We Are Cooper Union
I’ve been busy as heck for the last few months (holy cow, it’s really been a few months) dealing with the pressing issue that is Cooper Union evaluating if it should charge tuition for the first time in over a hundred years, or if there is another option that will provide long term sustainability.
[[Sidebar. Cooper Union DID at one time charge tuition to students of means. While the financial help was valued by the trustees at the time, the other reason why students of means were permitted to attend Cooper Union was to provide moral and social polish to the students from the Bowery. Social engineering, as it were. Students of means were invited to attend so they could instruct through their presence the less "suitable" students so eventually, they too could be groomed into acceptable members of polite society.]]
Tuition is anathema to the very concept of the institution – and yet, we are apparently quite out of money. Like, operational-for-only-a-couple-more-years out of money. This has been a divisive issue and everyone recognizes how high the stakes are – and how important it is that we work together as a community to come up with the kind of brilliant Cooper Union solution that we are known for.
Through out all of this, I’ve been trying to maintain a positive and moderate presence, and to interact with the many community members who are involved. I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in discussions with President Bharucha’s administration, with the president himself, and with the Board of Trustees. I’m on the Alumni Council and we have been responding to this for a few months. I’ve been going into the city at least 2x a week for months now, meeting until very late, and driving the 80 miles to get home – frequently stopping in parking lots and sleeping for fifteen minutes so I can make it home safely and without falling asleep at the wheel. I helped organize a great summit with “moderate and immoderate voices,” which brought together some of the many community members who have also been working day and night to try and solve this issue.
Through-out all of this I have been resolute, hopeful, and purpose-driven.
But on Friday night I read the most recent statement by the Board of Trustees – and it rehashed the same half-truths and partial statements that have alienated the alumni community since these discussions first began – most notably making a point to blame low-alumni giving when in fact it was *all* fundraising that failed to meet goals. I must have been mistaken in my assumptions: I thought that this was supposed to be an outreach of transparent communication that would rebuild trust between the community and the administration and board. I sat in a BoT communications meeting and recommended ways that this could be made useful, and helpful to the dialog. I spoke to the President about this openly and frankly. I shared questions from the alumni body to former trustees and current VPs with the intent that the nature of the questions could be used to direct the tone of the communication, bridge this divide, and begin more open communication.
I had really high hopes. Fool me once, I guess, because after I read the statement, I sat on my bed and cried. I really thought that the BoT statement would be an opportunity to reach out and rebuild trust with the alumni community. And after I read it, for the first time since this started I was honestly discouraged and without hope. Even though I still think we can fix this without tuition, the community is resistant to the Administration and Board because of statements like this one – and if the Administration and Board can’t manage to communicate and engage more clearly with the community, it will be much harder to come up with any kind of innovative way to save the ideals that are so precious to Cooper Union while keeping the school open. We need to work together, but we keep driving each other apart.
In the last week I have been privy to two separate individuals in Cooper Union administration reacting to alumni actions and statements by assuming the very worst motivations – by jumping to conclusions about what the alumni are doing or saying about the administration. While Cooper Union alumni are certainly a diverse group, I see these reactions as a window into these two individuals’ true feelings about the alumni – they expect destruction when most alumni are interested in creation, support, and problem-solving. If the administration is expecting the very worst from the alumni, they will not be interested in engaging in a good faith effort. If they are willing to shout down or disengage from alumni governance, then they do not see any value in this group of people.
And this is more upsetting to me than the BoT statement, which is, honestly, simply a statement crafted by what may be disjointed group – after all, the BoT includes many alumni – one that hit old talking points rather than share new material. The BoT statement was striking mainly because it raised hard feelings with the alumni that were beginning to smooth over, and that it was an opportunity for engagement with the community lost, when there is little time to waste.
I am much more concerned that the community is trying its very hardest to come up with solutions that may, eventually, be ignored. That the very community that makes Cooper Union so special is accused of working against the school, when we are all working as hard as we know how to – and that is *damn hard,* we all went to Cooper Union! – to solve this problem.
I feel that many think this discussion would be easier if they could just start over with a new group of alumni. But you know what? Cooper Union was started by Peter Cooper. He has writings that share how he feels the college should be implemented and what it should accomplish. Cooper Union was molded by Peter’s son-in-law and chief-purse-strings-holder Abram Hewitt. These things can not be disputed.
Cooper Union is special because the students, the faculty, and the alumni have taken that crazy mixed-up idealistic and impractical dream of Peter Cooper and embodied it into creativity, hard work, and unstoppable potential.
What happens if all the alumni take Cooper Union off of their resumes? What happens if the current dynamic faculty leave? What happens if the students who graduate do so, and then turn their backs on the school and walk away?
Cooper Union was the best decision I ever made. It changed my life and molded me in ways I am still discovering and exploring. But if tuition is charged, it will NOT be the place it was when I attended. It will not be the egalitarian institution of learning that I was privileged to attend. And I am not sure I want to support a new Cooper Union with my own professional success.
I don’t want to have a future where I can’t tell people with pride that I went to Cooper Union. I don’t want to take down my diploma from my cubicle wall. I don’t want to stop attending the dry ball-gown style events, or the exciting meet-ups, that celebrate and entertain Cooper Union alumni from all walks and positions in life.
Because of that I am working as hard as I can with as many people as I can to find alternative solutions and narratives for the dire financial straits that Cooper Union finds herself in now. In ten years or twenty years, the only people still engaged with Cooper Union will probably be the alumni (and a few stalwart professors). The Administration and most of the BoT can walk away from this if it doesn’t go right. The alumni are here to stay.
It needs to be recognized that alumni are not just responsible for financial support. Alumni prove the institution has merit. If the alumni aren’t any good, or if the good alumni stop promoting the college through acknowledgement of their foundational educational experience, then what good is Cooper Union? Consider what would happen if we all turn our backs on the school – or if we are pushed out of the way – then Cooper Union is just another two block campus with a sports team that meets at the local high school. It’s another inner-city college with exceptionally high living expenses for students and no health center. It becomes distinguished only by what it is NOT, and not by its potential.
Cooper Union is more than just a full-tuition scholarship school – but that is because of the alumni, the students, and the faculty. Charging tuition will attack the relationship between students and faculty. What will Cooper Union be without a proud alumni voice to lift it above the other tiny colleges with tuition requirements?
The successful students and alumni of Cooper Union are a testimony of what can be accomplished when no one tells you that your dream is ridiculous – We are the result of actually making the impossible a reality for 900 students a year. Our success is directly linked to enacting the impractical ideology of Peter Cooper, and Cooper Union’s success is directly linked to us. We are Cooper Union — and Cooper Union must stay free.
[[thanks to the Editor of the Alumni Pioneer for the picture of Peter Cooper and his family.]]