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Summary of FREE COOPER UNION! A Community Summit – held in the Great Hall on December 5, 2011 | Cooper Union Commons

Summary of FREE COOPER UNION! A Community Summit – held in the Great Hall on December 5, 2011

December 22, 2011 in Blog, Communications, Events, Free Cooper Wild Cooper


Karina Tipton – CE’99, Alumni Council member, and event emcee – kicked off the evening by articulating the goal: to “mobilize the creative forces of our community towards solving this crisis,” build trusted relationships, and ideally work with the Administration toward long term-solutions.

Milton Glaser, A’51 and Trustee Emeritus, followed Karina, stating “not a day of my life do I not thank the universe for enabling me to come to this extraordinary institution.” Glaser acknowledged “many of us are outraged that our beloved school might become a school that charged tuition, violating our deepest belief in what Cooper Union stands for.” He concluded with an expression of hope that the community will proceed to focus on “how each of us can contribute our talent and energy to help this wonderful and unique place.”


Benjamin Degen, A’98 and Adjunct Faculty: Degen began his speech by laying out his stake in Cooper Union: “as an artist, educator, and mechanic, as somebody who feels education should be completely free, I consider myself to be an intellectual descendant of Peter Cooper, a great-great-grandchild. I feel compelled to do everything I can to sustain his Institution and sustain his legacy.

To applause, Degen read Cooper Union’s mission statement: “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 fundamental principle of Cooper Union is free education,” Degen continued. “This is the fundamental principle that this school stands upon. If we lose this, we lose everything.”

Degen proceeded to affirm that “The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art” is a unique manifestation of the ideals of free thinking – unique not only in the context of our world, but “unique in human history.” Degen noted “free thinking” is facilitated by a set of circumstances in which the human mind can aspire not only to freedom itself, but also cooperation, openness, and creativity. “When these aspirations are fostered by a society, that society flourishes.” What makes Cooper particularly unique, Degen continued, in comparison to the relative freedoms enjoyed by Ancient Greece, Ptolemaic Alexandria, and the Roman Republic, is that at Cooper we do not exclude people from the discourse on the basis of gender, nationality, race, religion, or socioeconomic background. “Without the requirement of any tuition payment the members of this diverse meritocracy are able to engage each other as equals in a free and open exchange of ideas for the sole purpose learning from each other and teaching each other.” “Cooper Union’s tuition-free policy is not merely an aspect of this mission,” Degen continued, “it has become its fundamental basis. Only a tuition-free model fully guarantees true equality among all students and a solely merit based system.”

Degen then noted the basis for the “Union” in Cooper Union, or the union of science and art, is founded on the ancient art-science dichotomy of “applied reason” – a “universal reasoning process to take our collective ideas, needs and dreams and figure out how to build them in to our reality.” Our challenge now, he noted, in this time of technological and digital revolution, is “to innovate without abandoning the most important core principles that make this school completely unique.” Speaking to the quality of students the Cooper Union currently attracts because of continued adherence to those core principles, Degen declared “we don’t have time for amateurs here, and we don’t have amateurs – this is a professional school.”

When persistently heckled over a reference to the New Academic Building, Degen finally threw his hands up, laughing “I don’t have a bulldozer big enough to put it back in the box, so we’re going to have to live with it.” He continued, “what we need is to replenish our endowment,” and, rather than resorting to the divisive language in evidence during the November 7 Forum with the Chairman of the Board, “what have to work on now is inclusion… in summation, we all sit here tonight as living proof that Cooper Union is vital and sustainable. The diversity in this room and the high level of creative and professional achievement is proof that this model works.”

“The Cooper Union endowment trust has weathered times and financial conditions far more difficult that our current time,” Degen concluded. “We now have a President and Board of Trustees who tells us they may not be able to do what ever other Board and President has done… If you are committed, Board, and if you are committed, President, to Cooper Union’s core principles, we will stand with you, we will stand behind you. We need to stand together and we need to get it done.”

Samuel Messer, A’76 and Associate Dean of the Yale University School of Art: The Summit was fortunate to have the valuable perspective of Sam Messer, who began by invoking the prescience of Cooper’s present mission and vision in relation to the Occupy movement. “I think it there’s a lot of talk about the idea of tuition, and if you just say it as a soundbite it does seem fair: that the rich should pay their way.” Messer continued, “as someone who unfortunately also has to be involved in fundraising, I actually believe it’s the wrong way to go. It’s a great moment to use (Cooper’s mission and vision) as a fundraising tool.”

Drawing on his extensive first-hand knowledge of how tuition-based art schools actually admit students, Messer gave an account of how the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Yale University approach their admissions process: at RISD, around 46% of acceptances are for those who can afford full tuition and board, “the vast majority of which are from overseas,” while at Yale at least 45% of those accepted are paying full tuition and board. “On the surface,” said Messer, “everyone says that its need based, but in reality, once you start needing that money, you have to start looking for that number of students.

“What happens,” Messer continued, “if you don’t have qualified students at that level? Then you have, in a sense, amateurs.”

Adriana Farmiga, A’96 and Adjunct Faculty: Farmiga demonstrated the potential of the Cooper community’s resourcefulness, intelligence, and creativity, taking to the podium in order to announce two specific community-driven initiatives towards mitigating Cooper’s financial crisis, and to share her experiences mounting these initiatives and reaching out to the larger Cooper community for support.

“As somebody who has experience with trustees, collectors, and the art world, as well as being programming director at a nonprofit arts institution,” Farmiga said, ”I immediately thought an historical auction is something that could and should happen, carrying the potential for some significant financial results.” Farmiga mentioned she and others are working to secure a venue whose client contacts who can both buy, donate, and make connections to alumni estates, and that the auction’s target date will fall somewhere in late Spring.

Farmiga went on to discuss an problem she encountered while reaching out to people to discuss raising funds on behalf of Cooper Union: “there was such an overwhelming objection to the mere mention of the word “tuition” that many simply were inclined to hang up… saying they wanted nothing to do with Cooper Union, much less a fundraising effort, unless tuition is completely taken out of the problem-solving equation.” Farmiga continued that these same people stated they “would be willing to go above and beyond what they have already given over the years, not just to the auction but with financial donations to the school itself on the condition that tuition be taken off the table.”

To that end, Farmiga announced a Pledge Drive, located at http://freecooperunion.com, “a promise along with a pledge – it’s a promise to stand in support of the meritocracy that Cooper Union has come to be identified with, with a pledge to support that promise with a dollar amount… the pledge initiative does two things: one, it seeks to consolidate and identify the larger Cooper community that wishes to see Cooper Union remain a meritocracy; and two, within that collective voice, establish a promise for a perennial kind of giving toward sustaining that ideal.”

Che Perez, AR’14: A current architecture student speaking on behalf of his peers and classmates, Perez invited the audience to imagine that they were at sea, where “the only things you have are your ship, yourself, and some vague idea what land is.” In such a beautiful, terrifying circumstance, the most important thing is to “hold on tight to the idea of land.”

Perez then spoke to the extreme privilege and immense responsibility each Cooper student and graduate must accept and embrace. A Cooper education “is an investment in the existence of a future world that is better than the present.” In order to ensure the continued yield of that investment, Perez said, “Cooper Union students have embarked on a campaign to establish a 100% donation rate from students at Cooper.” Furthermore, he announced, the student donors will sign their name under a pledge that seeks to preserve the mission and vision of the Institution. “The promise is our investment in a better future for us, and for this school. We must begin to fulfill that promise now.”

The full text of Perez’s remarks and the terms of the student pledge are available here: http://freeasairandwater.net/mission/response/mr5dyqck2j9c


Peter Buckley, Associate Professor and Historian: Who is running Cooper Union, and who is to blame for its current condition? Peter Buckley provided an historical context for the first of these two increasingly rhetorical questions, affectionately crediting Peter Cooper’s “genuine and persistant naivete when it came to politics” for the Institution’s earliest misadventures in governance.

Buckley discussed Peter Cooper’s old-fashioned, radical republican and occasionally comic belief that private and public interest coincided. He described Cooper’s first, disappointing foray into public life as a trustee of The Public School Society, a private body of “apparently wise, disinterested men charged with the oversight of public funds” that dissolved amid political uproar in 1845. According to Buckley, it was at this precise moment – when the public education system became politicized – that Peter Cooper conceived of his Institution: “why not have a new educational program, (Cooper) said, that used private wealth and trusteeship for the public good? Hence Cooper Union was founded on the ashes of The Public School Society.”

However, Buckley noted, given that Peter Cooper founded Cooper Union in order to counter the politicization of public schools, Cooper initially proceeded to enact a “very odd” model of Institutional governance. His initial slate of trustees included the Mayor of New York City, the editor of the New York Post, Cooper himself, and assorted public figures; “Cooper couldn’t see where the public ended and the private began… this was his glorious ideal and his legal lunacy.” Buckley then described the ensuing trajectory of Institutional governance, highlighting how Peter Cooper’s son-in-law Abram Hewitt directly ran operations and, troublingly, academics from his seat on the Board of Trustees. Buckley also described at length how, as the 20th Century progressed, Cooper Union’s governance was “professionalized,” effectively causing the Trustees to take a backseat in governance, along with Cooper Union’s once-powerful advisory boards.

Buckley then addressed present-day Institutional structure. He noted Cooper currently operates within parameters of a dual-track, shared governance, in which faculty members chart the School’s educational course while administrators direct finances and organization. In practice, Buckley said, these domains should be overlapping and interdependent – a model that calls for “consultation, trust, mutual respect, and collegiality.” To applause, Buckley affirmed the Trustees’ main responsibility is to uphold the stated mission of the Institution, and that they are ultimately accountable to the stakeholders: faculty, staff, alumni and students.

Buckley concluded by noting shared governance has historically not been easy to maintain or to enact at Cooper Union, observing “it’s not antagonism that now marks the relations between the Trustees, the Administration, and the Faculty, but increasing distance. Maybe the new President can do something about this.”

Rocco Cetera, CE’99 and Vice President, Cooper Union Alumni Association: Cetera’s presentation was dedicated to ensuring alumni understand the rights conferred to them as automatic members of the Cooper Union Alumni Association (CUAA). After a historical overview of the foundations of CUAA, Cetera enunciated the terms of a “Memorandum of Agreement” signed February 1, 1974, amended on January 5, 2000, and signed by President of the Cooper Union, the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees, and the President of the Alumni Association. It is this Memorandum that establishes the framework by which the Alumni Body governs itself, and lays out the terms for a structure of shared governance of Cooper Union.

As Cetera presented, the Memorandum mandates all Cooper Union committees must include two alumni representatives agreed upon by The Cooper Union and the CUAA, lays provisions for four “Alumni Trustees” chosen by the CUAA to join the Board of Trustees as voting members, and mandates the current president of the Alumni Association shall attend Board of Trustees meetings as a non-voting member. According to the Memorandum, these alumni representatives must report regularly back to the Alumni Council. Notably, the Memorandum states the Alumni Association will assume leadership for the Alumni Fund, the operation of the Alumni Office, and take full responsibility for all alumni activities.

Cetera then discussed a series of slides that demonstrate the distancing of Alumni Relations from the Office of the President over time, and the erosion of the CUAA’s rights and responsibilities as mandated in the Memorandum. During John Jay Iselin’s presidency, the “Director of Alumni Relations and Development” reported directly to the President and controlled all fundraising activities. However, as Cetera demonstrated graphically, the following president, George Campbell, inserted an administrative layer between himself and Alumni Affairs and removed “Capital Campaign” and “Development” from Alumni Affairs’ purview. Finally, our new President, Jamshed Bharucha, has thus far maintained this administrative layer between himself and Alumni Affairs, and has additionally removed oversight of the Annual Fund from Alumni Relations’ purview — potentially in violation of the Memorandum of Agreement.

Concluding with an exhortation that all alumni vote in upcoming CUAA elections (in which a vacant Alumni Trustee seat will be filled), Cetera urged alumni to get involved with the CUAA and take advantage of its provisions for shared governance of Cooper Union, stating “this is how alumni can enact the change they want to see in the school.”

Nick Agneta, AR’80, Annual Fund Chair: Agneta was on hand for the evening to explain exactly what the “Annual Fund” is, how its funds are used, and how they are raised. The Annual Fund Committee, located in the CUAA, is “essentially a consulting arm for the Development Office,” developing appeals, chairing the phonathon, and hosting donor appreciation events. All funds by the the Annual Fund are used as unrestricted funds to operate the Cooper Union, used for everything “from cleaning supplies to paying the debt service.”

Next, Agneta presented remarks by Marilyn Hoffner, A’48 and Director of Alumni Relations and Development at Cooper Union for many years. Hoffner was unable to attend the Summit, but wanted to share her experiences and understanding of Annual Fund figures as they related to administrative restructuring over time. “From the mid 70’s until 2000,” Marilyn stated “Annual Fund figures reflected only contributions made specifically to the Annual Fund.” Large gifts and alumni trustee gifts were not included in the Annual Fund, because Development wanted a clear picture of what Alumni and Parents were really giving to Cooper. In 2000, Marilyn stated, a different accounting principle was applied and all unrestricted gifts were counted as Annual Fund, artificially inflating the figures. Before 2000, Cooper Union was one of eight schools cited by CASE for its high level of alumni giving – somewhere between 35% to 40%. According to Marilyn, “after 2000, creative fundraising stopped and resorted to simply letters, and the rate of alumni giving went down and stayed flat. When anyone compares the Annual Fund pre-2000 and after, we’re really comparing apples and oranges – and covering up the fact that the Annual Fund has stayed flat for twelve years.”

Financially speaking, the goals, according to Agneta, are 1. to get the endowment drawdown to net zero, 2. build the endowment to $400 million, and 3. to stabilize expenses. The first of those goals is where the Annual Fund can make a difference, as “a dollar contributed to the Annual Fund is a dollar that stays in the endowment.” He then illustrated just how an Annual Fund participation can be increased to offset a significant amount of the current deficit. “If (all 12,000 alumni) contributed a dollar a day, it adds up to $4.38 million dollars,” or nearly 25% of the deficit. “The Development Office calls me a nutcase,” said Agneta, “but I keep telling them I want to make this a reality.”

Agneta followed this by disclosing that of the estimated 12,000 living alumni, the Development Office only has emails for 6,000. He then presented an e-card appeal that was supposed to have gone out of the Development Office on behalf of the Annual Fund, asking “did anybody get this card?” Not one person in the audience had.


Richard Stock, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Faculty Union President: Stock established, using Form 990s and other information provided by the Office of Finance and Administration, that operating expenses at Cooper Union have more than doubled over a period of fifteen years, rising from about $28 million in 1995 to approximately $65 million in 2010. Examining data trends over this period, Stock demonstrated how a significant driver of that growth is attributable to growth in non-academic staff, a “big, professional development office,” and the salaries, wages, and benefits associated with that staff. Loan interest was also identified as a present and future growing expense (sidebar: in light of the recent revelation that Cooper Union’s “Master Plan, ” as elaborated in Cooper’s 2006 cy pres petition, included a legally-bound commitment to reduce operating expenses 10% by 2011, Stock’s data trend gains even more significance).

Interestingly, Stock was able to establish also that nearly $9 million dollars of present-day operating expenses are not “dollar bills out the door,” but are in fact accounting conventions attributable to depreciation, as well as a speculative expense called “post retirement medical current” that KPMG began to account for in 1992.

Finally, Stock reported that he had been told no one from the faculty union would be allowed to sit on the Expenses Task Force. To that he replied: “the one place that Cooper Union is absolutely in control over its finances is in what they pay the union.. It is all the other stuff that’s out of control. And frankly, putting all the other stuff… and that personnel in control of looking at the expenses and deciding where we need to cut just doesn’t sound right to me.”

Barry Drogin, EE’83: Drogin gave a performance-based presentation that sought to clarify and fill in the blanks of the financial narrative presented by the Administration to the Cooper community. He discussed changes in values of plant assets, the capital campaign, and operating and capital expenses and revenues.

His presentation was based upon his interpretation of consolidated financial statements from FY 2000 to 2010, which he said he had difficulty analyzing because of inconsistent accounting and presentation of data, arbitrary reclassifications of funds, and gnomic “notes.” He raised many questions about significant rises in non-academic costs, the development strategy that led to the construction of the New Academic Building, investment in hedge funds, and using imputed income to create paper deficits. Finally, he asked for more information from the Cooper finance department, and showed how the Form 990s, consolidated financial statements, and pie charts created by the administration failed to provide the transparency needed by alumni to coherently understand the past and suggest improvements for the future.

Drogin’s extraordinary presentation, which includes some discussion of the numbers he was working with, can be viewed here in three clips:


 David Gersten, AR’91 and Professor of Architecture: “It is not that the Cooper Union holds up free education, it is that free education holds up The Cooper Union.” To applause, Professor Gersten continued: “the largest single financial asset that The Cooper Union currently holds is its promise of free education to all.” According to Gersten, “the value contained within this promise far exceeds our current endowment, as well the physical properties held by this instituion – including the land under the Chrysler building.”

According to Gersten, our challenge now is to unpack and mobilize the resources embodied within Peter Cooper’s promise. He cited three inventions from Peter Cooper’s life’s work in order to provide a greater context for our present moment: the first two being the safety elevator and the transatlantic cable; both inventions representing transformations achieved by removing barriers: vertical and temporal. “The massive resources invested in creating each of these transformations were mobilized as a direct result of removing barriers,” and challenges faced in each endeavor were overcome by a clarity of the vision that, in the case of the translatlantic cable, maintained “Knowledge shall cover the earth as waters the deep.”

“Articulating this vision,” Gersten said, “keeping this promise, required the third invention, I believe Peter Cooper’s greatest invention: the removal of the barriers to education. Education is by definition is a transformative pursuit.” In creating The Cooper Union, Peter Cooper invested in the profound idea that removing the barriers to education creates “a dynamic crucible of free thought.” where a great diversity of people and their questions can interact and coevolve. “Peter Cooper understood that the barriers to education were not only unjust to those that they excluded, but those barriers impoverished the internal life of an insitution. Barring any segment of the population creates a diminished geography of human knowledge and experience within the educational community.”

Gersten framed his observations using Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which designates education as a human right, and states higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit — “they must have been quoting Peter Cooper,” he said to more applause.

This promise and embodied vision is Peter Cooper’s fundamental legacy, and Cooper Union its “shining demonstration.” Instead of introducing the barrier of tuition, Gersten defended our collective obligation to the transformative forces of knowledge, imagination and ideas, the tools with which we can articulate new models of education without barriers. Gersten concluded with a powerful metaphoric extension of the struggle to connect the transatlantic cable: “As a way-finder at sea, use the force of the storm to out-run the storm. We must keep the promise of free education to all, in order to secure the many promises of free education to all.”

The full text of Professor Gersten’s remarks is available here: http://freeasairandwater.net/mission/response/zwlvngw0p5vk


Kevin Slavin, A’95: Within just sixty seconds of taking the podium, Kevin Slavin had fully earned the thundering standing ovation that filled the Great Hall after his speech. His speech is available at http://bit.ly/ks_cooper_summit for anyone who wishes to read the full text.

Slavin began by summarily rejecting the Trustee Chairman’s November 7th claim that Cooper alumni, the so-called “failed investment,” are primarily responsible for the $16 million annual deficit Cooper is said to be facing, reiterating that Cooper’s own decennial report notes 38% of all funds raised in the last ten years were given by alumni. Slavin questioned the Chairman’s preferral to shift blame to alumni, rather than acknowledge any responsibility for the poor performance of the development strategy that culminated in the construction of the New Academic Building, the loans taken “whose interest repayments alone form half the deficit,” and other pertinent factors in this crisis. He then pledged $10,000 to the http://www.freecooperunion.com pledge drive, telling the audience that his donation is not a payment for the education he received–“that’s called a student loan”–but an investment in the future of Cooper Union.

He proceeded to clearly, logically, and effectively reframe the root cause of Cooper’s crisis as a “deficit of trust” (rather than merely a financially unsustainable model). He challenged President Bharucha and the Board “to find the real and sustainable resources – transparency, communication, trust, and integrity – resources that can be renewed endlessly. I’ll break my back to build on those and I know that’s true of everyone here.”

Slavin justified his argument and challenge by delving deeper into the buzzword-concept of our moment – “sustainability” – in order to ask the all-important question: what are The Cooper Union’s real sustainable resources? According to Slavin, “the mistake that’s been made, systematically, is believing the resource at the bottom of all this, the resource that must be sustained, is money. It’s not money. Money is a derivative. The resource it’s derived from, the resource it maps to, the resource it measures, is trust.” Enron, Madoff, Collateralized Debt Obligations and subprime mortgages were all cited as examples of “how you end up with a room like the one we’re in tonight.”

Quoting a team of forensic accountants who are working to help understand how Cooper arrived at this crisis -“We haven’t seen anything this fucked up from anyone who wasn’t being deliberately obstructive” – Slavin proceeded to discuss and emphasize the importance of trust from a business and investment perspective. He followed that with a demand for immediate transparency, citing recently discovered and previously undisclosed potential conflicts of interest between the business operations of individual Trustees and that of the Institution.

Slavin further illustrated the lack of transparency and marginalization of alumni by recounting a conversation he had with a Board of Trustees alumni representative, Don Blauweiss. “I offered him my spot here tonight, because I would rather listen than talk. What he said is that he can’t, because he’s privy to sensitive and confidential information. But if the delegate to the trustees cannot speak to the group that has delegated him, what is he there for?”

Slavin acknowledged the need to move forward from the mistakes of the past, but emphasized that in order to build, the “makers, builders, and investors” of Cooper Union need access to material, to “real and sustainable resources – transparency, communication, trust, and integrity.” As Slavin said, this will take more than words. “Transparency is not a promise. It’s not an idea. It’s action.”

He thanked the Administration for ceasing to secretly attempt to excise the statement that “undergraduates are admitted solely on basis of merit, and all students receive full-tuition scholarships” from Cooper Union’s “Mission and Vision” webpage, and listed additional action items that would be well-received by the community. Finally, he clarified that he is “not trying to pay back the education I got. That’s called a student loan… when I give, I am funding the education of the future. That’s not repaying something. That’s investing in something.” Slavin concluded by restating his challenge to the President and Board: “do not let our investment fail.”


Sean Cusack, BSE’98, Jason Paul Guzman, A’00, and Henry Chapman, A’11: In response to the news that Cooper Union is considering tuition, several online outlets for discussion have opened up. Cusack, Guzman, and Chapman stood before the crowd so that all could put names and faces to the forces behind these powerful tools. They briefly reviewed the following websites:

www.cooperunioncommons.org: a meeting place for the community.

www.freecooperunion.com: a pledge fund dedicated to keeping Cooper Union free.

www.cooperuniontaskforce.com: a forum for community powered solutions.

www.signon.org/sign/save-cooper-union-without: The petition to keep Cooper Union free.

www.freeasairandwater.net: a community forum.

Peter Cafiero CE’83 and President, Cooper Union Alumni Association: Cafiero closed with two brief remarks. First, he called upon all to begin to move forward towards immediate solutions. Second, he said “alumni need to take a major role in all this,” implying the more alumni donate to the school, the more “clout” they have. He said he was inspired by Che Perez’s announcement of the student initiative to achieve a 100% donation rate, and urged the alumni to follow the students’ example.


The breakout session is a platform created for all Cooper Alumni, faculty, staff, students, and friends to speak up for a free Cooper Union. It’s a way to brainstorm, share experiences and ideas, restructure the dialogue, and collaborate on finding solutions to the crisis Cooper Union is facing. People profess whatever comes to heart – that’s the best part. Coming together as a community is powerful. When was the last time we were all united for an invaluable cause? Breakout and come voice yourself at the next Breakout on Jan 5, 2011!

The topics below listed at the link below were discussed at the Breakout session. Click here to link to the raw 12/5 breakout transcriptions: http://cooperunioncommons.org/breakout-session-transcripts-12-5-11/


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