to the Board of Trustees,” I knew exactly what would be contained in that email. A quick scan was more than sufficient, as we’re used to the language at this point: one paragraph starts with “Unfortunately,” another with “It has now come to the Board’s attention.” In sum, “[T]he Board will not consider a candidate.”

It didn’t have to be this way. The position in question – a student on the Board of Trustees with no voting rights – is a very high priority for much of the student body. The Board is presumably aware of how widely disliked they are amongst the student body, and this position would have begun to build up a stronger, more trusting relationship between the students and the Board. From a purely political perspective, this would have been a great way for the Board to throw us a bone.

While the ethics of the dilemma have been frequently discussed over the past week, one question persists: if the Board of trustees pride Cooper on its student body, why don’t they trust their students? If we are, as we are frequently told, the best, brightest, hardest working and most creative students in America, why is the Board so hesitant to get us involved?

This isn’t exclusively a Board of trustee issue. On October 14th, Dean Dahlberg gave a presentation to the Engineering School about her vision for the school followed by a brief Q&A session. After a student (full disclosure: it was me) mentioned “The Way Forward,” she brushed it off, immediately dismissing the work of many hard-working, well-informed and good-intentioned members of the Cooper Community. When questions about tuition persisted from students, Dean Dahlberg told us, with a wagging finger, that she would not answer any more questions since she “didn’t come here to talk about [tuition.]”

In one fell swoop, the new Dean treated the engineering student body less like the brilliant students she told us we are, and more like a group of unruly children. After a self-assured and knowledgeable presentation, this condescending gesture was surprising but certainly not shocking.

I am reminded of the shenanigans that occurred in the Great Hall on April 23rd. Mark Epstein announced that tuition was going to be charged to new students in Fall of 2014. This was followed by a Q&A session, but instead of allowing audience members to ask questions by raising their hands or passing a microphone around, audience members had to write their questions down on index cards. Epstein then sifted through the cards, only answering those that he did not deem insulting. An audience member shouted “this method of asking questions is insulting,” which was followed by a round of applause. I can’t remember Epstein’s response; the content of his answer is nearly irrelevant. But I remember that diminutive tone that we’ve grown so accustomed to.

The list goes on. I’m sure we can all remember a time when a member of the administration spoke down to us. They broke agreements in order to keep us from helping them, they boarded windows and bathroom doors to specifically avoiding confront us, and they treated us like children every chance they got. If the student body isn’t what they love about Cooper, what is it about Cooper that they love?

Maybe they love our faculty whom they underpay and whose union they are constantly battling with. Maybe they love our wonderful facilities including our brand new multi-hundred-million dollar building that has eleven classrooms in as many floors. Maybe they love Peter Cooper’s legacy, which they are so eager to redefine. Maybe they love our centurial-precedent of providing full-tuition scholarships to all students.

My purpose is not to question the motives of the administration; it is to ask them to be consistent. The administration cannot have it both ways. When we’re being referred to abstractly as The Cooper Union Student Body, we are referred to as hard working and authentic students. When we have actual interactions with the administration, we’re treated like second-class members of the Cooper Community. It’s hard enough to be a student at Cooper Union and it’s only made more difficult by the financial crisis. The least we can ask is for the administration to stop bullshitting us. ◊

If you’d like to further discuss this op-ed, feel free to email michel@cooper.edu.

Two Takes on Today’s Events by Pioneer Staff (2)

Joseph Colonel (EE’15)

He had lived through so much to get to that day, the day he learned he had been accepted to The Cooper Union. His friends all congratulated him, his parents congratulated him, the strangers that his parents had told congratulated him. His English teacher convinced him to accept the full tuition scholarship: there was no better place to get an engineering undergraduate education in the country. The college would suit him: a college in an urban environment – the Village, no less –; a small college, with a small student to faculty ratio; a college close to home, less than an hour from his birthplace.

“And, it’s free.”

He didn’t even realize how lucky he was, he was told. His parents had really hit the lottery, he was told. Such a selective school… he must be so grateful, he was told. He would be an anomaly among his peers – he would not receive a debt totaling six figures attached to his diploma.

He sits in the Great Hall, five rows away from Mark Epstein, directly opposite the shorter than average man. The human twenty feet in front of him cannot control its presence in the Great Hall. The multitude occupying the seats of that hallowed speaking ground bore holes into Epstein’s face with their intent. Jiggling legs, nervous laughs, idle conversations that no one cares about, abnormally heavy breathing, thinking, hoping, praying, and sweating all fill the room with their cacophony. Two years of deliberations, two years of disagreements, two years of time, two years of the occasional sleepless night contemplating this miserable day…

“…Consequently, the Board of Trustees voted last week to reduce the full-tuition scholarship to 50% for all undergraduates admitted to The Cooper Union beginning with the class entering in the fall of 2014.”

It continues. No one rushes the podium. No one sets themselves on fire. No one sets off the bomb carefully attached to their chest, concealed under their clothes. Feedback eclipses Epstein’s processed, barely amplified voice. It continues to continue.

The spectators write their questions on sheets of paper that get brought up to Epstein. He flips through some, disregards others. A girl walks up to the podium and puts her question on Epstein’s podium. She taps the sheet of paper twice, then walks back to her seat. A boy places a scroll on Epstein’s podium that is promptly ignored by no one but Epstein. The spectators cheer for some questions, laugh at some answers. Emotions flare, piercing the silence Epstein tends as he reads.

He has never felt more alone in his life.

He will worry about planning his senior project. He will have experienced four years of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. A baby faced young person will be lost within the steel façade of 41 Cooper Square, searching for a classroom, or food, or an event. He will approach the young individual. The young individual will turn, and he will look into the eyes of the Class of 2018. And he will be lucky.

Two Takes on Today’s Events by Pioneer Staff (1)

Marcus Michelen (BSE’14)

As nearly every student here would say, I distinctly remember when I found out that I got accepted to Cooper. I was working on a presentation for Macroeconomics with my two closest friends and my mom called me. When she told me the news, I nearly collapsed to the floor. My friends thought that someone in my family had died. When I finally got myself together and told them what happened, they were ecstatic. They knew how much this meant to me, how I had wanted this more than anything else, how it felt like it would be the single greatest day of my life.

I never knew why I wanted to go to Cooper. In middle school, I dreamt of being an architect but, more importantly, studying at Cooper. As I got older and entered high school, I realized I wasn’t talented enough to be get into Cooper for architecture. I put any and all of my architecture dreams on hold: in order to go to the Cooper Union, I had to be an engineer. I wanted – I needed – to come here. I needed to come here.

There was a mystique, an aura surrounding the school in my mind, one I never bothered to contemplate until recently. It wasn’t exactly the free tuition that made me so enamored with the school, but nearly everything I idolized about Cooper can be seen as a direct result of the free tuition.

I’m reminded of Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark. The film covers over 300 years of Russian history, yet consists of a single 96-minute long Steadicam shot. No one would ever argue that the single-shot structure of the film is what makes it so appealing, yet this superficially interesting constraint is responsible for nearly all of the charms of the film. In other words, a constraint with a superficial appeal sometimes nurtures lasting and deeper positive qualities.

For Cooper, the superficially appealing constraint was the full-tuition scholarship. It’s certainly tempting to go to school for free, but that can’t be the only reason to go to the school. The scholarship yielded many qualities that I desired, in retrospect: the school couldn’t afford too many scholarships each year, so the school remained a very small, tight-knit community; students weren’t treated as customers and, thus, were required to genuinely work and learn for their degree; the school was insanely competitive, giving Cooper an aura of exclusivity.

Cooper was the type of school that could take something that Mark Epstein would see as “icing on the cake” and transform it into the foundation of a mythic place of obscure charm and mystique. It seemed like magic to me.

Now that the school has decided to charge tuition, starting with the incoming class in fall of 2014, the world has finally seen the smoke and mirrors behind the magic trick that was Cooper Union. In the years I’ve spent at Cooper Union, I’ve grown up significantly:

During this time of my life, I started drinking coffee, I held a 40-hour a week job, I started monitoring my cholesterol, I was rejected from a job for the first time, and I had a job that I was specifically trained to do.

I came to accept that change probably won’t happen, that when someone’s neck is on the line, they will not innovate.

I had my first serious relationship, I learned to deal with failure, and I learned to treasure true success. My youthful high school ego, the one that got me into Cooper, was cut down by students far smarter than I will ever hope to be.

Perhaps most importantly, I stopped believing in magic.

Op-Ed: On The Art of Protesting

Anna Vila (A ‘15)

I was in St. Marks Market getting a sandwich after the [deferred art students] rally and I saw a member of the Cooper Union custodial staff. We started chatting. I asked him what he thought of the rally. He replied, “Oh yeah, it was nice, but you know everyone has it bad, it’s not just you guys, times are rough, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Which I totally understand. But does that imply that because everyone has it bad, it’s ok? Are we supposed to just sit down and take it? Should we just believe the lies that we’re fed and do nothing because life sucks and we might as well deal with it, since we’re just “spoiled and entitled brats?” Hell no. Are we spoiled and entitled for looking out for future kids and trying to ensure that they have a great future?

I don’t see how spending countless hours, out of pocket money, and a whole lot of effort and planning could be seen as selfish. When I listened to those kids speak [at the rally], I realized just how much I care about all of them, and the kids that will replace them, and the kids after that.

I want them to have a fucking beautiful college experience and education, I want them to come to Cooper and I want them to learn amazing things. I want to get to know them and talk to them about art and life and become life long Cooper alum buddies with them. I want them to grow, and change, and find out things about themselves that they never knew existed. I want their entire lives to be turned upside down like mine was, and I want their minds to be blown every single day like my mind is. I love this school and I love my teachers and I love my classmates and I love my future classmates and goddamn it, I will do everything I can to make sure that there will be future classmates to have.

During the week of action back in December, we received so many letters of solidarity from student activist movements from all across the country and the world. It was beautiful. Solidarity is an amazing thing… You have all these kids somewhere, out there, and you don’t even know them but the mere fact that they exist becomes a motivation. And let’s not forget the fact that this is happening everywhere. Being part of a student solidarity network is important because it just makes you realize that you’re not alone.

Elsewhere, out in the great big world we live in, people lose their lives fighting for what they believe in. Where I come from, people set themselves on fire to make a statement about injustice. Don’t look up self immolation in Greece, that shit’s fucked up.

I try to stay neutral and look at both sides of the situation, but protesting is something that I feel very strongly about. Obviously, people can do whatever they want and stand on whatever side, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand people who actively sneer and make fun of people trying to show that they care.

“Silly artists, so emotional – and artistic – and radical!” We’ve heard it all before. It’s not that funny. I get frustrated trying to explain gestures and poetry and symbolics to people who immediately look for holes and mistakes in everything, because a lot of protesting is poetics: the beauty of people coming together because they care about something so much that it tears them up and all they can do is scream. I went to my first protest when I was 14 and I don’t think I had ever felt more alive.

I’m not saying protesting is for everyone. I am a firm believer that people should decide their own level of involvement. I know personally, when I have been in situations where I’ve been obligated to participate more than I was prepared to, I left feeling gross and frustrated. Activist and social justice circles have a way of fostering a safe environment, which I think is super important.

Generally, if you’re uncomfortable with something, you are more than encouraged to do whatever you think is best for you, [whether it be] speak up, leave the room, etc).

This isn’t just us. Shit like this is happening everywhere. There are student protest and activist movements happening in Canada, England, and around the world because of the cost of education. Kids in Quebec hold nighttime rallies denouncing the Prime Minister’s attempt to raise their tuition, often ending in fights with the police. Students in Bulgaria have been credited for helping to overthrow their government by holding rallies in response to increases in tuition.

We in the Cooper Union are part of a global movement towards fairer educational practices and administrative decisions. Beyond that, the Cooper Union needs to stand as an example to the rest of the world of what happens when we believe and demonstrate that education is priceless, when we believe that students are our future and not customers.

Call Back Your Tanks

Call Back Your Tanks

Marcus Michelen (BSE ‘14)

On Friday March 1, 2013 a few members of the Board of Trustees, along with President Bharucha, spoke before the Cooper Community in the Great Hall.  We were treated to a brief history lesson from trustee Michael Borkowsky (ME ’61), followed by a Q&A session.  The first batch of questions came from a cache of roughly 120 questions that were submitted online by various members of the Cooper Community.  The second batch of questions was asked by members of the audience.  These questions were moderated by trustee Edgar Mokuvos (EE ’78).  Also present from the Board of Trustees were Don Blauweiss, A ’61; Raymond Falci, ME ’86; Thomas Driscoll, ME ’77; Francois de Menil, ARCH ’87 and, of course, Mark Epstein A ‘76.

These seven members of the Board of Trustees took their seats at 6 PM, almost exactly on the hour.  President Bharucha wasn’t there at first.  Something felt very off.  There are a lot of members of the Board of Trustees, presumably with a fair amount of diversity.  Why, then, would they pick seven, white men with glasses in their forties?  At the risk of sounding exceedingly snarky, the panel bore more than a passing resemblance to Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy millionaires of The Muppets.

I was not the only one to notice the homogenous group of men that sat before the hungry audience; at the forum, Professor Anita Grossman of the Humanities Department said, “Never have I been confronted with a podium that is so entirely male.”  Mark Epstein responded, with the right amount of humor and self-consciousness, “we’re well aware that we’re too male and white.”

I don’t bring up the lack of diversity for the sake of a cheap joke and obvious reference.  Clearly, there must have been a reason that these seven were selected, especially since a female member of the Board of Trustees sat in the front row of the audience, not a member of the panel.  Looking at the list of Trustees on cooper.edu (cooper.edu/about/trustees), we see 22 names listed, including Jamshed’s.  Of these 21 (I omit Jamshed), eleven have degrees from Cooper Union.  All eleven are male.  The members of the Board of Trustees who spoke on March 1st were all male, yes, but more importantly, they all have degrees from Cooper.

I’m sure many of you are writing this off as a mere coincidence already, so I did a little bit of number crunching.  Let’s assume that the seven members were chosen randomly from the pool of 21 names; the odds that all seven members chosen were Cooper graduates are approximately .284%, less than 3 in 1000.  To me, this shows that these men were chosen largely because of their direct ties to the Cooper Community.

It’s no secret that we as students and faculty members have alienated the Board of Trustees.  In their own way, I think this choice of having Cooper grads speak is a very well-intentioned attempt to connect with the fairly intimidating Cooper Community more.

Demographics aside, the forum was quite typical.  Many fantastic questions were asked, a few repetitive questions were asked and, as expected, Professor Sohnya Sayres calmly and elegantly explained the beauty of the meritocratic nature of Cooper Union.  Most familiar, perhaps, were how the members of the Board dodged and avoided questions.

The members represented did not take any kind of responsibility for mass deferring of the Art school’s class of 2017, they failed to tell us when real decisions will be made (they have told us that March 6 is an important meeting, however) and, in some cases, the members simply dismissively disagreed with points raised.  For instance, a student brought up the lack of transparency in the Board of Trustees and Thomas Driscoll simply responded with “I think there’s been a very transparent process.”

What else were we expecting?  I joked before the meeting that the best case scenario would be the announcement of a large-scale gift and that the worst case scenario would be the announcement of the closure or implementation of tuition at any of the three schools.  We didn’t get either of those, clearly, but frankly we didn’t gain any substantial information at all. Which naturally brings to mind a more complicated question: why even hold this meeting in the first place?

We’d all love to believe that the Board of Trustees would like to the hear the opinion of the community before making any dramatic decisions, but it’s a little bit late for that.  The Board is well aware of what the community feels about nearly everything at this point; I don’t know how much that affects the decision that they will eventually reach, but at this point it would be outrageous if they didn’t know how the community feels.  Given the sheer lack of new content that appeared during this meeting and the choice of all Cooper graduates, this seems like an attempt to reach out to the community gone wrong.

In retrospect, nothing else could have really happened.  We’re at the point in time where we, as a community, cannot influence the Board’s decisions.  All we can do is wait.  In lofty terms, this meeting was a form of anagnorisis: the moment in a Greek Tragedy when the tragic hero is suddenly made aware of his fate.  While it may be a reach to compare the troubles of the Cooper Community to a hero in an Aristotelian tragedy, this meeting was nothing but a severe kick back to reality.  It was the time we collectively realized that this is really happening.  Just like the classic Greek Tragedies, there’s nothing we can do about our fate.  Whatever happens at this point is completely out of our control.

The only thing we can do is attempt to reach out to the Board of Trustees.  Regardless of what happens to the Cooper Union, every single person in the Cooper Community can only better from more secure and real connections between the Board of Trustees and the rest of the community.  We’ve tried to reach out to Board on numerous occasions; many of the questions that students presented before the Board on March 1st were strictly about improving relationships between the Board and the Cooper Community.  I know it’s a cliché to say so at this point, but the Board is not reciprocating our effort.

As a community, we have to keep trying. March 1st was a day where we tried very hard to reach out and the Board simply gave us nothing.  When Professor Sayres beautifully described the appeal of Cooper Union, she stood before the Board of Trustees in an attempt to communicate she believed they did not understand.  A friend of mine took a screenshot from the live stream when she was speaking to the Board; the results are quite poignant.

We see our Sohnya Sayres standing before these power-tie wearing gentlemen. This photo encapsulates the clear and apparent barrier between the Board of Trustees and the Cooper Community, a wall both parties lent a hand to help erect.  Visually, it bears much resemblance to the iconic photo of a man standing alone before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen Square protests.  It is all too easy to demonize the Board of Trustees as a vaguely fascist, imposing and mechanical group of scary men in suits.  We must move past this.  These were Cooper grads we met with.  They aren’t an extension of the Community; they are a part of the Cooper Community.

There’s room on both sides to try harder.  Somehow, we need to improve our image of this collection of people.  In turn, they need to reach back to us when we reach out to them.  Someone has to make the first move; this ball won’t get rolling by itself.  Let’s keep trying to reach out to them.  Let’s not think about them as Statler and Waldorf, but as our brothers and sisters in the Cooper family.  It’s all we can really do.

Photos by Jenna Lee (ME’15)