“Free as air and water”

Cooper Union was long unique among U.S. design schools in offering an education that was not only first-rate but also tuition-free. It’s lately fought a dramatic battle to remain true to its egalitarian mission.

The Foundation Building at Cooper Union during the December 2012 student occupation of the clocktower suite.
The Foundation Building at Cooper Union during the December 2012 student occupation of the clocktower suite. [Free Cooper Union]

I formed a very resolute determination that if I could ever get the means, I would build an institution and throw its doors open at night so that the boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I to enjoy means of information, would be enabled to improve and better their condition, fitting them for all the various and useful purposes of life.
— Peter Cooper, 1859

1. Sculptural Support

In December 2012, over the course of several days, Jon Cuba clandestinely created a “sculpture” on the fourth floor of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Cuba worked in a 4,000-square-foot woodshop that one wouldn’t expect to find in the Foundation Building, the landmarked edifice that has been the heart of campus ever since the college of art, architecture, and engineering was founded in 1859. Amidst drill presses and table saws, students shuffled about in welding gear and coveralls. Machines whined and rock music blared from sawdust-covered speakers. Looming over the racks of wood was an enormous wall-mounted bison head. From the rounded Italianate windows, students could peer down at the crowds in Astor Place, a busy intersection in Lower Manhattan and gateway to the East Village.

Cuba, then 20 years old, was welding a heavy grid of rebar into an eight-foot-tall form. In many settings, this large and heavy sculpture would have been eyebrow-raising, but the shop technicians were accustomed to art students constructing big, idiosyncratic works. Cooper Union was renowned for its generous studio spaces. Each art student was allocated a gallery for a final senior-year show, and over the years students had built plywood Potemkin villages, hauled in grand pianos, and set up pools full of oil. But Cuba wasn’t working on his senior show; he was working on a protest. Earlier that year the school’s trustees had announced a controversial decision that cut to the core of Cooper Union’s institutional identity. From the start the college had offered free classes and for more than a century had proudly maintained a tradition of providing a free undergraduate education to all its students. Now the school was planning to start charging tuition.

Cuba’s rebar-grid sculpture would be used to brace the door of a space that a group of students planned to occupy as a protest again the tuition plan; it would be deployed to protect the occupiers from police officers and school officials. The fourth-floor woodshop wasn’t the only scene of intense preparation; as Cuba welded rebar, other student activists were gathered in a vacant classroom a few floors above. There they cut out 20-inch letters from a roll of white fabric and pinned them onto an old theater curtain to create a massive banner which read: FREE EDUCATION TO ALL.

Students secured the doors, dropped the banner over the school’s facade, and issued a set of demands to the administration.

At noon on December 3, 2012, eleven students entered the Peter Cooper Suite, a large space located just behind the clock that crowns the Foundation Building. They secured the doors, dropped the banner over the school’s facade, and issued a set of demands to the administration. The occupation would last for just one week, to be followed five months later by a much longer occupation of the president’s office. The actions culminated more than a year of activism on the part of the school community — students, faculty, alumni — against the tuition plan. In a media release issued from behind barricaded doors, the students, who were part of a larger group organized under the name Free Cooper Union, announced they had “reclaimed the space” in pursuit of higher goals.

We believe that all tuition-based revenue-generating programs are a departure from Cooper Union’s historic mission and will corrupt the college’s role as an ethical model for higher education. To secure this invaluable opportunity for future generations, we have taken the only recourse available to us. 1

2. To Science and Art

The Cooper Union was established by the inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper, who wished to endow a new charitable institution “where a course of instruction would be open and free to all.” 2 This extraordinary gift to New York City was an outgrowth of Cooper’s personal history and humanitarian ethos. Born in 1791 to a family too poor to pay for schooling, he served as an apprentice in various trades before purchasing a glue factory in Manhattan. This early success would launch a long and remarkable career as an entrepreneur-inventor during which Cooper had a hand in numerous enterprises ranging from iron manufacture to railroads to real estate to assorted products including a powdered gelatin that was the precursor to Jell-O. By the mid-19th century, Cooper was one of the richest men in New York, and also one of its most generous and civic-spirited philanthropists. He believed passionately in free education as the means by which the children of the poor could fulfill their promise.

Peter Cooper believed passionately in free education as the means by which the children of the poor could fulfill their promise.

In a remarkable letter delivered to the trustees of his new institution along with the deed to the property, Cooper articulated his convictions. “It is the ardent wish of my heart,” he wrote, “that this school of design may be the means of raising to competence and comfort thousands of those that might otherwise struggle through a life of poverty and suffering.” 3 One early illustrious graduate would provide ample justification of his faith. In 1861 Augustus Saint-Gaudens was admitted to the school when, as legend has it, Cooper noticed the 13-year-old Irish immigrant, then apprenticed to a cameo cutter, making a drawing. Saint-Gaudens would become the preeminent sculptor of his day, a prolific artist whose extensive legacy of public monuments includes the bronze statue of Peter Cooper that sits just south of the Foundation Building, anchoring Cooper Square.

Designed by architect Frederick Peterson, the Foundation Building opened in 1859.
Designed by architect Frederick Peterson, the Foundation Building opened in 1859. [Library of Congress]

Augustus Saint-Gaudens's bronze statue of Peter Cooper was dedicated in 1897. The base is by Stanford White.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s bronze statue of Peter Cooper was dedicated in 1897. The pedestal is by Stanford White. [Library of Congress]

Located in what is now the East Village and what was then a German immigrant enclave known as Kleindeutschland, Cooper’s new institution was housed in a single imposing structure built between 1853 and 1859, a proto-skyscraper clad in rusticated brownstone that incorporated some of Cooper’s own inventions, including floor-spanning wrought-iron beams that anticipated the development of the I-beam which would make possible the steel-frame high-rise. Cooper also insisted that the building be outfitted with a circular shaft so that it could eventually accommodate a “mechanical conveyance” to carry people between floors. The inventor was sure that passenger elevators were imminent, and convinced too that round cabs would be most efficient. (More than a century later, the school finally got its round elevator, as part of a mid-1970s renovation led by architecture professor and later dean John Hejduk. 4) With its slightly tapered profile, the Foundation Building looked from some angles like a grand sailing ship that had set anchor in Astor Place. Atop the facade was carved the motto: TO SCIENCE AND ART.

The Great Hall earned a place in American history when, in 1860, it was the setting for Abraham Lincoln’s famous ‘Right Makes Might’ address.

Cooper Union embodied a capacious ambition: part polytechnique in the French tradition, part public library, part meeting hall and debate society. The Foundation Building comprised a large public reading room that was “free to all persons, male and female, of good moral character,” and stayed open late into the evening 5; a picture gallery (which would later grow into the Cooper-Hewitt Museum); and perhaps most significantly, an auditorium called the Great Hall. A Moorish Revival space located in the building’s basement, the Great Hall early on earned a place in American history when, in February 1860, it was the setting for Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Right Makes Might” address, which was widely credited with helping him win the presidency later that year. 6 Since then the subterranean venue has hosted stump speeches by presidential aspirants from Ulysses Grant to Barack Obama; the first meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and an address by Leon Trotsky in which the exiled Russian revolutionary would urge Americans to unite “under the banner of the coming social revolution.” 7 A forum for wide-ranging and often controversial debate among diverse citizens, the Great Hall has made Cooper Union a node in the international flow of ideas and politics.

Engravings showing scenes from the early decades of Cooper Union.
Engravings showing scenes from the early decades of Cooper Union. [Library of Congress]

But above all Cooper Union was an institution dedicated to free education. In the early years the school offered “practical” courses focused on what we now call continuing education or “re-skilling” — engineering and scientific instruction for adults seeking a springboard into the middle classes. There was instruction in “mechanical philosophy,” architectural drawing, and chemistry, among other subjects. There were also courses for women; “to better the condition of woman and to widen the sphere of female employment,” wrote Cooper in his letter to the trustees, “I have provided seven rooms to be forever devoted to a Female School of Design.” 8

Cooper Union’s pedagogical ambitions have expanded since its founding, and so too has its compact campus. In the late 19th century, the school introduced a bachelor’s degree, and by the early 20th century it had discontinued the policy of open admissions on a first-come/first-serve basis and adopted a merit-based application system. It had also discontinued an early practice of accepting fees from students who paid to sit in on undersubscribed courses; by the early 20th century all full-time students attended for free. 9 In 1912 the Foundation Building was joined by a second structure, the Hewitt Building, named for Cooper’s son-in-law, Abram Hewitt, an industrialist and political leader who, as chair of the board of trustees, strengthened his father-in-law’s legacy. It was Hewitt who embellished Cooper’s motto — that education should be “open and free to all” — into the mellifluous “free as air and water” — the phrase that would be chanted by the 21st-century student protesters. In 1959, a boxy Engineering Building was added to support graduate programs (a short-lived departure from the school’s emphasis on undergraduate education).

Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, designed by Morphosis.
Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, designed by Thom Mayne and Morphosis. [Beyond My Ken]

But the most significant change to the physical campus would come in this century when, in 2000, the trustees advanced a plan to demolish the aging Hewitt and Engineering Buildings and replace them with a new structure dedicated to “nurturing creativity and innovation.” All across the country universities were expanding, seeking to modernize with new high-tech facilities boasting smart-board-laden labs, sophisticated maker spaces, and assorted amenities from informal study nooks to climbing walls. To Cooper’s administration it seemed the moment to replace the school’s aging auxiliary structures with an emphatic architectural statement that could match the Foundation Building. Almost a decade later, in 2009, the school would open the new building at 41 Cooper Square, designed by Thom Mayne and Morphosis, and constructed at a cost of $166 million. 10

3. On the Table

When the student protesters entered the Peter Cooper Suite in December 2012, they jammed a folding table into Hejduk’s famous round elevator, effectively disabling it. To secure a door that led to the roof, they used Cuba’s sculpture, a lattice of welded metal bars that held sheets of plywood against the door and was then buttressed by diagonal two-by-fours and cables linked to the room’s support columns. In their press communiqué, the students noted that the contraption, which resembled the shaft of a medieval catapult, “was designed not to damage the building and [to] be easily removable in the event of an emergency.” As a collectively conceived and constructed work of art and engineering, it would have made Peter Cooper proud. 11

The students had scouted a number of spaces for possible occupation. The Great Hall carried huge symbolic value but was judged too large and accessible to secure. The recently completed Morphosis building — now called 41 Cooper Square, referred to then as the New Academic Building — was also ruled out, as was the street-level colonnade of the Foundation Building. But the Peter Cooper Suite, situated behind the ten-foot-diameter clock face with exposed workings and located on the top floor, was just right. The round elevator opened directly into the suite, which included a small bathroom and kitchenette. Most days it was used for drawing classes, but it was designed to hold intimate fundraising receptions where guests could spill out onto an adjacent roof deck. It was also where the board of trustees often met; one of the occupiers’ goals was to preempt a scheduled meeting and delay a vote on the tuition plan.

Students greet supporters eight stories below, during the occupation of the Peter Cooper Suite in December 2012.
Students greet supporters eight stories below, during the occupation of the Peter Cooper Suite in December 2012. [Joe Riley]

The door-bracing assembly was put to the test soon after the occupation started, when security and maintenance workers emerged from the fire stairs onto the roof and tried to break into the suite. The barricade didn’t budge. After this tense moment, the school officials backed down and the students settled in. They moved the easels that normally clutter the room to a corner, spread out sleeping bags and yoga mats, and lined up provisions on a table (there was lots of instant coffee and canned foods). Over the illuminated clock face they placed sheets of red gel, fortuitously creating the graphic symbol that would signal the occupation: as far away as ten blocks south, on the Bowery, you could look up and see the glowing red disc. Later, hundreds of red clock buttons were produced, showing the minute hand nearing midnight. In the “eleventh hour,” the occupiers “would not give up on Peter Cooper’s dream of free education.” 12

The occupation was the result of a growing crisis that had begun more than a year earlier, on October 31, 2011, when the school’s new president, Jamshed Bharucha, made a somber announcement: the Cooper Union was facing financial catastrophe. Bharucha was speaking at what was intended to be a closed-door meeting of engineering students, but somehow the audience had swelled to several hundred, filling to capacity the auditorium of 41 Cooper Square. Alumni, who were hearing the news via a series of increasingly urgent Facebook messages, streamed into the building. People greeted old friends and asked about partners and kids; the gathering had the feel of a village reunion, despite the unease.

Bharucha laid out the difficult situation. Three years after the crash of 2008, the school was millions in debt due to risky investments in boom-time hedge funds as well as a series of real estate blunders. A capital campaign for the pricey new building had missed the mark and, as the great recession deepened, the school was servicing a large debt. This was a surprise to most of those in the audience; two years earlier the Wall Street Journal had published an article titled “One College Sidesteps the Crisis: As Many Endowments Suffer, No-Tuition Cooper Union Builds, and Basks.” 13 Now the community was being told that the school’s budget carried a deficit of more than $8 million (this would be revised months later to more than $16 million) — a substantial amount for a prestigious but small school whose alumni tended to enjoy professional prominence but not deep pockets. The village gathering was beginning to feel like a wake.

On December 3, 2012, community members gathered for a day of action during the student occupation of the Peter Cooper Suite.
On December 3, 2012, community members gathered for a day of action during the student occupation of the Peter Cooper Suite. [Rocco S. Cetera]

When the president asserted that Peter Cooper’s 1859 deed did not promise a tuition-free education, there were audible gasps in the audience.

After describing the severity of the situation and promising that the school community would be consulted in an open, public process, Bharucha made an unsettling pivot. The new president started to talk about Peter Cooper. He claimed that Cooper’s true intentions were not really understood: although the great philanthropist had wanted to remove barriers to education, he didn’t necessarily want to give education away for nothing. When Bharucha asserted that he’d examined the 1859 deed and concluded that it did not promise a tuition-free education, there were audible gasps in the audience. As he finished his remarks, he declared that all solutions for resolving the crisis would be examined; everything, he said, was “on the table.”

That Halloween, as people filed out of the auditorium and onto Lower Manhattan streets jammed with costumed revelers, the overwhelming response was collective incredulity. Phrases like “forensic accounting” zipped through the crowd, along with profanities. The anger was soon mixed with sadness; one recent graduate wondered how an institution that had survived several depressions and two world wars could be crippled by “bad debt on a starchitect-designed building.” At an Irish bar in the neighborhood, others wept over shots of Jameson. 14

On November 2, 2011, in the first of several student walkouts, art classes were held outdoors to protest the tuition plan.
On November 2, 2011, in the first of several student walkouts, art classes were held outdoors to protest the tuition plan. [Masha Vlasova]

But in the next few days — in heated conversations over cigarettes in front of the Foundation Building, or via Gchat and long phone calls — people began to wonder whether something could be done to preserve the school’s historic dedication to a tuition-free education. The wheels of community organizing began to turn. Some who stepped up were longtime activists, like Barry Drogin, a graduate of the School of Engineering who’d been probing the school’s financial arrangements since his undergraduate days in the early ’80s. Others were learning on the go, like Henry Chapman, a recent grad who launched an online petition and later helped found the Friends of Cooper Union, a group of alumni, students, and faculty who championed financial accountability and community decision-making.

From its early days and up to the present, the majority of students came from immigrant neighborhoods in the five boroughs of New York.

The central point on which all agreed was that what was most important about Cooper Union was its commitment to free education. From its early days and up to the present, the majority of students came from immigrant neighborhoods in the five boroughs of New York; they’d trained at Cooper Union because it was accessible (and since the 1970s the school has offered free high school art and architecture courses in order to recruit low-income students). If admissions had become increasingly selective, this was due in no small part to the appeal of an education that would leave graduates debt-free. The school was elite, with only a six percent acceptance rate; entry to the schools of art and architecture was based on a storied “hometest” — a set of visual projects — that rewards sharp thinking and design acumen over grades and extracurriculars. Instructors were committed to Cooper Union because it was one of the increasingly rare places where students were treated not as consumers of a degree but rather as collaborators in the exploration of ideas.

Just before his Halloween meeting with the school community, Jamshed Bharucha was interviewed by the New York Times. “We have to find new, robust revenue streams, and we have to do that quickly,” he told the reporter. 15 In the following weeks it became increasingly clear that while all plans may have been “on the table,” one plan was getting special attention: tuition. Here Bharucha had the support of at least some trustees, who argued that tuition was perhaps regrettable but was in any case inevitable; notably this was the position of board chair Mark Epstein, a 1976 art graduate who’d made a fortune in real estate. 16 Beyond the leadership circle, however, some questioned the logistical efficacy of setting up a whole new administrative apparatus to support and market a tuition program. What’s more, as concerned alumni scrutinized the school’s financial statements, they discovered a bulked-up administration that seemed disproportionate for a school with fewer than one thousand undergraduates; as did the compensation policies. 17 George Campbell, Jr., who’d just stepped down after more than a decade as president, had drawn an annual salary of $668,000, three times that of his predecessor (and on a par with the heads of major research universities); it was Campbell who’d overseen the adventurous investments and capital projects that had led to the current debacle.

Instructors were committed to Cooper Union because students were treated not as consumers of a degree but rather as collaborators in the exploration of ideas.

The Cooper Union draws most of its operating capital from a small portfolio of Manhattan real estate holdings; the crown jewel is a plot of land on the corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan that Abram Hewitt purchased in 1902, shortly before his death. It would prove an astonishingly good investment. A year later, right cross the street, construction of Grand Central Station began; a decade later the great terminal opened; by the late 1920s Hewitt’s site was occupied by the Chrysler Building. And thanks to a clever clause negotiated by Peter Cooper in the school’s original deed and vociferously defended by his descendants ever since, the owners of the famous Art Deco skyscraper pay an amount equivalent to their property taxes directly to Cooper Union. This “tax equivalency” status is based on the principle that the institution performs a valuable civic good as a beacon of free education. The arrangement with the Chrysler Building is unique and still disputed; charging tuition would almost certainly provoke new challenges to its legality. 18

In early November 2011, the school hosted a community forum — the first after what some were already calling the “Halloween Massacre” — at which the board of trustees discussed options for fixing the school’s finances. Agitated students and alumni crowded the Great Hall. Mark Epstein, the board chair, explained that any possible tuition charges would be phased in and would not affect current students. This was not a reassuring argument; most students (and alumni too) objected to tuition not because they would be personally affected but rather because they believed in the school’s democratic mission and in the generous vision of its founder. At Cooper Union education was “free as air and water.” That’s what made it Cooper Union.

Towards the end, as an increasingly pissed-off crowd prodded board members, Sohnya Sayres, a humanities professor, stood up to speak. The all-scholarship environment, she argued, offered a “very special quality” that the board seemed incapable of understanding and, by extension, of defending. The Cooper Union, she continued, was worth saving because it embodied a true alternative to the instrumentalization — the consumerization — of education that now prevails across the country. 19 Barry Drogin, the engineering alum who’d been writing caustic commentary on the school’s financial maladies, accused the affluent trustees of being oblivious to the social value of “providing a free education to the children of the struggling middle class.” 20 Likewise, the new president had cut his teeth as an administrator at growth-oriented universities with staggeringly high fees; his affinity for tuition was based less on immediate financial need than on ideological predisposition.

On December 8, 2012, after a rally in Washington Square Park with “speak-outs” on tuition hikes and student debt, protesters marched to Cooper Union to show solidarity with the occupation of the clocktower suite.
On December 8, 2012, after a rally in Washington Square Park with “speak-outs” on tuition hikes and student debt, protesters marched to Cooper Union to show solidarity with the occupation of the clocktower suite. [Michael Fleshman]

A protest in front of the Foundation Building.
A protest in front of the Foundation Building. [Kyle Richardson]

For the next six months, the Friends of Cooper Union researched the problem and offered comparative case studies. They pointed to the cautionary tale of the City University of New York, founded in the mid-19th century as the “Free Academy of New York” and once known as the “poor man’s Harvard.” It lost its tuition-free status in the city’s 1976 financial crisis, and what followed was a long-term, corrosive loss of morale; today the school is struggling with decaying campuses and overcrowded classes. In this light the plight of CUNY exemplifies the pervasive crisis of higher education in the neoliberal era: as public funding for education has declined and as student debt has risen, a college education, once a pathway to the middle class, has become increasingly a luxury — yet another index of inequality. These deeper social trends were further spotlighted that fall by another protest happening in New York; two miles south, the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park had made the slogan “we are the 99%” into an internet meme and international rallying cry. 21

As public funding for education has declined and student debt has risen, a college education, once a pathway to the middle class, has become a luxury — yet another index of inequality.

At Cooper Union, the students staged events that reflected their training. They organized an art auction and performative pieces, and founded “On the Table,” an initiative that sought donations to the school on the condition that it remain tuition-free. They staged a Femen-style topless protest at the 2012 Founder’s Day ceremony, and fly-postered the school with John Heartfield-like collages caricaturing President Bharucha and the trustees. Meanwhile the Friends of Cooper Union emerged as a strong organizing force and, in April 2012, the group convened a community forum in the Great Hall that was attended by almost a thousand. Unable to gain access to some of the school’s financial information, the group had nonetheless engaged an independent financial analyst and prepared a report (designed by this author). The Way Forward argued that tuition was not the right strategy and proposed various alternatives to reduce expenditures and improve transparency.

The Way Forward also explored how Cooper Union might become a better institutional citizen within its East Village neighborhood, which includes a large Ukrainian church complex, the theaters of the Fourth Arts Block, and various social service agencies. For no matter that the Great Hall provides a civic venue appreciated across the city, the school occasionally clashed with its local community. A 2008 exhibition that featured a two-story banner on the Foundation Building, showing Picasso’s portrait of Stalin, proved offensive to the Ukrainian community, which was marking the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor famine. In November 2011, the administration disappointed many literary New Yorkers when it initially refused to ease the rent for the much-loved and struggling St. Mark’s Bookshop, which occupied the ground floor of its Third Avenue dormitory. 22

Throughout the spring of 2012, protests continued; meanwhile the administration edged closer to a tuition-based plan for the school. As it turned out, The Way Forward barely registered; nor did the report of a consultant hired by the administration, which argued that a modest tuition (on par with that of a state school) might be feasible, but that higher rates posed the risk of diluting the applicant pool and raising expectations for amenities that Cooper Union could not offer. 23 It seemed that the “public process” the administration had promised was coming to a close, and, while many questions had been asked, tuition always seemed to be the answer.

4. Pizza Lift

The physical seizure of the Peter Cooper Suite in December 2012 was followed by a barrage of protest, both real-world and online. The occupiers holed up in the clocktower were only in their late teens and early twenties, but they had an impressive grasp of print and digital communication strategies. Crouched over laptops, the students made good use of their Photoshop, HTML, and typography skills to skewer the president (whose office was one floor below); they created, for instance, a mock website, cooperunion.biz, that mirrored the school’s own site design but promoted a fictitious “Blackwater Professional Internship Program” and Starbuck’s-branded School of Art. The Twitter account they launched at the start of the occupation quickly gained more followers than the institution’s official channel. Soon they were being interviewed, via Skype, by local news and radio and on national programs like Democracy Now. (The administration could never figure out how to block their wi-fi access.) They corresponded with striking students in Montreal (the Cooper protesters took to wearing red felt squares in solidarity with the Québécois movement), posed for meme-ready photos, and filmed an MTV-Cribs-style tour of the 350-square-foot suite under occupation. And in one memorable moment towards the end, a pizza was floated up to the students who, tired of canned beans, had jokingly put out a call on social media for “better food.” Within hours, engineering students were calculating how many balloons were needed for the “pizza lift” to the 8th floor.

One of the student activists was Victoria Sobel, a third-year art student who’d taken off the previous year to join the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Before the clocktower suite protest, she had helped prepare her fellow occupiers for the physical and psychological strains; she also helped to media-train the group (later Sobel would discuss the tuition crisis on several national television shows 24). Notably, unlike so many other protest groups, which cobble together disparate grievances, Free Cooper Union was sharply focused: they wanted the institution to remain tuition free, the board to become more democratic, and the president to step down.

The moxie of the youthful protestors attracted positive attention in the worlds of art and activism. Yet the occupation was viewed warily from within the institution.

The moxie of the youthful protestors attracted positive attention in the worlds of art and activism. Yet the occupation was viewed warily from within the institution, even by those who shared the belief in free tuition. Unlike other schools in the city, Cooper Union has never nurtured a tradition of protest; while students at Columbia captured their campus during the worldwide wave of political unrest in the spring of ’68, Cooper’s artists, architects, and engineers stayed mostly quiet. This started to change in the 1980s, when Hans Haacke directed the art program and the school brought in artists associated with social justice projects like Repo History, the Guerrilla Girls, and the AIDS Timeline. 25 But the architecture and art schools comprise less than half the student body, and the more conservative engineering school frowned upon what it saw as Free Cooper Union’s confrontational tactics. Likewise, some in the alumni community were skeptical. At one point the graphic designer Milton Glaser, a 1951 art school graduate whose stellar portfolio includes the I❤NY campaign, and who voiced his own support for free tuition, scolded the occupiers for creating “a poisonous and dangerous atmosphere.” 26 There was even speculation that the student protesters would be expelled.

In fact, after a year of agitation and uncertainty, many in the school community were unhappily conceding that the battle for free tuition was lost. (This led to talk about creating a museum to commemorate the era that was ending.) A few months later, in April 2013, the board of trustees announced that next year’s freshman class would pay tuition on a sliding scale, up to a top rate of $20,000. Nearly a decade earlier, for accounting purposes, the administration had valued annual tuition at $40,000; now, in what seemed a cynical ploy to sugarcoat their decision, they declared that “all students would receive a half-scholarship.” Upon learning the news, dismayed students crowded into Cooper Square and, in a symbolic and largely improvised action, linked arms to embrace the Foundation Building as an affirmation of their continuing commitment to the founder’s ideals that the administration had just betrayed.

In spring 2013, as part of the protest against the tuition plan, students occupied President Jamshed Bharucha's office for 65 days.
In spring 2013, as part of the protest against the tuition plan, students occupied President Jamshed Bharucha’s office for 65 days. [Vincent Wai Him Hui]

The second occupation happened a month later. Several dozen students filed into the president’s office on the seventh floor of the Foundation Building to deliver a vote of no confidence signed by scores of students and nine full-time faculty members. For months Bharucha had been working off campus, in a Federal-style rowhouse several blocks away that was provided by the school as his residence. Finding the office empty, the students decided to stay. 27

Over the course of 65 days, the students used the president’s office as a base from which to galvanize a civic conversation about the future of education.

The administration responded with a lockdown of the seventh floor, boarding up bathrooms and water fountains and dispatching private guards. But the overzealous policing provoked a backlash; the school leadership retreated, and the non-violent protesters soon enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. Over the course of 65 days, from May 8 to July 12, the students used the office as a base from which to galvanize a civic conversation about the future of education. They forged connections with kindred student movements in Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands; staged readings and exhibitions; hosted guest speakers, yoga classes, and dance parties. They created sculptures from office furniture and supplies and illuminated the space with red bulbs. Much of this was live-streamed, and, as with the clocktower occupation, they took care to show that nothing was being irreversibly altered or harmed, often filming themselves vacuuming and dusting.

The occupation of the Cooper Union president’s office was among the longest in the history of U.S. education, and its spirit of open engagement and public dialogue presented a stark contrast to the tensions of the preceding months and subsequent weeks, when the administration would spend thousands to install security cameras and safety doors in the space. Reporters were charmed by the earnest and idealistic students sardined into the office and adjacent conference room; a reporter for the New York Times described the occupation as “a running debate about how to alter history.” 28

In December 2014, a protest action replaced Cooper Union’s flag with the red of the Free Cooper Union movement
In December 2014, a protest action replaced Cooper Union’s flag with the red flag of the Free Cooper Union movement. [Vincent Wai Him Hui]

The occupation pushed the issue of tuition back into the public eye; but it did not, at that moment, alter history. President Bharucha’s office was vacated under an agreement brokered by students, alumni, and two progressive trustees. The occupiers were granted amnesty and a working group — comprised of staff, faculty, and alumni — was set up to explore alternative solutions to the crisis that would allow the school to reverse its new tuition policy. After some delay, the working group was allowed to view the institution’s detailed financial documents; this was the first time that non-trustees were granted such access. Later that year, in December, the group submitted a proposal for resolving the crisis without tuition; two months later this was rejected by the board. 29 In September 2014, the first fee-paying students in more than a century enrolled at Cooper Union.

5. See You in Court

The protesters may have left the building, but ultimately the commitment to free education at Cooper Union would prove too deeply rooted to dislodge. In May 2014, a coalition of faculty, alumni, and students filed a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court, petitioning the court to appoint an independent overseer to review the situation and to prevent the trustees from charging tuition. One of the plaintiffs was Mike Essl, an alumnus so dedicated to Peter Cooper’s mission that he has a tattoo of the Foundation Building on his chest. 30

The commitment to free education at Cooper Union would prove too deeply rooted to dislodge.

The lawsuit prompted a year-long investigation by then New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, which resulted in the resignation of Jamshed Bharucha and several trustees. It also produced a settlement that required, among other provisions, that the school form a committee dedicated to developing a plan that would reinstall the policy of free education at Cooper Union. When he announced the agreement, in September 2015, Schneiderman underscored that a thriving nonprofit sector was vital to the social health of New York City and the nation. “Today,” he said, “we are uniting to preserve Cooper Union as a national treasure.” 31 In March 2018, Cooper Union announced that it had developed a comprehensive plan to reinstate free tuition over the course of a decade.

<em>The Disorientation Reader</em>, created by <a href="http://freecooperunion.org/disorientation/home/">Free Cooper Union</a> to introduce incoming students to the battle to preserve the school's tradition of free tuition, contained detailed information about community organizing and activism.
The Disorientation Reader, created by Free Cooper Union to introduce incoming students to the battle to preserve the school’s tradition of free tuition, contained detailed information about community organizing and activism.

Since 2013, Free Cooper Union has hosted an annual freshmen “Disorientation,” a teach-in which informs incoming students about the school’s long tradition of free tuition, the financial crisis that endangered that tradition, and the ongoing efforts to preserve it. 32 At the first teach-in, the new undergraduates sat on the pavement in front of Saint-Gaudens’s statue of Peter Cooper, framed on one side by the warm red sandstone of the Foundation Building, on the other by the perforated metal screen of 41 Cooper Square. The student veterans of Free Cooper Union explained, with candor and humor, why they’d risked their academic standing to defend the values of the industrialist-philanthropist whose bronze figure loomed over them. They answered questions and then handed out copies of a zine they’d made, an inch-thick booklet with punky Xerox-art aesthetics called The Disorientation Reader. In one section, on “direct action,” the students articulated a credo:

Higher education around the world is in dire need of a paradigm shift.

The debate about “tuition” at Cooper must engage broader dialogues about student debt, educational reform, alternative models of governance, and social justice.

This is not a financial scandal, it’s a cultural crisis. 33

The larger import of the cultural crisis extends well beyond Cooper Union. The New York attorney general’s investigation concluded that the school’s financial debacle was “rooted in the failure of a 2006 plan to finance the construction of a new academic building at 41 Cooper Square.” 34 In recent years all too many educational institutions have endangered not only pedagogical programs but also democratic values in the pursuit of expensive, architecturally ambitious buildings, and more generally in the adoption of market standards and corporate practices.

There will need to be more activists willing to insist that education is not a marketable commodity but a public good.

One crucial lesson to be learned from the years of protest at Cooper Union is that there will need to be many more activists willing to upend institutional priorities — to challenge administrations that pursue fashionable expansion even as their students graduate with debt that will cripple their careers, and to insist that education be valued not as a marketable commodity but rather as a public good. Cooper Union has installed a new president and launched the ten-year plan to return to full scholarships — free education — for all students. The terms are being contested and the politically energized students are fighting new fights, including over the core curriculum. 35 The continuing controversy is a hopeful sign that the Cooper Union community remains as determined as ever to uphold the ideals of the school’s founder and to keep the doors of his radically democratic institution open to all.

  1. Free Cooper Union, Demands and Principles, December 3, 2012.
  2. Peter Cooper, Address to the first graduating class of Cooper Union, 1864.
  3. Peter Cooper, Letter to the Trustees of “The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, April 29, 1859, The Cooper Archives.
  4. See Robert McFadden, “1859 Cooper Union Building Shut for 2‐Year Renovation,” New York Times, December 20, 1972. See also Carter B. Horsley, “A ‘New” Cooper Union Emerging,” New York Times, November 18, 1973.
  5. The Reading Room opened a generation before the rise of the Carnegie-funded libraries, when free public libraries were still scarce. It stayed open until 10 at night in a conscious effort to draw workers away from “less desirable places of resort,” like saloons; and the books themselves were meant to be useful, not entertaining. According to a period newspaper, “At the Cooper Library the percentage of fiction is said to be smaller than at any other library in the world. Its reading-room is the home of workingmen, and they read to improve their minds for some specific purpose, not for fun.” F.A. Duneka, “At the Cooper Institute,” New York World, April 15, 1888. Over time, however, there were increasing tensions between the publicness of the library and the needs of the growing college, and by the mid 1950s the room was closed to the public.
  6. Harold Holzer, “The Speech That Made The Man,” American Heritage Magazine, Winter 2010. Volume 59, Issue 4.
  7. Kenneth D. Ackerman, Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution (New York: Counterpoint, 2016). 84.
  8. The School of Design for Women was an existing institution incorporated into the Cooper Union at its founding.
  9. In the institution’s early years, all classes were free to full-time “industrial” students pursuing certificates, while “amateurs” were charged a small fee. This distinction between committed students and hobbyists is one that would come back to haunt the school during the tuition debates of the 21st century. At the School of Design, it signified a class difference: some women came to train and some dropped in to learn.
  10. Cooper Union, Media Update, December 21, 2011. The building, first known as the “New Academic Building,” is now called 41 Cooper Square.
  11. Free Cooper Union, Demands and Principles, December 3, 2012.
  12. Free Cooper Union, Disorientation.
  13. John Hechinger, “One College Sidesteps the Crisis: As Many Endowments Suffer, No-Tuition Cooper Union Builds, and Basks,” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2009.
  14. I had graduated from the School of Art a year earlier and was in close contact with many of the concerned alumni who flooded the Rose Auditorium on October 31, 2011. I attended many of the forums, art shows, and protest actions detailed in this article as a supporter, not an organizer.
  15. Richard Pérez-Peña, “Cooper Union Looks at Charging Tuition,” New York Times, October 31, 2011.
  16. See Felix Salmon, “Cooper Union’s shameless trustees,” Reuters, May 20, 2013. Mark Epstein is the brother of financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
  17. At this point, the institution’s IRS 990 Forms were the only financial documents available to the public.
  18. Felix Salmon, “Cooper Union Risks Tax Equivalency Payments From Chrysler Building,” Architect, July 8, 2013.
  19. Cooper Union Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Epstein Addresses the Cooper Community, Part 16, YouTube, Nov 9, 2011.
  20. Barry Drogin, The Cooper Union Alumni Pioneer.
  21. When Occupy Wall Street was forcibly removed from Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, by New York police, members of its loose network looked to other causes, including student debt. College graduates of varying ages, including some well into their forties, began to speak about the long-term burdens of debt, and the rallying cry “you are not a loan” began appearing.
  22. The newly revealed financial woes of Cooper Union were used by the administration to justify the ouster of the much-loved bookseller. John Leland, “Rent Deal Aids Ailing East Village Bookstore,” New York Times, November 2, 2011.
  23. Final Report, Cooper Union Revenue Task Force. October 12, 2012.
  24. See “The Ivory Tower,” The Katie Show, June 2014.
  25. There was more recent precedent for protest, too. In 2006, art students had successfully lobbied for better studio space during the construction of the Morphosis building, and in 2008, as the building prepared to open, they organized a series of “bike-ins” — half-hour protests at noon on Fridays during which students wearing polycarbonate helmets, blinking lights, and rolling wheels would run through campus buildings — to protest the loss of indoor bicycle parking on campus. This might seem trivial, but it exposed the growing rift between administrative actions and the lived experience of students. In earlier eras, students had rented apartments in the seedy blocks around St. Mark’s Place. But since the ’90s, gentrification has forced many to move further away, often to Brooklyn, and indoor bicycle parking became a necessity. The irony was that the new structure had received LEED Platinum status because it contained amenities like basement showers for bike commuters. After several months, the school relented and agreed to maintain a basement room for bike storage.
  26. Glaser, a trustee emeritus, along with Lois Swirnoff and Juan Permuy, wrote a letter in May 2013 in response to the start of the occupation of the president’s office. The letter, which was forwarded across the community via Cooper’s listserv by then board chair Mark Epstein, asserted that “President Bharucha is a remarkable figure whose patience, resilience and willingness to listen to alternative ideas has impressed everyone who’s worked with him. … The occupation of the school has created a poisonous and dangerous atmosphere that can potentially destroy the school forever. It is time for the Cooper community, students, alumni, faculty, staff and all interested parties to indicate their unqualified support of the President and his proposed course of action.” The letter was accompanied by a Change.org petition — “Vacate the office immediately” — that garnered 522 supporters. Juan Permuy quickly withdrew his name from the letter, claiming his support had been misconstrued.
  27. There are two accounts of this story. In one, Bharucha was absent when the student occupiers arrived; in the other, he was in the office for a meeting with Student Council representatives but exited via a side door when students began to stream in.
  28. Ariel Kaminer, “Protesters Vacate Cooper Union’s Top Office,” New York Times, July 15, 2013.
  29. The Working Group spent eight weeks hashing out a plan to address budget shortfalls; the recommendations in their report would have forced painful cuts but kept the school tuition free. Despite a stated commitment to a good-faith, public negotiation, several administration-aligned members of the group participated in the secret authoring of a “Minority Report.” Largely silent during the process, they released their line-by-line refutation of the Working Group’s plan the night before the board was scheduled to meet to evaluate the recommendations. On January 10, 2014, the board voted down the Working Group’s proposal and proceeded with the roll-out of the tuition plan. Several months later, former trustee and Working Group co-chair Mike Borkowsky released a statement noting that while the group was “authorized by Dr. Bharucha as one of the negotiated agreements to end the occupation of his office … it was not only not supported by him or the members of his administration who were appointed to the group, it was obstructed at every point. And its findings were rejected out of hand.”
  30. In the summer of 2014, the coalition, organized under the name “Committee to Save Cooper Union,” raised $260,000 from more than 1,000 donors to fund the legal action. The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include engineering alumnus Adrian Jovanovic; engineering professor Toby Cumberbatch; Isabella Pezzulo, an accepted applicant for admission who declined to matriculate because of the decision to charge tuition; and Claire Kleinman, a student who entered the school in 2014 and was required to pay tuition. Essl served as acting dean of the School of Art from 2016 to 2017 before being appointed dean. Jovanovic, cofounder and president of the group, died in a hiking accident in 2017.
  31. “A.G. Schneiderman Announces Comprehensive Reform Package To Resolve Cooper Union Investigation And Lawsuit,” New York State Office of the Attorney General, September 2, 2015.
  32. See Free Cooper Union, Disorientation, May 2015. Victoria Sobel and Casey Gollem, a couple of the organizers of Free Cooper Union, also co-taught a class on the activism at Cooper Union with Walid Raad, an associate professor of art.
  33. Free Cooper Union, Disorientation.
  34. From the New York Attorney General’s announcement: “The plan involved the school taking out a $175 million mortgage loan on the land it owns beneath the Chrysler Building, while simultaneously committing to a long-term renegotiation of its lease with the tenant that owns and operates the building. The Board of Trustees’ projections showed that the plan would keep the school solvent for at least the 30-year term of the mortgage loan. However, the Attorney General’s investigation showed that the plan relied on optimistic assumptions to achieve that long-term solvency projection, including an assumption that the school could safely invest $35 million in borrowed funds in the stock market and profit by making returns in excess of the loan’s interest rate. The investigation determined that the Board’s review of the plan did not include risk assessment of, or contingency planning for the failure of any of these assumptions.”
  35. Although tuition now seems to be “off the table,” this is far from a frictionless time at Cooper Union. Early this year, 41 Cooper Square sprung a major leak, and the building’s atrium and grand staircase were closed for several days. To some, the leak was evidence of ill-advised cost-cutting during construction. To others, it was an apt metaphor for a still fragile institution. The victory for the Free Cooper Union camp delivered by the New York Attorney General’s intervention came paired with a consent decree mandating relatively prescriptive, metrics-based data collection (intended to guarantee the school’s ongoing economic health). This will likely shift the administration towards quantification, caution, and austerity; as well as the sort of risk management that has little precedent at the school and that some fear will stymie its creative spirit. Lately some in the community have been asking: “Free at what cost?”





Samuel Holleran, ““Free as air and water”,” Places Journal, May 2019. Accessed 10 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/190507

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