An update from Rebecca Mead writing in the New Yorker:
When the Cooper Union building was erected on Astor Place, in the late eighteen-fifties, its construction boasted several technological innovations. Being built from iron beams and cement, it was resistant to fire; it also incorporated that highly novel feature, an elevator. Peter Cooper, the industrialist and philanthropist who founded the school, had hoped for another ambitious design feature: a rooftop garden for the refreshment and recreation of the working-class, tenement-dwelling students who were to be provided with a free education under the terms of the institution’s charter.
Cooper was persuaded to forgo his paradisiacal plans for his building’s roof; but his hopes of establishing an institution without tuition fees endured for more than a hundred and fifty years. Then, three years ago, in the wake of the financial downturn, the college’s board of trustees began investigating the possibility of charging students for at least part of their education. By 2013, the decision had been made to institute fees of about twenty thousand dollars per year, characterizing that sum as half of the value of the free tuition previously granted to all. Mark Epstein, who was then the board chairman, announced, “Under the new policy, the Cooper Union will continue to adhere to the vision of Peter Cooper, who founded the institution specifically to provide a quality education to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.” Many critics argued that the proposal was directly counter to the vision of Peter Cooper. But, despite extensive protests of the Occupy sort and legal efforts by students and alumni, the policy went into effect last fall, when the first fee-paying undergraduates enrolled at the college.
As first reported, in March, in the Wall Street Journal, the office of Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of New York, was investigating the institution, examining the management of its endowment for possible conflicts of interest. The endowment derives almost entirely from revenue generated by the land under the Chrysler Building, which was deeded to Cooper Union in the early twentieth century; a small percentage is invested in hedge funds. Reportedly, the institution’s dealings with Tishman Speyer, the powerful real-estate company that manages the Chrysler Building, is being probed, as are the terms of a hundred-and-seventy-five-million-dollar loan taken out for the construction of a spectacular new building opposite Peter Cooper’s. The building, designed by Thom Mayne and clad in perforated metal, has become a symbol of sorts. It refreshingly subverts Modernist notions of transparency, according to Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic at the Times, who noted approvingly that its architect is “more interested in the dark, hidden corners where people can loiter, get into mischief, escape from authority.”
Details of the clash between board members and Jamshed Bharucha, the Cooper Union president, have been luridly unspooling in the press, including the revelation that the board hired a psychoanalyst turned business consultant, Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz, in an effort to remedy the curdled interpersonal dynamics. (Dr. Sulkowicz is the father of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University senior who has been carrying a mattress on campus for several months in protest against that institution’s handling of allegations of sexual violence.) It emerged last month that the board had offered not to renew Bharucha’s contract when it comes up for review next year, as part of a proposed deal with the Attorney General’s office. Meanwhile, critics inside and outside the institution have continued to accuse it of a lack of transparency even more obfuscating than Mayne’s stainless-steel façade.
At an introductory day held earlier this month for students who will be matriculating in the fall, members of Free Cooper Union, a group of activist students, handed out copies of a “2015 Disorientation Reader,” which offered background information on the dispute. “Now is the time to imagine new futures for Cooper Union,” it read, offering some possible alternatives: “A school with no president. A president whose job is to eliminate the idea of a president. A community empowered to govern itself.” How much traction such rhetoric will sustain among a student body in which half of the members, as of next fall, will be paying a substantial sum for the privilege of being there, remains to be seen. As Litia Perta, a onetime adjunct professor at Cooper Union, has eloquently argued, the promise of a free education provides its beneficiaries with more than just the technical knowledge acquired in the classroom. It also grants a student the freedom to go in whatever direction her or his intellectual inclinations lead, without regard to the ultimate economic utility of the course of study. That learning should not necessarily be linked to future earning power is an ideal increasingly under siege in institutions of higher learning. Simply by embodying and demonstrating an alternative paradigm, Cooper Union benefitted even those who were not members of its student body.
It seems perversely, even tragically, appropriate that an institution founded in New York’s original Gilded Age may be foundering amid the financial pressures and preoccupations that characterize our freshly gilded Manhattan of today. When Cooper Union first opened, Peter Cooper’s stated aspirations were challenged in some quarters; some suspected him of being less the selfless idealist and more the canny pragmatist. A story is told of an occasion upon which Cooper overheard the conversation of two gentlemen as they were passing by his building. One, noting the stores that operated on the ground floor, suggested that the apparently high-minded institution was nothing but a tax dodge, enabling Cooper to avoid the fees charged to commercial establishments. Cooper instantly invited the two men into the Union and showed them around, displaying its library, free and open to the public, and its classrooms, in which night classes in design were held for men and day classes in shorthand and telegraphy were held for women. One of the pair was so impressed by what he’d seen that he later became a donor. Perhaps the Attorney General’s investigation will shed an equally clarifying light upon the inner workings of the institution today. Somehow, though, it seems unlikely to result in quite such an edifying conclusion.