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Last night five members of the Cooper Union’s board of trustees resigned: real estate mogul Mark Epstein (the board’s former chairman), Vassar College president Catharine Bond Hill, architects Daniel Libeskind and Francois de Menil (the board’s vice chairman), and investment banker Monica Vachher. Three of the departing trustees — Epstein, Libeskind, and Vachher — have written public resignation letters claiming that the reasons for their departure have nothing with to do with the board of trustees’ controversial decision to discontinue the full scholarships that Cooper Union had given to every enrolled student for over 150 years, but rather the ineffectuality of the board itself. Their names have already been removed from the school’s trustees page.
“During my term as Chairman we were able to put the school on a path to sustainability,” Epstein writes in his letter of resignation, published along with the two others on the Committee to Save Cooper Union from the Committee to Save Cooper Union (CSCUFCSCU) website. “It was going to be a difficult path with some hurdles to get over. We were on our way, but have now gotten so far off of that path due to the actions (or inactions) of the Board that I no longer want to participate. I know that there are some in the Cooper Community that will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort. I am not resigning due to any pressure from that group, rather that I no longer want to associate with them.”
Epstein goes on to blame those students, faculty, and alumni who have protested the tuition decision for any future hardships the Cooper Union faces. “If the schools fail in the future, it will not be due to the change in the scholarship policy (a major part of the sustainability plan) as some will claim,” he writes. “It will be due to the organized opposition to it.” Casey Gollan, a Cooper Union alum and member of one of those organized opposition groups through his involvement in Free Cooper Union, concurs.
“The thing about Mark Epstein’s letter, where he says people ‘will take my resignation as a false victory,’ it actually is a false victory that these five are gone because what Cooper actually needs it a much broader cleaning of house,” Gollan told Hyperallergic. “This petulant mass resignation is intended to save face for them and create some kind of statement, but I think in a bizarre way they have so little of a platform right now that their leaks and their resignations, and every statement they make, ends up looking like a positive for us.”
According to some, Epstein played an even more important role in Cooper’s decision to start charging tuition than the school’s president, Jamshed Bharucha. “Epstein, unlike Bharucha, was intimately involved in most of Cooper Union’s worst decisions,” financial blogger Felix Salmon wrote in 2013. “He should therefore be disqualified from making even more bad decisions, at least unless and until he can demonstrate that he understands what the board did wrong and how they managed to bring Cooper Union to its fiscal knees.” The school’s financial practices are currently the subject of an investigation by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The board of trustees recently offered to not renew Bharucha’s contract if it Schneiderman agreed to call off his investigation.
“This group is trying to make a statement,” Victoria Sobel, a Cooper Union alum and member of Free Cooper Union, told Hyperallergic. “What these people have in common is that not only were they tuition supporters, but they were also the staunchest Jamshed Bharucha administration supporters. Most of those people are pretty maligned within the community; they’ve been very vocal and not in a good way. I don’t think too many people identify them, but you can read between the lines that they’re tying to talk badly about whoever’s left. They’re saying, ‘We came into this wanting to help and look, we don’t agree, so we’re out.’” Indeed, the opening paragraph of Vachher’s resignation letter casts her decision in precisely this light.
“As a fiduciary of Cooper Union, I began my board engagement with great enthusiasm and excitement about restoring the institution to a financially stable position, and renewing and burnishing the preeminence Cooper Union had historically enjoyed,” Vachher writes. “Regrettably, it has become clear that these fiduciary goals are not shared by many on the board, and that the board is unwilling to make or support often difficult decisions that would be in the long-term best interests of the institution.” The departures of Vachher and Hill leave just three women on the 19-member board of trustees — Elizabeth Diller, Rachel L. Warren, and student representative Devora Najjar. Cooper Union president Bharucha also sits on the board of trustees at Vassar, where Hill is president.
The most pointed of the resignation letters is Libeskind’s, which portrays the board of trustees as a dysfunctional and ineffectual entity. “As an alumnus of the school who had joined the Board recently, I expected that in this difficult time of change, there would be a meaningful and open discussion — one which would assure Cooper Union’s stability and future,” he writes. “My experience was far from that. I do not support the leadership and direction of this Board. I believe that decisions being taken are not in the best interest of Cooper Union.”