In April, Mark Epstein from the Cooper Union Board of Trustees announced the end of fully subsidized education across the college's art, engineering, and architecture schools. It was a closing chapter in a ferocious battle in the college since it announced its insolvency in 2011. But it may be the beginning of something else.
The details are too complex to fully describe here. On the one hand, a shortfall in Cooper's endowment became unsustainable following the market crash of 2007–2008. An extravagant and badly timed building project around the same time compounded the problem. Subsidizing a free art school costs money, and the school simply did not have it. But in his address to the Cooper community, Epstein's brutal pragmatism inadvertently described a much larger problem.
As we saw with the absurd closing of Middlesex University's philosophy department in 2010, the logic is deceptively clear: if you want it, you have to pay for it. But the real blow in Epstein's remarks wasn't to be found in his numbers, but in the total evacuation of any idea of why a school should be free in the first place, as a principle and a right, and as the primary means of leveling class differences in society. How could that have gone missing from an address by the school's very own trustees?
Let's try to look at this another way—and maybe we can even take Epstein's pragmatism at its word. The big hit to Cooper's endowment came from the market crash. Essentially, the subsidies to operating costs and tuition had been placed in a number of risky investments and managed assets, and these lost a staggering 14% of their value without ever recovering. So even if we are to take the trustees' argument seriously—that the crisis is a purely fiscal one—then we must also recognize that the markets themselves are in the midst of their own financial, and even existential, crisis. And Cooper Union's solution—to adopt austerity measures at the expense of the college's own mission, thus liquidating support for generations of young artists—is to miss a crucial, and even quite interesting, aspect of what the financial crisis has revealed about how money and markets actually work.
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