Even back in the Roaring '80s, when I was applying to schools, it appeared to be impossible. A free top-notch undergraduate education in art or architecture or engineering? Coming across the Cooper Union page in the college guidebooks, seeing that big zero on the tuition line, was a throwback to another time. A time of Carnegie-scaled largesse. A time when Progressive was not a dirty word. In 1859, when Peter Cooper founded the school, he gave it a noble home (the landmark Foundation Building on Cooper Square), various endowment-filling morsels of New York real estate (chief among them the Midtown corner on which the Chrysler Building would later be built), and the mandate to provide a free education to all comers. Sure, students had to make their way in New York City, never an easy thing in any era. And there have been small fees for this and that. But still. No tuition? Outside of the military academies, free is a very, very rare price point in American higher ed.
So you can imagine the consternation on Tuesday when a trustee, speaking in front of an audience of students and teachers in the school's famous Great Hall, made the announcement that has been anticipated since the Cooper Union's financial troubles first came to light last year: The free ride is over. For 100-plus years, no one has had to pay to learn there. Starting next fall, they will—about half of the $38,500 the school technically charges each student before zeroing out the balance through scholarships. A protest assembled immediately in front of the school. A sign reading "50% Free" appeared. Arms were linked, The New York Times reported, to give the building "a symbolic hug." A professor suggested that students drape the entire building in black.
There's likely to be much more of that. Perhaps the architecture students will attack the building with war machines inspired by the work of John Hejduk, longtime dean and Class of '50. Perhaps Milton Glaser ('51), father of "I [heart] NY," will draft a graphic protest. Perhaps Occupy will take up the cause, folding it into its drive for student debt relief (@FreeCooperUnion, the voice of the resistance on Twitter, wrote, on the day after the announcement, "Cooper Union: the canary in the coalmine of today's higher education"). But barring the mass-emptying of alumni pockets or some serious patent trolling on the sale of light bulbs—thanks, Thomas Edison (Eng. 1870s)—the real fight is over. The student body is going to get a graduate-level education in the pitfalls of real-estate speculation and the vagaries of market manipulation. And New York City is going to lose an institutional quirk that truly has been a beacon of hope and a special antidote to the city's well-earned reputation as a numbers-driven experiment in survival.
The numbers here are bleak: a $12 million annual deficit, $10 million owed annually on an outstanding loan, the fire sale of many valuable properties. It's too early to know exactly what happened, but with so many insiders outraged at the school, and prominent outsiders such as Reuters financial reporter Felix Salmon calling for a public airing of dirty laundry, we can expect to find out more soon. This much we do know: At some point in the past decade, those responsible for the Cooper Union, for managing its money and safeguarding its soul, forgot the singular mission of the place and began to run with the money-mad crowd. Building boom in Manhattan? Sell off some long-held properties, including the very prominent lot across the street from the school that is now home to Charles Gwathmey's "Sculpture for Living." Market up but contributions down? Take out a $175 million dollar loan, using the Chrysler Building holdings as collateral, to cover new building projects. This charter-abrogating strategy required the approval of the New York Supreme Court. The petition for cy pres relief was granted in 2006. A portion of that money was set aside to play the ponies on Wall Street, per the school's articulated strategy. Then Cooper got clobbered along with everyone else when the economy died in the fall of 2008.
The land under the Chrysler Building, still the school's greatest asset, reportedly generates some $27 million a year, but the lease is only renegotiated every decade. The next bump from the rent at Chrysler is expected in 2018, but predicted revenue increases come five years can't save the school now, and wouldn't save the school then. Other numbers that may come under scrutiny include the cost of a grandiose new building for the school designed by Thom Mayne and completed in 2009. The board of trustees says that the building is not the cause of the school's "current financial dilemma," that its construction "relieved Cooper Union of the costs that would have had to be incurred" to renovate several older buildings. Still, that indulgent late–Bubble-Era design may now have to suffer some post–Bubble-Era accounting. What is the differential between the cost of a more humble problem-solver building there, or even some super-humble renovations, and the $177 million price tag for Mayne's signature expansion?
I may not be the only observer dying to take that figure and divide it up into tuition-sized chunks. But any conceivable building for 41 Cooper Square would have added to the institution's deficit. The problems, and the likely cause of Cooper's crisis, are much deeper. And wider. "The dealers in money have always been the dangerous class," Peter Cooper wrote in 1883. "There may, at some future day, be a whirlwind precipitated upon the moneyed men of this country." That whirlwind came, of course, as many expected it to. What is striking about the situation at Cooper Union is that no one has taken responsibility for putting the school, that rare and precious place, squarely within its updraft. Here Cooper is no different than a thousand other schools, governments, investment houses. The 2008 crash was not an act of god; it was an act of men in which the board of Cooper, like so many, appears to be complicit as participants. But no one has resigned. No one has held themselves accountable for the failure to manage the patrimony of the school. In a defensive statement released after the tuition announcement, the alumni association representatives on the Cooper board wrote that, among the many options they considered, was a substantial downsizing of the school (killing one or more of its departments), and even the closure of the entire institution. They passed the buck to the students. But they didn't apologize. It's understandable. How do you apologize for ruining something so wonderful? We don't have a tradition of seppuku here.
Surely a market-rate Cooper is preferable to no Cooper at all. Surely life will go on. Surely the school, the uniquely egalitarian atmosphere of its studios, the uniquely theoretical accomplishments of its faculty and alumni, will persist. But it will be diminished. Substantial contributions in art and engineering aside, the school's architecture program has been an essential component of professional education for decades, graduating leaders in the field as different as Daniel Libeskind ('70) and T.J. Gottesdiener ('79). Not to mention both Diller ('79) and Scofidio ('55). And the historian Joan Ockman ('80). And famed MoMA curator Arthur Drexler ('47). And Leslie Gill ('82). And Alex Gorlin ('78). And Laurie Hawkinson ('83). And Lee Skolnick ('79). And Evan Douglis ('83). And Toshiko Mori ('76). And Ben Gruzen ('43). And Stan Allen ('81). And Shigeru Ban ('84). And and and—what names wouldn't be on the alumni rolls if Cooper had not been free? What future talents will be thwarted by a lack of funds? We're about to find out, and we'll never know.