The protesting students of New York City’s Cooper Union college believe that in saving a tuition-free Cooper, they’re saving an idea about what education should be in America, and who it should be available to — everyone.
That is why the students have set up camp in Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha‘s office Occupy Wall Street-style, where they’re protesting what many student activists around the country believe is a trend of school boards being over-compensated, while knowing less and less about what has been the most valuable asset of the American university: the students.
Cooper Union students want to keep the college tuition-free, and they say they’re not going anywhere until they’re assured it will stay that way.
The brouhaha began when the Cooper Union board announced earlier this year that the incoming class of 2014 would have to start paying tuition to make up for the school’s $16 million deficit.
There are very few schools in the U.S. that do not charge their students any tuition, and of those, Cooper Union is arguably the most prestigious. U.S. News & World Report ranked it the #1 regional college in the county last year. Ask the students or the staff and they’ll tell you that this is because the endowment left by the school’s founder, Peter Cooper, made it possible for students to be chosen completely on merit.
“You make the snowballs if you have the best snow,” said Stephen Baker, Cooper’s Athletic Dean.
But over the years that endowment, which includes income from real estate holdings like The Chrysler Building, has been squandered. There’s been a lot of debate as to how that happened — gross mismanagement, investment decisions that secured immediate cash rather than residual income, low yields, the financial crisis, the housing crash — what have you.
As a poster child for school board mismanagement, the Cooper Union students say they believe the board’s lack of transparency and communication with the student body is what truly made it possible to grow the the massive deficit in the school’s finances since the 1970s.
Victoria Sobel, a senior at Cooper’s Art School, said she was surprised to find that some Cooper Union board members didn’t even know how students at the Art School were selected.
“I think it’s time we take a more progressive or radical look at board structures and say if they’re failing this badly, maybe we need a more sustainable model,” said Sobel.
What Cooper’s board has failed to do, beyond anything, is grasp what Cooper is to students, faculty, and alumni: It’s an idea.
“If Cooper Union is in trouble, then the educational ideal is trouble,” said Engineering School (2012) alum Michael Ketigian. He was standing on the steps of City Hall at a protest last Tuesday, where around 100 students presented a petition to keep the school free.
“A Cooper Union that is not free is not Cooper Union,” Ketigian continued. “It obliterates ideological sustainability.”
And make no mistake, the students are willing to obliterate parts of Cooper to sustain their ideal. They recognise that maintaining their tradition means pain. They’re willing to see class sizes cut, courses canceled and professors sacked.
“What does it actually cost to educate a student?” asked Peter Buckley, a history professor at Cooper Union. In no other business do executives look at the budget year after year and say simply ‘let’s raise the price of our product 7%’ without rigorous analysis, he pointed out.
Another concern that students have discussed is that donors who already give to the school may not want to continue their generosity now that the school isn’t, in essence, also a social project. The development office isn’t completely sure how to pitch the school now.
“People don’t feel comfortable donating to this administration because they feel it may not go to the students,” said Sobel. “The feeling of distrust from the community to the administration is a huge stop-gap for potential donors.”
For that, the students want the President, Jamshed Bharucha, gone. They want consistent communication from the board. They want their school back. And that is why they won’t leave Bharucha’s office.
It’s an occupation — all in all a modern form of protest learned from the massive demonstrations that swept the globe in 2011. Indeed some students marched with Occupy Wall Street. From that experience they learned how to use the methods they’re applying now — creative demonstrations, a strong presence on social media, and a live feed so everyone can follow along.
Their aim is to increase awareness about their problem, and it’s working. Google Trends shows a spike in discussion about this issue since the news broke on April 23rd, and then again when the students started protesting in earnest in early May.
“It’s like a desperation cry,” said Ketegian. “We need help.”
But first they know they must show that they can help themselves.
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