Jessica Rubenstein

UPDATE: Late on Friday, the board announced that it had voted against the working group's recommendations for alternatives to charging tuition, meaning that the next incoming class will be the first to pay tuition in generations. "Despite agreeing with the goals of the plan, the board has reluctantly concluded that the Working Group recommendations cannot—by themselves—be prudently adopted as a means to assure the institution’s financial sustainability into the future," the statement read. 

In the statement, which is copied at the bottom of this story, board chair Richard S. Lincer said that the board reviewed the proposal with the Huron Group, a consultancy. Lincer indicated that Cooper Union might adopt some of the working group's suggestions even as it embraces the central tuition policy that the working group hoped to avoid. 

"The efforts of the Working Group have value both because they identified a number of proposals that are worth pursuing and also because they reminded us that this crisis, while financial in origin, creates an opportunity to explore deeply the identity of the institution and its meaning within our extended community," the statement read.

Both the working group's paper and the board's response may be found below.

Read the original story below.

Trustees for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art will vote today to determine whether the next freshman class of undergraduates will be the first in the university's history to pay tuition.

The vote is the culmination of a nearly two-year debate over the future of the university, one kicked off in April 2012 when Cooper Union president Jamshed Bharucha and the school's board of trustees announced a plan to begin charging tuition. The resulting discussion over the university's finances—which has meant casting blame for the past as often as projecting a path forward for the future—has divided faculty, students, alumni, and administrators.

"The very simple bottom line of the story is that the increasing costs of delivering a first-rate college education has outpaced The Cooper Union’s ability to generate enough revenue," said chairman emeritus Mark L. Epstein in an email. "To paraphrase Mayor Bloomberg, it is not about being free, it is about who is going to pay for it. Running a ‘free’ school is very expensive."

In the two years since Cooper Union leaders adopted the measure to introduce tuition for graduate students, students have occupied a university building in an effort to force them to abandon the scheme. At least 13 trustees have resigned, among them architect Moshe Safdie. New York City's Independent Budget Office issued a warning that by charging tuition, the school could be risking the tax-equivalency payments that are the bedrock of the Cooper Union endowment.

Last month, however, a working group comprising faculty and alumni published a proposal of alternative strategies for securing the financial stability of the university. Today, the board meets to discuss those recommendations and determine its course of action.

The Cooper Union Working Group Report

Though passions have run high on all sides, the fate of the university's most idiosyncratic feature—full-tuition scholarships for its undergraduate architecture, art, and engineering students, since 1859—seemed certain, and doomed, until last month's presentation.

"If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free," wrote Kevin Slavin, a newly installed trustee representing alumni, in a blog post on Thursday. "It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

"If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear."

Hope Gangloff

In many respects, the crisis at Cooper Union stands in contrast to the broader issue of rising costs in higher education. Thanks to the unique endowment left by industrialist and university founder Peter Cooper—namely, the land on which the Chrysler Building stands—the highly selective school has managed to provide free tuition for undergraduate and graduate students even through the Great Depression.

Yet despite the school's unique station, it followed a familiar path to financial failure, as Sangamithra Iyer explained in n+1 earlier this year. Critics, including Reuters financial reporter (and ARCHITECT contributor) Felix Salmon, have cited extravagant administrative salaries as one factor. In The New York Times, James B. Stewart chided a Cooper Union trustee for relying on hedge funds in managing the school's endowment. Perhaps most damning of all is the school's investment in 41 Cooper Square, a $166 million engineering and art building designed by Morphosis. The building failed to draw a marquee naming donor as intended, plunging the school into considerable debt.

Courtesy Ray Weitzenberg/Flickr via Creative Commons

"Over the past 40 years or so... Cooper Union has been living beyond its means, financing structural deficits by periodically selling off various bits of land that it owned inside and outside New York City," Salmon wrote for Reuters.

In the two years since the crisis erupted, the university has adopted new financial safeguards, transparency measures, and oversight mechanisms. Those guarantees may come too late, though, to prevent the board from imposing tuition at the undergraduate level—as it has already elected to do at the graduate level.

Among the alternative solutions proposed by the working group and ostensibly being considered by the board are a variety of cost-cutting measures, from buyouts to restructuring for faculty, and models for generating revenue, including maximum credit caps for free tuition, enhanced new fees, and certification programs. It is unclear what, if any, of these proposals the board might consider in place of tuition.

Courtesy Jules Antonio/Flickr via Creative Commons

Update 1/10: The full statement from the board following the Jan. 10 vote reads as follows:

To: The Cooper Union Community

From: Richard S. Lincer

Date: January 10, 2014

Subject:  Working Group Report

In late June 2013, an ambitious plan took shape to provide an alternative to a tuition-based financial plan for The Cooper Union. Authored by trustees, faculty, staff and alumni, this alternative came to be known as the “Working Group Report.” In December, the board began a rigorous review of the assumptions underlying the financial plan that had been adopted by the board in April 2013, and studied in depth the specific recommendations of the Working Group.

This review was conducted by everyone on the Board of Trustees with the assistance of the Huron Group, The Cooper Union’s financial consultants. Since the goal of the Working Group was to provide a plan that allowed The Cooper Union to provide full-tuition scholarships, the entire board supported the Working Group’s ambitions and goals.

Despite agreeing with the goals of the plan, the board has reluctantly concluded that the Working Group recommendations cannot -- by themselves -- be prudently adopted as a means to assure the institution’s financial sustainability into the future.

The Working Group plan puts forward a number of recommendations that are worth pursuing under any financial model. However, we believe that the contingencies and risks inherent in the proposals are too great to supplant the need for new revenue sources. Regrettably, tuition remains the only realistic source of new revenue in the near future.

We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the members of the Working Group. In a very real way, their efforts typify those The Cooper Union has relied on for many years: faculty, students and staff putting their full energy and intelligence into the service of a larger ideal. Moreover, the Working Group undertook their work at a particularly difficult moment, because we face a $12 million structural deficit and because so many care so much about The Cooper Union and what it has represented. On behalf of The Cooper Union, the board extends its sincere and profound gratitude for the countless hours of work by a large and dedicated group within the community.

The efforts of the Working Group have value both because they identified a number of proposals that are worth pursuing and also because they reminded us that this crisis, while financial in origin, creates an opportunity to explore deeply the identity of the institution and its meaning within our extended community. The Cooper Union, after all, is more than a financial construct—it embodies a set of values. It is an ideal that moves faculty to teach and students to learn. It inspires the entire community to be as active and involved as it has been. While there have been substantive differences about how to move forward, we all have agreed that we must find a way to serve that ideal despite the constraints we currently face.

While we cannot now restore the full tuition scholarship, the board will commit itself to exploring Working Group recommendations, which -- coupled with investments in our academic program -- can continue to position The Cooper Union as the one of the most unique and exceptional educational institutions in the United States. As part of that long-term commitment, we will set out to develop the resources that can allow us to increase student aid over time, augmenting need-based financial aid and ultimately perhaps even restoring the full tuition scholarship.

We cannot reasonably project how or when we can restore this aspect of The Cooper Union’s legacy. But as we work together to find new ways to get The Cooper Union onto stable financial ground, we will also work together to develop a contemporary mission for the institution.

We must, and will, find a way to move The Cooper Union ideal forward despite the changed economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. Despite the changes, our admissions will continue to be based strictly on merit. The spirit that animates learning in the classroom, the studio and the lab must remain fundamentally egalitarian. We must reaffirm our commitment to educating the working-class students for whom Peter Cooper founded the school in 1859.

The economics alone are bigger than tuition. The overall landscape of higher education and the economic realities of New York City are different.The Cooper Union’s traditional tuition scholarship has benefited all students who can attend, but has never sufficiently addressed students’ increasing living expenses. Historically, these costs may have been negligible, but they now constitute a barrier to participation for many prospective students.

For some students, a full tuition scholarship is not enough. The Cooper Union still attracts a sizeable proportion of students whose financial circumstances make them eligible for Pell grants (approximately 20 percent).  Many of these students are able to commute to campus, but many others must find housing in order to attend. It seems imperative that we do better by these students than we do right now. In order to ensure the access that motivated Peter Cooper to found the school, we need to provide additional aid to ensure that any deserving student can attend.

To these ends, the board will constitute a group of trustees to work with faculty, students, administration, staff,  alumni and friends to clarify the mission for the 21st  century and to develop a strategic plan for implementing the mission. Foremost among their concerns will be sustaining merit-based admissions, increasing accessibility for students from all backgrounds and, to the extent our resources allow, adding resources to the overall tuition scholarship.

The committee will be reaching out to the community in the coming months and will ensure that this process is inclusive and transparent. We recognize there have been strongly felt feelings on both sides of the tuition issue. We also recognize that now is the time for The Cooper Union community to come together to build on all the strengths we can offer. The Working Group report can best be understood, we think, as a step in this process of looking carefully at our current realities and developing creative alternatives that can carry the institution forward. We look forward to continuing this process with the community.

We commit, as we have always committed, to access for everyone who deserves to get in, and to programs that deserve to be called the best.

Richard S. Lincer, chair

The Cooper Union Board of Trustees