Saving Cooper Union

The past president and trustees of The Cooper Union say they were always transparent about the school’s financial situation, and that the college’s annual reports have always been open to the public. But the full extent of the school’s economic woes only seems to have registered last month when Jamshed Bharucha, Cooper Union’s new president, went public in the press about the predicament.

Sending a shockwave through Cooper Union’s 900-member student body, its faculty and its alumni, Bharucha raised the possibility that tuition might have to be charged at the famously tuition-free elite school in order to help it make ends meet and survive.

The school must find new revenue of $28 million per year by 2018, Bharucha explained.

He said charging tuition would only be “a last resort,” but must be put on the table as an option.

The new president stressed that low-income students would continue to have a free education, as would many middle-class students, and that no current students would have to pay tuition.

The Cooper Union was founded in 1859 by wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper with the goal of making a free education obtainable for all. However, in fact, the college wasn’t completely tuition free in its first few decades. Back then, those who could afford to pay tuition did. Subsequent endowments by Andrew Carnegie and Cooper’s family allowed the school to become all tuition free in 1902.

Thanks to, among other things, owning the land under the Chrysler Building — for which it gets about $10 million in revenue annually — The Cooper Union’s institutional model was sustainable until about 1990. However, at that point, the school’s revenues started to fall short of its expenditures, and the problem has persisted.

So, Cooper has been taking the risky step of dipping into its endowment principle.

Amid this economic uncertainty, Cooper recently built its new Thom Mayne-designed academic building at 41 Cooper Square, at a cost of $166 million. While an impressive edifice, one has to wonder how wise it was to construct it at this point.

The school’s board of trustees has also pointed the finger at alumni for their low rate of contributions, around only 20 percent. But, let’s face it, many artists, architects and even engineers wind up struggling, even more so in the current economy.

The simple fact is that a not-insubstantial number of Cooper’s students do come from well-to-do families. It seems reasonable that these students should pay some or full tuition, which would ensure that those students who truly need it would continue to have their educations fully funded.

Certainly, there would have to be firm parameters in place so that Cooper maintains its mission of providing top educations for working-class New York students: The number of affluent students would have to be capped.

The Cooper Union is truly a special institution — to both the East Village and New York City. Efforts must be taken to ensure it survives this current financial hurdle and to put it in good shape to flourish into the future.

While Bharucha’s comments caused a firestorm of protest, he comes from a deep higher-education background. His predecessors, George Campbell Jr. and John Jay Iselin, while able, lacked Bharucha’s prior experience as an academic administrator. It sounds like Bharucha is the type of leader that Cooper Union needs at this critical moment — not merely a fundraiser, but someone who can steer this great academic institution through the extremely troubled waters it currently faces. The new transparency and openness to dialogue is a promising starting point.

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