Over the past year, I’ve been researching and reporting on the history and fate of my alma mater, Cooper Union. I’m so happy that n+1 published the fruits of that labor. Check it out here.
“Cooper Union is dealing not only with a financial crisis but also an existential one. What is playing out at this East Village institution speaks both to the national debate about debt, labor, and the affordability of higher education and to the institution’s history, which in its early years was so closely tied to the desires of the nation.”
On April 23, 2013, the Board of Trustees announced that Cooper Union would reduce its scholarship policy to 50%, and would start charging students $20k/year beginning in 2014. Felix Salmon at Reuters has been doing some excellent reporting on this issue. In his article, “It’s time to air Cooper Union’s Dirty Laundry,” he gives a very kind shout out to this n+1 piece.
If you want to really understand the importance of Cooper Union and its century-long tradition of free tuition, I can’t recommend Sangamithra Iyer’s excellent article in n+1 highly enough. And it contrasts greatly, of course, with the official statement from Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees, saying that the college is going to stop being free very soon: beginning, in fact with the students entering in September 2014…The fact is, as Iyer clearly lays out, that charging tuition runs in direct violation of Peter Cooper’s vision and his founding principles. Indeed, the original Cooper Union charter held the institution’s trustees personally responsible for any deficit, while ensuring that education was free to all enrolled students.
You must also check out Salmon’s piece: “The Tragedy of Cooper Union,“
For an institution which was founded to exist in perpetuity, this kind of board turnover is decidedly worrying, especially since it was the board which decided and announced that Cooper Union will start charging tuition. If this board is just passing through, with precious little aggregate tenure or institutional memory, the legitimacy of that decision is surely greatly reduced.
Students, alumni , faculty and staff are continuing to organize to preserve a Free Cooper Union.
I had the pleasure of presenting at the first TEDx at Cooper Union this April. Thanks to Nina Tandon for hosting and Noemie Charlotte Thieves for producing videos of the event. See all presentations here. My presentation is adapted from my essay Soiled Hands in the anthology Primate People.
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:
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Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education, Advocacy, and Sanctuary (University of Utah Press) comes out this month. I am very excited to read this anthology edited by Lisa Kemmerer with a forward by Marc Bekoff. My story “Soiled Hands” is the closing essay in the this collection.
I am adapting this into a Tedx talk at Cooper Union on April 24, 2012 which is themed “Found in Translation.”
April 24th, 2012 (5pm-9pm)
41 Cooper Square
Third Avenue between 6th & 7th Streets
The Cooper Union, Rose Auditorium
In speeches, radio interviews and meetings with alumni and stakeholders, Jamshed Bharucha, President of Cooper Union,has often brought up a lesser-known aspect of the school’s history: Cooper Union didn’t always provide a free tuition to all. In a speech last fall, he stated. “It is important to note that in the early years, approximately the first forty years, tuition was charged at Cooper Union. It wasn’t until 1902, when Andrew Carnegie made a large gift to the institution, that a tuition -free education was granted to students.”
In my meeting with the president and other alumni in December 2011, he reiterated this version of its history: “It was free for the working classes… It was never free for all until long after Peter Cooper was gone.” What Bharucha is referring to is a fraction of students in the female school of design, called “amateur” students who paid for their courses. He told us that “his [Cooper’s] actual policy when he was president was that those who could pay were charged.” But if you study the early documents, the extent, cost, context, and duration of the paying students in the early years are perhaps misrepresented in Bharucha’s narrative.
The first annual report discusses the amateurs in the School of Design for Women, the precursor to the school of art, (which later accepted male students in 1879):
“The instruction afforded in this school shall be given without charge, but the regulations may provide for the admission of amateur pupils for pay, so long as industrial pupils are not thereby excluded. All money received from such amateur pupils shall be applied to the support of the school…It will be perceived that in this school there is a departure from the invariable rule in the other department of the Union, that the instruction shall in all cases be entirely gratuitous. The Trustees were at first opposed to this deviation, but it was represented by the benevolent and enlightened ladies, who had established and maintained the school up to the time of its incorporation with the Union, that its character and usefulness would be impaired, if the wealthy and refined were entirely excluded from it; that the presence of ladies of leisure and refined tastes tended to raise the standard of art, and to give to the friendless associations of value in reference to their future careers. The Trustees, yielding to this argument, have limited the number of amateur pupils to one tenth of the total number instructed.”
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Last December, I had a chance to meet with Jamshed Bharucha, the new President of Cooper Union in his office with other Cooper Union Alumni. During this meeting, I asked to what extent the tuition model has been developed. “On the question of how much tuition would be charged, how many would have to pay and how much of it they would have to pay, we’ve hired a consultant,” Bharucha said. “It’s a specialty now. It’s called enrollment management. We’ve hired one of the top enrollment management firms. They will do the market research.”
He reiterated that “any student that merits a Cooper Union education should not be denied one because of lack of affordability…but for those who can afford to pay—”
“Has that been defined?” I interjected, “for those who can afford to pay.”
“No it hasn’t been defined,” Bharucha said. “It is a consideration. It has to be costed out.”
While these items are costed out, and the ‘market research’ is performed, it is equally important to be able to articulate the value of a free education.
Last fall, Litia Perta, wrote a wonderful article in The Brooklyn Rail, called “Why Cooper Union Matters. ” It inspired many of us to think about our own Cooper experiences in a larger context. The following is a personal reflection on my Cooper Union education that has been posted on the Friends of Cooper Union Testimonials Page:
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In the center of the Brucennial Gallery Exhibit downtown on Bleecker Street, stacks of hay bales set the stage for Bruce High Quality Foundation’s production of “Animal Farm- the Musical“, which premiered the first weekend in March. In this Orwellian adaptation, the chicken trustees at BHQF University, reveal the financial crisis facing the school and decide they must “hatch a new strategic plan. Everything must be ‘on the table.’”
One hen trustee of the equity firm ‘Beak and Claw, ’ suggests they “ Diversify our debt, prioritize our portfolio, reassess our risk…No risk. No reward.” Another wants to clean up the pig stye, and create a 21st century institution. “What we need is a Goddam state of the art architectural monstrosity.”
These options don’t pan out. “ The economy has collapsed. ..No one could have seen this coming. No one should be blamed,” the trustees cluck.
Throughout the play, the chickens trustees switch their beaks to snouts and transform into recent piggie art student alum, while Law and Order sound effects signal scene changes. The piggies struggle making ends meet with their day jobs and finding time to pursue their passions : (” We’ve got art to make, but we’re stuck working every stinking day.” ) They are reminded and inspired by these truths expressed in song: “Every pig is an artist/ No pig flies alone/ Teaching others is our greatest work/We can do it on our own”
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I was recently reading sections of Up In the Old Hotel, which anthologized Joseph Mitchell’s writings for the New Yorker. It included a 1940 article on “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon“, where Peter Cooper frequented:
“Mr. Cooper in his declining years, spent so many afternoons in the back room philosophizing with the workingmen that he was given a chair of his own; it was equipped with an inflated rubber cushion. (The chair is still there; each April 4th for a number of years after Mr. Cooper’s death, on April 4, 1883, it was draped with black cloth.) Also like other steadfast customers, Mr. Cooper had a pewter mug on which his name had been engraved with an icepick. He gave the saloon, a life-sized portrait of himself, which hangs over the mantel in the back room. It is an appropriate decoration, because, since the beginning of prohibition, McSorley’s has been the official saloon of Cooper Union students. Sometimes a sentimental student will stand beneath the portrait and drink a toast to Mr. Cooper.”
After the visit to Peter Cooper’s Grave on February 12, 2012, some Friends of Cooper Union, gathered for a drink at this watering hole. (FYI: McSorley’s Ale is vegan). Some things have changed since Peter Cooper’s days at McSorley’s. Most notably, the inclusion of women starting in the 1970. (Previous motto was, “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies.”). Cooper Union, in contrast, opened its doors to women since its inception in 1859, and never discriminated by race, gender, creed or class.
McSorley’s other motto “Be Good or Be Gone,” is still in effect, and Cooper’s table, chair, and portrait are still on display. The lyrics of a song about Peter Cooper’s Table are also mounted on the wall.
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.
On February 12, 2012, Friends of Cooper Union organized a visit to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to pay respects to Peter Cooper on his 221st Birthday. Cooper, his wife, children and their families are also buried there on a private grassy mound, on a small traffic island. Much chiseling was needed to carve these beautiful words that describe Cooper’s contributions to society. Here’s what was written, taking up multiple sides of this gravestone monument:
PATRIOT. PHILANTHROPIST. SAGE
PIONEER UNDER THE FREE
INSTITUTIONS OF A NEW NATION IN WORKS OF
AND OF FAR SIGHTED BENEVELENCE.
FOUNDER OF THE COOPER UNION
FOR THE ADVANCEMENT
OF SCIENCE AND ART, WHICH HE
CONCEIVED WHEN A POOR
APPRENTICE AND REALIZED
AFTER MANY YEARS OF
SACRIFICE AND DEVOTION
THUS BECOMING THE FIRST
IN AMERICA PERSONALLY
TO ADMINSTER LARGE PRIVATE
FORTUNE FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD.
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