Satyagraha and The Way Forward


At one point during the Second Friends of Cooper Union Community Summit, President Jamshed Bharucha addressed the crowd and said, “I am telling you the truth. I believe in what is called satyagraha—in Sanskrit it is called truth force…I told the truth about the budget, the truth about the illusion that this institution has been in for at least 20 years if not more.”

Satyagraha is the name given to the nonviolent movement Gandhi led first in South Africa and later in India. Gandhi coined this term because he felt “passive resistance,” what it had been previously called, indicated a certain weakness, so he held a contest in his weekly newspaper Indian Opinion. In his biography of Gandhi, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld notes that Gandhi’s nephew first suggested sadagraha, which meant firmness in cause. Gandhi changed it to satyagraha— firmness in truth. “To stand for truth was to stand for justice, and to do so nonviolently, offering a form of resistance that would eventually move even the oppressor to see that his position depended on the opposite, on untruth and force,” Lelyveld wrote.

My grandfather was a satyagrahi in India, and I used to edit an environmental and social justice magazine in Brooklyn called Satya. There, we translated satyagraha to be truth-action. Over the past several months, as we have been discussing the fate of The Cooper Union, I have seen examples of satyagraha. It is in the students who have been organizing, demonstrating, and protesting against a tuition policy that will not affect them directly, but will destroy an ideal they hold dear. It is in the discussions that students, faculty, alumni and staff have had online and in person, to share the information they’ve gathered and the hopes they have for the school. Satyagraha can be found in the Petition to Save Cooper Union Without Tuition, the pledge drive Money on The Table, the wiki page of community-powered solutions on the Cooper Union Community Task Force, the Alumni Pioneer and the webcomic Peter Cooper and the Demons of Debt. It is embodied in the work Friends of Cooper Union is doing to preserve Cooper Union’s “historic mission of free education and the excellence born of that mission.” Satyagraha is not merely admitting a problem. It is addressing the root cause of that crisis and offering another path. Satyagraha is well illustrated in the document prepared by the Friends of Cooper Union Community, The Way Forward:

Since the President’s announcement in October 2011 that Cooper Union may charge tuition, we have been working tirelessly to understand the nature of the challenges Cooper faces, and to come up with viable immediate and long-term solutions. Cooper Union is bigger than a building. It embodies an ideal we hold dear to our democracy. It is unconscionable that we should allow that ideal to be destroyed without imagining every possible alternative. So how are we going to save Cooper Union? Because the root of this crisis is not only financial, we have come up with ways to improve Cooper’s civic presence, academics and mission. Despite having limited access to the numbers, we have identified what we believe to be sensible first steps toward closing the deficit. Finally, during the long, fraught and sometimes tedious process of mapping out what seems to us the right and just path for Cooper Union in the coming months and years, we’ve discovered what is perhaps the most crucial element to Cooper’s survival: a sense of community that transcends disciplines, reaches across generations, and, in this moment of confusion, has the vision and spirit to point Cooper Union in the right direction.

We are the Cooper community
and this is The Way Forward.

Unfortunately, I missed Bharucha’s discussion with Lelyveld on April 16 at Cooper Union about Gandhi’s legacy, and I hope that it was recorded and will be posted online. I had read and reviewed Lelyveld’s book last year for Our Hen House, and discussed what I had gleaned about activism, some of which may be applicable to Cooper Union situation.

Gandhi outlined four pillars for swaraj (self-rule): Hindu Muslim unity, eradication of untouchability, revitalization of self-sustaining rural villages, and ahimsa, nonviolence. He believed that independence could only be attained “when full cooperation between ourselves has been achieved.”

Similarly, if Cooper Union is to free itself from this monster of debt, it needs to strengthen the ties within its Union, build community, and rally behind a common purpose.

Gandhi did not want to abandon any of his pillars in his fight for independence, particularly his central pillar, ahimsa: “I personally can never be a party to a movement half-violent and half non-violent,” he said, “even though it may result in the attainment of so-called swaraj, for it will not be real swaraj as I have conceived it.”

To close Cooper Union’s deficit, it must not abandon its key pillar. As architecture professor David Gersten said in the first Community Summit: “It is not that Cooper Union holds up free education, but that free education holds up Cooper Union.”

Even though a tuition model may bring in new revenue streams to the college, it would not be The Cooper Union as we–the Cooper community–have conceived it.

For more information about the current situation facing Cooper Union: visit the Friends of Cooper Union website. For additional posts on Cooper Union click here.

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