Save The Cooper Union without losing its identity

BY BARRY DROGIN  |  Three months ago, this newspaper reported on a summit meeting in The Great Hall of The Cooper Union, in which Cooper students, faculty and alumni gathered to voice unified support of keeping the colleges of art, architecture and engineering as tuition-free institutions. Pledges were made, processes were started and eloquent testimonies offered. It is time for a progress report.

To promote the idea of philanthropy, the students started a drive to collect money — even a token penny — for which students received an “I Support The Cooper Union” sticker. Other students signed a pledge to donate when they graduated and became alumni. Alumni continued the process started at the summit, holding several breakout sessions to work on practical solutions to the college’s various problems, not only financial, but also communications and community service. The alumni council — elected representatives of the alumni association — unanimously adopted a resolution in support of maintaining free education at The Cooper Union, and striving for full participation in alumni financial support of the college. The faculty bodies and elected student representatives are readying similar resolutions. In a collaboration between students, faculty, alumni and staff, an online pledge site, Money On The Table, has raised more than $250,000 from more than 500 donors. Several Web sites on various social media platforms have been launched, including a petition drive with more than 4,000 signatures, a Facebook page with more than 1,000 members, and friendsofcooperunion.org, a conglomeration site that unifies them all and promotes activism under the acronym FoCUS (Friends of Cooper Union Strategies). A FoCUS event on Tues., Feb. 21, which was planned after this talking point was written, was expected to attract students, faculty, alumni and staff.

The unity isn’t surprising, considering that there is significant overlap between the stakeholders of what is called “The Cooper Union Community.” Students, of course, graduate to become alumni. Many alumni return to teach as faculty or as visiting artists. Both students and alumni act as staff — in the Computer Center, in shops and studios, and in public service roles in the Saturday Program for more than 1,000 high school students. Even the board of trustees, in addition to four elected alumni representatives, has a large number of alumni, including the board’s chairperson.

The local community — not just those in the specialized professions, but residents of all New York City — are also stakeholders in The Cooper Union, not just as residents and through the school’s Continuing Education programs, but through decades of progressive political gatherings in The Great Hall, too numerous to list here.

The Cooper Union is first and foremost a college. In 1998 the Middle States Association, which accredits it, criticized The Cooper Union for not having a clear mission statement. Over the next two years, the stakeholders of The Cooper Union gathered to formulate what, in 2000, was adopted by its board of trustees as the mission statement of The Cooper Union:

“Through outstanding academic programs in architecture, art and engineering, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art prepares talented students to make enlightened contributions to society.

“The College admits undergraduates solely on merit and awards full scholarships to all enrolled students. The institution provides close contact with a distinguished, creative faculty and fosters rigorous, humanistic learning that is enhanced by the process of design and augmented by the urban setting. Founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper, industrialist and philanthropist, The Cooper Union offers public programs for the civic, cultural and practicable enrichment of New York City.”

The Save Cooper Union movement, as it is known (“Free Cooper Union” was clever, but its meaning less clear), needed to define what The Cooper Union was in order to define what it was saving.

This war of words has become the strategy the Save Cooper Union movement has embraced, with the mission statement at its core. The focus remains not only on the phrase “full scholarships to all enrolled students,” but many other phrases in the mission statement, as well. The stakeholder process that resulted in board adoption cannot be arbitrarily ignored.

Nonprofit boards have three duties under New York State law: a duty of care, a duty of loyalty and a duty of obedience. Violation of the duty of care — to reject presidential budgets and investment manager recommendations if they place the institution in peril — has already led to the college’s precarious financial state, one which Villagers should know can lead to bankruptcy, as seen in the case of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Egregious violations of the duty of loyalty — conflicts of interest within the board — have been corrected. It is now the duty of obedience to the mission of the institution which is under direct threat. That threat comes from the institution’s new president that the board selected and installed in July 2011.

In a letter to the Cooper Union community in November, in a presidential address in December, in task forces appointed in January, and in a Web site that fully sprang to life in February, President Jamshed Bharucha has called for the “reinvention” of The Cooper Union. All four elements of this “reinvention strategy” violate the college’s mission statement. Instead of full scholarships to all enrolled students, the new president wants to substitute access for the lower class. Instead of the college’s devotion to its urban setting and, specifically, New York City, the new president wants to substitute globalization. Instead of Cooper’s civic and cultural public programs, the new president wants to deploy technology and design for the nation and world. And instead of preparing students with outstanding academic programs, the new president wants the faculty and students to engage in entrepreneurial activity.

Bharucha has already launched a fifth element, inherent only in the title of the institution but not present in its mission statement: to develop cross-disciplinary courses to bring about a “union for the advancement of science and art.”

Instead of implementing an austerity budget and layoffs, the new president announced a hiring freeze that has already been violated. And instead of embracing the community summit process started in December, he is attempting to implement a parallel closed-door process, with confidentiality agreements and approved minutes, to implement his “reinvention strategy.” Apparently, one week of open forums, no matter how well moderated, was too much for the new “transparent” president and his administrative staff.

When put into the context of the 19th-century words of its “Deed of Trust” and Peter Cooper’s letter to the trustees of the college, this “reinvention” — which happens to jibe exactly with the new president’s educational policy speeches prior to coming to New York City — can be made to appear to make sense. But The Cooper Union is no longer a vocational school for the lower classes; it is a unique, tuition-free, accredited institution of specialized higher education that for 110 years has admitted undergraduates — lower class, middle class and upper class — solely on merit.

After Sept. 11, 2001, an alumnus architect supplied The Cooper Union with blueprints of the seven-story, 16-acre basement of the World Trade Center complex. Forty students labored for three weeks to build a scale model out of plexiglass, balsa wood and plastic foam to aid in the excavation — a model that the executive deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction called, “Truly amazing.”

The service The Cooper Union provides to the citizens of New York City is well known. As stakeholders, please join with other friends of The Cooper Union to ensure the board acts to save and preserve the mission, the accreditation and the existence of the college.

Drogin, a West Village resident, is publisher of The Alumni Pioneer, an online newspaper devoted to investigative journalism about the Cooper Union financial crisis. A 1983 graduate, he was The Cooper Union’s first Tau Beta Pi laureate, for diverse achievements in music and journalism. His YouTube video, “The New Colossus,” satirizes in music, lyrics and images the “reinvention strategy” of The Cooper Union’s new president.

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