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12.22.2011
Pay to Play?
Cooper Union considers tuition after 152 years.
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
Courtesy Penn State Libraries Picture Collection

In October, Jamshed Bharucha, the new president of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, admitted to a New York Times reporter that the school is operating at an annual deficit of near $16.5 million. With expenditures of $59.7 million, this represents a deficit of approximately 28 percent. President Bharucha went on to acknowledge that such an unsustainable financial model requires finding a way to balance the operating budget without selling assets or raiding the endowment. That means identifying revenue models that scale to the growth of expenses. Rumors about the school’s increasing financial woes have been circulating for some time, even prompting a series of open forums to discuss the problems. However, no one was expecting the other shoe to drop in the press, which is exactly what happened when President Bharucha let slip that a new revenue stream might have to come from an unprecedented tuition levy, albeit as a last resort.

Unlike the tuition-based structure of virtually every other private institution of higher education, the Cooper Union offers education in art, architecture, and engineering tuition-free. Peter Cooper, the inventor and industrialist who founded the school in 1859, believed that education was a democratic right, not a privilege, and should be available to qualified individuals regardless of their means. Now it seems that Cooper’s guarantee of free-tuition in perpetuity may be threatened.

As expected, the reaction from students, faculty, and alumni was swift and incredulous. “It is not that the Cooper Union holds up free education, but that free education holds up the Cooper Union. We are now confronted with a crisis that threatens to collapse this structural principle,” argued Professor David Gersten at an assembly in the school’s legendary Great Hall two days after President Bharucha’s pronouncement. Gersten, who has taught at the school since 1991 and served as associate dean under John Hejduk, sees the school’s financial woes as an existential crisis, demanding verification of the founder’s principles. “The hard work of navigating this moment, of clarifying the meaning of our principles, will not be found in the neutrality of looking forward only. The questions of accountability, of broken bonds of trust, of hubristic excesses writ large, figure strongly within our current crisis. We must not shy away from these facts. Any solution requires an honest, hard look at the decisions made that led to the crisis.”

Gersten is not alone in questioning what many see as irresponsible management practices prior to Bharucha’s appointment. Others criticize the timing of the new $166 million academic building at 41 Cooper Square, designed by Morphosis Architects. State-of-the-art environmental sustainability propped up by an unsustainable business model is an irony lost on few.

It seems unlikely that the institution will start charging tuition any time soon, but there are few clues as to how it will reduce its mounting deficit. There are calls for a financial audit, and the president proposes a task force. In a letter posted on the school’s Web site, President Bharucha doesn’t mention tuition but rather calls for “a bold plan of reinvention.” It remains to be seen how bold a reinvention the ghost of Peter Cooper can bear.


EDITOR'S NOTE: The article incorrectly implies that since its founding in 1859 Cooper Union never charged students tuition; in fact, Peter Cooper mandated that those who could afford to pay should do so, enabling those who could not pay to attend on scholarships. It was only when a large gift was made to Cooper Union in 1902 that the policy changed and the institution began offering full tuition scholarships to all admitted students.

Sara Hart