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Did Cooper Union Just Get a Second Chance?

An early 20th-century postcard of Cooper Union. (via RollingRck/Flicr)
An early 20th-century postcard of Cooper Union (via RollingRck/Flickr)

They said it couldn’t be done, but today’s announcement by the Committee to Save Cooper Union (CSCU) suggests that the turmoil that has engulfed the beloved Manhattan university may be coming to an end.

Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees and New York’s Attorney General have come to an agreement that would resolve the lawsuit filed against the school over its decision to end its 155-year free tuition policy in 2014. While the school will continue to charge tuition, the agreement creates an independent financial monitor, adds students, alumni, and faculty to the school’s Board of Trustees, and establishes a Board committee made up of alumni, students, and faculty that is dedicated to developing a plan for the return to free tuition.

A sign sign at Cooper Union that appeared during the December 2012 student occupation of the main building. (photo by Janelle Grace for Hyperallergic)
A sign sign at Cooper Union that appeared during the December 2012 student occupation of the main building. (photo by Janelle Grace for Hyperallergic)

A “Consent Decree” has been signed by the Cooper Union, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and CSCU, and it will be filed with the Court on Wednesday, September 3.

The Cooper Union has released a statement in response to the announcement, and it outlines some of the new changes to the Board of Trustees, which will soon include the addition of two current students to the Board with voting rights, five to nine Trustees elected by alumni, and four full-time faculty, one part-time faculty member, and one Cooper Union staff member who will all serve as non-voting observers.

According to Wall Street Journal, the Attorney General’s office also plans to file a court petition on Wednesday that issues a “scathing rebuke to the board and Mr. Bharucha,” and “criticizes Cooper Union’s uptick in expenses from 2006 to 2011, as well as its decision to borrow $175 million to finance a new academic building in 2006. The deal was risky and ultimately a failure, the petition said, becoming ‘an albatross’ following the financial downturn in 2008.”

In a statement to the New York Times, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said: “It’s my job to promote and protect New York’s nonprofit sector, but we also have to step in to help institutions like Cooper Union when they face fiscal and governance problems. We’ll continue to monitor the school’s progress to make sure it’s on a path to long-term sustainability — and, I hope, free tuition.”

Victoria Sobel, who is a Cooper art alumna, member of the influential Free Cooper Union group, and member of the newly formed Nonstop Cooper group, explained to Hyperallergic that the turn of events has been “surreal” but “there’s a lot of work to be done.” 

All of this had a grassroots start, and the community has been agitating for so long for an honest accounting of the [Cooper] finances. It was years of communal efforts to create this mounting effect and draw attention to these issues,” Sobel said. “This is a powerful moment because the Attorney General has the opportunity to be a leveling force in this matter. The best thing that can come from this is a truthful telling of the financial matters and developments at Cooper.”

“We have to see the granular finances to see what shape the school is in and what kind of school can be free,” she said. “Maybe it can’t be free the way it is being run, but there are many constituencies that want to take an active role in this process. Before this there was a damping of the community voice … people are now asking questions that were once only whispers in the hall, people are coming out and speaking openly.”

In response to this new development, a group has come together to create Nonstop Cooper, a community residence in the former St. Mark’s Bookstore space at 31 Third Avenue. Starting September 7, the space will serve as a workspace for “community engagement and a platform for public outreach,” according to an email sent out by the group on Tuesday, September 1.

“Earlier this summer, a group of us came together before we knew the timeline [of the deal], and thought whatever happens in the fall we decided to approach the interim president … [so we could] use the former St. Mark’s Bookstore as a community space that involves introspective, looking at documents, and other activities we haven’t been able to do until now,” Sobel said. “We’ve been a fragmented community for so long because of lawsuits and the threat of punitive measures, so we are trying to figure out what we do want, and this is the time to consider all this.”

Sobel clarified that in addition to Cooper community events, there will be public programming at the Third Avenue space, and the drop-in hours will be from noon to midnight every day.

The final free-tuition plan, which will be prepared by the soon-to-be-formed “Free Education Committee,” will be presented to the Cooper Union Board of Trustees in January 2018.

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