Occupy free tuition! Cooper students take historic tower

Cooper Union students Audrey Snyder and Rachel Appel read a statement from the occupiers outside the Foundation Building on Tuesday. Photo by Sam Spokony

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Cooper Union students, with the support of more than 50 professors, are continuing vehement protests against the school administration’s April announcement that it will begin charging tuition for graduate students next year, along with considering tuition charges for some undergraduates.

Monday afternoon, 11 student protesters barricaded themselves in the historic clock tower on the eighth floor of the college’s Foundation Building. After attempts by maintenance workers to remove them failed, the occupying students draped a large banner reading, “Free Education To All,” over the building’s side.

The students remained in the clock tower at press time.

Cooper Union, which serves about 1,000 students, with schools in art, architecture and engineering, was founded in 1859 and has offered full-tuition scholarships to all its students since 1902. With buildings on Cooper Square and Astor Place, the college is one of a handful in the nation to offer a free education.

Its full-tuition scholarships are currently valued at $38,550 per year, according to the college.

The college was founded by inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper, whose son-in-law — a major figure in the college’s development around the turn of the 20th century — advocated for starting the scholarships because, as he once said, education should be “free as air and water.”

But Cooper Union’s current administration and president, Dr. Jamshed Bharucha, have argued that drastic measures are needed to keep the college from financial ruin.

The school faced a 28 percent, or roughly $17 million, operating deficit for the 2011 fiscal year, while falling $53 million short of its goals for donations and overall endowment revenue, according to an October report by the college’s Revenue Task Force.

The task force aims to create $12 million in new revenue streams by fiscal year 2018. The report’s creators estimated that a series of new, tuition-based, cross-disciplinary graduate programs at Cooper Union would bring in about $6.5 million by that time.

To close the revenue gap, the task force raised the possibility of cutting undergraduate scholarships by 25 percent. According to the report, this would bring in about $6 million more in new revenue by fiscal year 2018.

Anticipating outcry over that idea, the report’s writers noted, “Such a change should be implemented only when all other measures fall short of ensuring the survival of the school.”

But many students and professors believe that an end to full tuition scholarships would permanently damage the overall character of Cooper Union.

“[By opting] for an expansionist, tuition-based model, President Bharucha has demonstrated that he is incapable of defending Cooper Union’s mission and history of providing free education for all,” said Rachel Appel, a senior in the college’s School of Art, reading a statement prepared by the 11 occupying students, at a press conference outside the Foundation Building on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Day Gleeson, an associate professor at the college, announced the writing of a letter, with more than 50 faculty signatures, in support of continued full scholarships for all enrolled students.

Jolene Travis, a Cooper Union spokesperson, said in a statement that the 11 protesters occupying the clock tower “do not reflect the views of a student population of approximately 1,000 architects, artists and engineers.”

But there were hundreds of students cheering when the occupiers waved from an eighth-floor window Tuesday afternoon.

“Some of us are more outspoken than others,” said student Chris Bennett, as he sat outside the Foundation Building smoking a cigarette that day, “but everyone here supports them.”

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7 Responses to Occupy free tuition! Cooper students take historic tower

  1. Joel Greenstein

    Cooper Union should remain tuition-free. We need to know where the expenses are and which can be cut to bring the institution into the black.. Somehow the Cooper Union has remained tuition-free sionce 1902. Why can't it continue this policy. I have conributed to the annual fund every year since I graduated in 1962 ; all alumni should also contribute.

    Joel Greenstein E62D

  2. The school has been operating in deficit for probably the last 40 years. I applaud your contribution to the annual fund. It seems that you, like me, are part of the 11%, which is what I hear the alumni giving rate is. This is a horrible number considering that every living alumni went there tuition-free. It should also be pointed out that the entire community is opposed to tuition, but the administration does not have to luxury of just saying what it wants, but rather what it can deliver. Tuition is a last resort option for anyone (the other alternative would be to shrink the schools down in size, or even eliminate one of the schools, but given that choice, I think we would all agree that a modest tuition is a better option).

  3. Cross-posted from WNYC, from Professor Peter Buckley: "As the historian at Cooper Union I'd like to make a correction to WNYC's correction above. With the exception of a small number of amateur students in the women's Day School of Art all students in certificate or degree programs have received tuition without paying for it. This has been the case since 1859. The "110" year statement refers to students in the Day School of Engineering, but since it only opened in 1901 it would be hard for the institution to charge tuition for that school before its founding! Let's not pretend it was the policy of Cooper Union to charge tuition in its early years and that mere circumstance has delayed its return."

    Professor Buckley is saying that the degree-granting engineering night school program established in 1859 was always free. This is from Peter Cooper's 1864 speech to its first graduating class: "it was this feeling which led me to provide an institution where a course of instruction would be open and free to all."

  4. Every year, 1980 to 1984, Cooper was in surplus. In one of those years, the Board rejected a president budget because the surplus wasn't deemed large enough. Those are the years I was at Cooper. From 2000 to 2011, the budget swung wildly between surplus and deficit, 50/50. In 2008, The Cooper Union had a balanced budget.

    The alumni contribution figures do not include the 11 year Capital Campaign. While alumni gave under $2M per year to the annual fund, they gave almost $6M per year to the Capital Campaign. These figures are for every year for eleven years.

    And since non-academic expenses comprise over 50% of Cooper's expenses, it is a shame to shift the focus to academic cuts and completely ignore how easy it would be to institute more non-academic cuts. And it is a shame when the Cooper Union Community and the general public are fed false narratives and half-truths that then influence their understanding of what happened and what is possible.

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