• Credit: Beyond My Ken

Jamshed Bharucha, president of the The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, announced in a letter on the school’s website that university officials have approved charging tuition for future graduate students as part of a hybrid plan to cut the private university’s soaring deficit.

A pricey school addition at 41 Cooper Square, built by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Thom Mayne, FAIA, in 2009, stands at the center of the debate. Building the multimillion dollar signature building more than doubled the university’s budget deficit, according to Tom Synnott, an adjunct professor at Cooper Union and former chief economist emeritus of the U.S. Trust. The project’s final price tag, as stated in The Wall Street Journal, rang in at $111.6 million. Critics, including Friends of Cooper Union, say that the decision to design such an expensive building jeopardizes the university’s tradition of free education for all.

Undergraduate students, Bharucha says, will continue to receive full scholarships—for now.

Tonight, Friends of Cooper Union, a group opposed to charging any tuition for any admitted student—the design school’s historic policy—will hold a community summit, the group’s second, to discuss alternative ways to raise funds for the school and to help reduce the deficit.

Henry Chapman, who graduated from Cooper Union in 2010, says charging tuition is the school’s “silver-bullet solution.” But the change, Chapman says, goes against the school’s principles established by founder Peter Cooper.

“Cooper has generally been very frugal, living within its means, up until the last 10 years,” Chapman says. “Now they seem to be moving away from austerity and towards a philosophy of expansion.”

Friends of Cooper Union say that the school and its mission to provide a free education to all are “bigger than a building.” But 41 Cooper Square, the 175,000-square-foot façade that stretches the length of one city block, challenges that notion. The LEED Platinum–certified building, designed by Mayne and his Santa Monica, Calif.–based firm Morphosis, features laboratories, classrooms, studios, conferences, lounges, and an auditorium for students.

Earlier this month, Cooper student Alan Lundgard circulated a fake letter from President Bharucha stating that the university would lease the academic building to the Polytechnic Institute of New York University for $20 million in annual revenue, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Lundgard forged the letter to protest the president’s proposal to start charging tuition for the first time in approximately 110 years.

Lundgard will give a brief talk at tonight’s summit, addressing student loan debt at Cooper Union in the context of the broader national issue. Students such as Lundgard, Chapman says, want a say in the university’s future because they are so passionate about their school. “We really have done so much with so little,” Chapman says, “and for such a long time.”