Inside the Battle for Cooper Union

Isaac Kaplan
Sep 15, 2015 11:41AM

Students hang banner below the historic clock tower of the Cooper Union Foundation building in New York City during a December occupation. Photo by Michael Fleshman.

Calling truce, Cooper Union and the Committee to Save Cooper Union are due to agree on a settlement later this week which will pause years of intense hostility between administrators and students, faculty, and alumni.

In 2012, the school announced that its dire financial situation would require it to begin charging tuition—something it had not done in 157 years—prompting waves of student protests, including multiple occupations. Now, on the heels of an investigation by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which uncovered disastrous financial management of the school’s $160 million new building, the brokered settlement will drastically alter the governance structure of Cooper Union and attempt to put the institution on a path back towards providing free education. (The university’s Vice President of Communications did not respond to Artsy’s request for comment for this article.)

Bet the School

41 Cooper Square. Photo by Isaac Kaplan.


In November of 2009, then-president of Cooper Union Dr. George Campbell Jr. delivered a speech accepting the Green Building Design Award, which had just been awarded to the institution’s recently completed home at 41 Cooper Square. The building was a symbolic shift for the school, its stainless steel facade something one would expect to find at a large research university with a global brand, not at a small arts, engineering, and architecture university where students attended gratis.

With a droopy bowtie, tiny spectacles, and a teacherly grin, Dr. Campbell exudes a quaint, avuncular honesty. In his speech, Campbell briefly mentioned Cooper’s free education, touted the building’s environmental sustainability, and quickly alluded to some unspecified risks behind the project. “It’s enormously gratifying to be recognized and to be rewarded for taking those risks—and succeeding,” he said. Campbell left the school two years later, with $175,000 dollars in bonus pay received for building 41 Cooper, according to the attorney general report.

Never a wealthy institution, Cooper Union, which owns the land under the Chrysler Building, had provided full scholarships to admitted students since 1859, primarily thanks to this steady stream of real estate income. Its long-brooding financial problems are reported to have reached existential proportions primarily under the administrations of its last two presidents: Campbell, who championed the building of 41 Cooper Square, and Jamshed Bharucha, who oversaw the implementation of tuition at the school until he was forced to resign last June.

As far back as 2001, the administration argued that the engineering school needed a new building because faculty wanted it (they actually voted against it) and because the old engineering building would require millions of dollar of renovations to remain accredited (not true, according to the attorney general’s report). After a capital campaign failed to generate sufficient funds for construction, Cooper Union secured a $175 million loan from MetLife and drew up a loan plan in order pay for the construction of 41 Cooper Square.

Under the 2006 plan, $35 million of the loan was invested in the school’s endowment, expected to produce returns in excess of 7% to cover the loan’s 5.875% interest rate. The plan also called for a reduction in expenses beyond any the school had ever achieved—a 10% flat cut by 2011. Next, Campbell and the board counted on the continuation of some $6 million in property tax benefits that were historically afforded to the school by New York City. Lastly, the plan relied on an unprecedented level of philanthropic support, with donations to a special building fund expected to total $40 million by 2011.

As the attorney general’s report notes, “The failure of any one of these four assumptions would undermine the school’s ability to remain solvent through the 30-year loan term.” Campbell and the board had, in the words of the report, “bet the school.” A statement released by the university, following the report, rejects its conclusions:  “The Cooper Union and the Board of Trustees [...] neither accept nor agree with the factual findings” of the attorney general, which “fails adequately to credit the Board’s commitment and initiative in addressing the issues raised” in the report.

Yet, as Dr. Campbell declared mission accomplished in 2009, the report claims the loan plan for financing 41 Cooper was derailing. In 2008, Cooper’s endowment was hit hard by the financial crash, not just failing to exceed the loan’s interest rate but suffering major net losses. In 2007, New York City challenged the university’s key property tax benefits and rather than risk losing them all, the school settled for a 50% cut—a loss of $3 million annually.

Additionally, by 2009, contributions to the building fund were falling well below target, and would continue to decline in subsequent years. It seemed alumni, undoubtedly also affected by the 2008 crash, were less compelled to finance the building’s construction after it had already been completed. The 10% across-the-board reduction in costs never materialized, either. By 2011, expenses had actually increased by 5%.

Unbeknownst to the public or to Cooper’s student body, as Campbell and other members of the Board of Trustees claimed success, the loan taken out to finance an ostensibly sustainable building was threatening not only Cooper Union’s free tuition, but possibly the very existence of the school.

41 Cooper Square

Left: Graffiti on a column in the basement of 41 Cooper Square, courtesy Free Cooper Union. Right, the building. 

Designed by “starchitect” Thom Mayne, 41 Cooper Square is a glistening, LEED certified building of undulating steel. That Cooper didn’t select one of its own alumni to design the building still baffles former students like Alex Goss. “We have art, architecture, and engineering [schools]. I think we could have made a building,” he says. But Mayne’s marquee name, the administration claims, was meant to attract a still-elusive donor with deep pockets to pay off the project.

Some students see the building as a symbol of just how far administrators strayed from Cooper’s core mission of providing a free eduction. “[Cooper Union] was never about having the most technologically advanced facilities. It was about having a conservatory-style education in close proximity and intensely with each other,” says Victoria Sobel, a recent graduate and member of Free Cooper Union (FCU), the student and alumni group formed in the fall of 2012 with the mission of, at that time, keeping Cooper free. As a free institution, Cooper wasn’t like other schools, she argues, so why should it look like them?

Once a shimmering architectural declaration of outsized ambition, now 41 Cooper stands darkened by both an ignominious history and a dirtying mesh facade, just one of many issues that plague the building. Students quickly recount a litany of problems with the $160 million structure, including broken elevators, windows that don’t open properly, and peeling walls. In June of 2009, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it “a bold architectural statement of genuine civic value.” Multiple students I spoke with simply called it “ugly.”

Although primarily used by those in the engineering school, many art students familiar with the building argue it isn’t fit for purpose. “If you were building a room that was ideal for a drawing and painting class or just for looking at any physical work, you wouldn’t put giant mesh metal shades on every window so that when the light shines through it puts a pattern on everything,” says senior Ian Langehough with a sense of genuine bafflement. Not even two weeks into school, incoming freshman voice annoyance at the lack of flatfile space in the 20,000-square-foot building.

To make room for 41 Cooper, the Hewitt Building, a beloved but tattered art studio space, was demolished. In its final weeks, students turned it into an angry exhibition that expressed their frustrations through images and graffiti. A picture of these final weeks captures George Campbell smiling in conversation, underneath big black letters that read “PREZ CAMCHIL SOLD US OUT.”

The generational memory that’s so inherent to the interconnected fiber of Cooper Union ensures that the ghost of the Hewitt Building haunts 41 Cooper. During a recent lecture in the basement of 41 Cooper, Professor David Gersten showed a picture of himself, taken while he was a student working in the Hewitt Building, which, he said, “beautifully stood where this building is today.” The crowd’s bitter laughter was just one manifestation of the deep-seated resistance administrators face in their efforts to align Cooper Union’s historic mission with the shiny new building.

Occupy Cooper

Photo from December 8th rally supporting the occupation of the clock tower. Photo by Michael Fleshman.

In 2011, word began leaking out about Cooper’s financial situation. Prior to that, however, the entering freshman class had “no idea what was coming,” says former student Goss. “We were just thinking about school, making things.” In April of 2013, Cooper Union announced it would charge tuition to all students, undergraduate and graduate, beginning in the fall of 2014. “We were absolutely horrified,” says Goss.

As Bharucha walked into a financial quagmire that few students or alumni blame him for, his rhetoric of opportunity and growth (though customary for someone in his position) put forth Cooper’s dire straits as an opportunity, rather than as a fundamental failure. “This hybrid model is exciting because it gives us a chance to do new things and not just hunker down,” Bharucha told the New York Times in 2012, referring to the decision to begin charging graduate students a year before announcing it would charge all students. According to many I spoke with, the fact that he and the board of trustees continued to deny the role 41 Cooper had in the dire finances only further antagonized the Cooper community.

Demanding more transparency, one action saw students confronting the board, including its president, Mark Epstein, with saran wrap. Epstein is on record blaming alumni donations for Cooper’s problems, insinuating that those who didn’t give money didn’t really care about the school. Enraged students had “a sense that [the explanations] were lies, but not having access to the information to prove it, we had to change the topic,” says Casey Gollan, a recent graduate and member of FCU.

The first action to garner major press attention occurred at the end of April 2012, when a group of some 11 students occupied Cooper’s iconic clocktower, hanging a banner which read “Free Education to All” from the top floor. This set the stage for the occupation of Bharucha’s office by some 30 to 40 students, including Gollan, Sobel, and Joe Riley, in May of 2013, with the goal of ousting Bharucha. “We fully expected to be arrested and kicked out within 24 or 48 hours of it happening,” Riley says, crediting meticulous planning for the fact that “two months later we were still there.” In lieu of attending class, the protest became their practice—making art and hosting lectures in the office, all livestreamed. Emma Hill, then a senior in high school, says her first encounter with Bharucha was over the livestream, when she watched a testy exchange between the president and the students in his office.

Photo from December 8th rally supporting the occupation of the clock tower. Photo by Michael Fleshman.

When talking about the occupation, the students who participated are circumscribed. “I’m still processing it,” Riley says. “It’s one of the most powerful experiences I’ve been through—emotionally and mentally exhausting but enriching at the same time.” Sobel, along with other seniors at the time, “went down for graduation, then went back up.” By summer, however, momentum was fading. Students began to leave town and the administration turned off the air conditioning. “We actually left the occupation on my birthday,” says Sobel. “It was a really heavy time.”

The students walked out with at least the promise of progress. Negotiations yielded a student presence on the board, a community space (later reneged on), and, most importantly of all, a “Working Group” of faculty, students, and alumni that would propose a way to keep Cooper free. In only seven weeks the Working Group came up with a proposal that advocated for staggering cuts to keep free tuition. But the process was far from perfect. “The Working Group was sabotaged by the presence of the administration,” who obstructed the process and released their own report which undercut the Working Group, Sobel says. A dissenting report, submitted in a “spirit of respect for the larger group” defends charging tuition as a path to financial sustainability and critiques some of the financial assumptions underlying the Working Group’s report. While not brushing it off completely, the board rejected Working Group’s plan and tuition went into effect in 2014.

Even so, the protests successfully attracted media attention, and under increased pressure Bharucha and five pro-tuition members of the board resigned in June. Given their persistence and visibility, the protests are also arguably partly responsible for Attorney General Schneiderman’s investigation. Even with their impressive success, the last few years—described by Professor Gersten as “traumatic, frightening, exhausting”—have taken a heavy toll, not only on students who participated, but on the entire student body.

Sensitive to the broader Cooper community, Sobel and others affiliated with FCU recognize how the necessities of activism, which relies on being “aggressive” and “clear,” don’t always accord with the process of artmaking that many came to Cooper Union for. According to Gollan, much of what made FCU successful also created certain perceptions about the group and its goals, especially its use of brash and powerful red and black imagery. “It served its purpose,” he says succinctly.

The dangers faced by protesters (armed security suddenly appeared on campus during the occupation) and their absence from classes were both felt. “Some of my best friends were up there [occupying]. It was really scary,” says Goss. “These were central figures of the community, even outside of the protest.” Following the occupation of Bharucha’s office, fatigue began to set in. In winter of 2013, after months of meetings that stretched long into the night, a planned protest that called for 1500 people to occupy Cooper’s main hall and iconic ledge fell apart at the last minute. “The momentum was somehow not there,” says Gollan. The lawsuit soon to be brought by the Committee to Save Cooper Union against the school became the main strategy for getting rid of tuition.

The Path to Free

Senator Brad Hoylman addressed a rally yesterday in support of the settlement. Photo by Isaac Kaplan

The pending settlement and the release of the attorney general’s report is a major but not a final victory. While the settlement puts Cooper Union on a path back to free, the school’s finances won’t be repaired overnight, and even charging tuition isn’t enough to bring the school back into the black.

Sobel and others are using this moment as an opportunity to reflect, plan, and heal. Nonstop Cooper, a popup artist residency, is just the beginning of that process. FCU has found something of an ally in Cooper Union interim president William Mea. When FCU proposed Nonstop Cooper, Mea, who will meet with students there later this week, provided the space and even a small budget. Through conciliatory acts like this one, Mea’s tenure has brought about a markedly positive shift in the atmosphere at Cooper.

While those in Free Cooper Union are youthful and idealistic, disillusionment with the Working Group, exposure to administrative stalling, and the abandonment of free tuition have removed any sense of naivete. “We’re getting thrown a lot of hefty bones,” says Gollan. “But we can’t let our guard down too much. What the [attorney general] is bringing is structure and reform, which can still be gamed unless there’s eternal vigilance.”

Opening of Nonstop Cooper last Monday. Photo by Isaac Kaplan

But at Nonstop Cooper’s opening last Tuesday, a community potluck, the mood was relaxed, even festive. It’s the kind of space that enamors artists because everything about it—the large glass windows, the blank walls, the support columns—asks to be made into something else. Much of the kind of artmaking that was overshadowed during the years of protest has the opportunity to blossom again during Nonstop Cooper’s brief life, while FCU turns its attention to the search for a new permanent president of Cooper.

Writing in the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead wondered how the anti-tuition sentiment will sustain itself “among a student body in which half of the members [..] will be paying a substantial sum for the privilege of being there.” Nonstop Cooper is an example of how memory and mission can be passed down from alumni to freshman. All the freshman I spoke with there expressed the desire to continue the fight, some even going so far as to say that’s why they came to Cooper. “I will do my best to make sure it gets better,” says engineer Oree Livni.  

Cooper Union is a relative outlier among American private universities, but, located in the heart of downtown Manhattan, it is not an isolated one. At a rally celebrating the settlement yesterday, Senator Brad Hoylman had a message for New York State universities: “End the corporatization.” Exposed to the influence of Occupy Wall Street and the ensuing populist wave that swept politicians like Eric Schneiderman to power, the school’s success or failure to navigate back to free tuition may foreshadow the outcome of broader progressive agendas. The next few years will not be passive. Cooper’s future will be battled for by students, augmented by administrators, and overseen by an independent monitor appointed by the attorney general. Ultimately, says Gollan, “Cooper will be free if people want it to be.” It is a deceptively simple dictum that, even as the financial complexities mount, remains true.

—Isaac Kaplan

Isaac Kaplan