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Alumni and Students File Suit Against Cooper Union Over “Mismanaged” Endowment

by Mostafa Heddaya on May 28, 2014

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A new suit alleges the school’s Thomas Mayne-designed engineering building was part of a pattern of mismanagement perpetrated by the school’s board. (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Five alumni and admitted students have filed suit against Cooper Union’s board of trustees, alleging that their behavior leading up to the historic end of free tuition violated duties prescribed by the school’s charter, the Wall Street Journal reported. The 39-page legal petition, filed yesterday in New York State Supreme Court, states that Cooper lived “beyond its means” and lists a number of alleged abuses. These include the construction of a $150 million Thomas Mayne building “the school does not need” and purportedly lavish spending by Cooper President Jamshed Bharucha; the group claims Bharucha’s administration laid out $350,000 for his inauguration ceremony, including a $50,000 speaking fee to columnist Fareed Zakaria, and spent excessively on the president’s personal expenses, from $10,000 blinds in his residence to hiring a retinue of personal bodyguards. The group is seeking a court injunction against the charging of tuition, an investigative accounting of the school’s “current economic instability,” and attorney fees.

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Cooper Union students hold a vigil shortly after the new tuition policy was announced in April 2013

The suit was filed by an entity called the Committee to Save Cooper Union Inc., which is currently raising $150,000 to cover legal costs through an Indiegogo campaign promoted on the website savecooper.org. That campaign has thus far raised $7,400, though the preliminary expenses, which include lawyers and a publicist, were paid for “by soliciting donations from concerned members of the Cooper Union community, mainly alumni,” petitioner and alumnus Adrian Jovanovic said. The committee is also registered to Jovanovic and listed at a Washington Heights address deeded to his family, according to public records. Jovanovic is joined in yesterday’s petition by professors Mike Essl and Toby Cumberbatch, who are also Cooper alumni, as well as admitted students Isabella Pezzulo and Claire Kleinman; according to the suit they are all “beneficiaries of the trust established by Peter Cooper through the Deed of Trust and have a special interest in the trust’s assets and funds.” This 1859 Deed of Trust, the petitioners argue, plainly states Peter Cooper’s hope for the institution (“I am determined to secure to our country a perpetual course of free lectures and instruction”) and established a fiduciary duty breached by the trustees.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 4.33.30 PMFree Cooper Union, an activist group sympathetic to the lawsuit’s cause, held protests on campus today coinciding with the school’s commencement ceremony. A spokesperson for Cooper Union told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that the university is “disappointed that the Committee to Save Cooper Union would choose costly litigation over constructive conversation.”

The Committee to Save Cooper Union is represented by Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff, & Abady, a firm that has previously litigated against city plans for the High Line and the Atlantic Yards.

Update, 5/28 5:20pm: This story was revised to include comment from Adrian Jovanovic.

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