CalArts students protest in March outside of Hauser & Wirth, where the CalArts Board of Trustees was voting on the academic budget. (photo by Marco Yizhou Zhang)

LOS ANGELES — In February, the Manhattan building at 41 Cooper Square, an aluminum-clad, decade-old $166 million monument, temporarily closed. A burst sprinkler head and faulty pipes sent 12,000 gallons of water rushing into the building, leaving damage on all nine floors. The original Foundation Building next door, which dates to the time of Cooper Union’s founding in 1859, remained in perfectly functional condition. “You would think that the building that’s over a 150, 160 years old would be the one with the failing pipes,” said Victoria Sobel, a Cooper Union alum, “but actually the very expensive, LEED certified, starchitect-built building flooded.” Sobel and her collaborator Jake Jackmauh were in a basement classroom at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Santa Clarita, across the country from where they went to school. They had co-founded Free Cooper Union eight years ago to fight the school’s decision to charge tuition, and now they’d flown here to share their experience with other students in a loosely similar situation: Ever since CalArts announced a tuition hike in March, students have been protesting for financially transparent policies.

The flashy new Cooper Union building had in effect instigated the work Sobel and Jackmauh still do, since it drowned Cooper Union in debt — with the help of a few other poor financial decisions — prompting a school founded to be free to charge tuition. Their presentation chronicled student and faculty activists’ failed attempts to keep the school free of charge, and the performances, block parties, and classes they have since organized to remain engaged in issues of accessible education and institutional responsibility. It also addressed the fact that, while Cooper Union recently announced a plan to stop charging in 2028, students will be given “full scholarships,” language that implies the school is giving gifts rather than reinstating its founding mission. “We live in a world of tangible progress enveloped in contradiction,” said Sobel as the presentation wound down. “So what if anything could be learned or unlearned about all that’s gone on here?”

Sobel and Jackmauh stayed at CalArts all week, talking to students when they could, staying with Alia Ali and Andrew Siedenburg, two grad students who co-organized #CalArtsWithout protests. “Their presence at CalArts was very helpful,” wrote Ali and Siedenburg in an email they composed together. “It made us re-evaluate our current situation by understanding that in order to create change, it requires time, research, collaboration and commitment.” They realized they had undertaken “more of a marathon than a sprint,” and that #CalArtsWithout was part of a much bigger conversation about the transparency and values of arts institutions.

In December, the CalArts board, which includes producer Tim Disney, Sony chair Tom Rothman, and gallerist Iwan Wirth, voted to approve a tuition increase from $48,660 to $50,850. With room, board, and other required fees, students who live on campus could easily pay over $70,000. When students learned of the hike months later, they balked. A group of concerned graduates and undergraduates met with the newly appointed president Ravi Rajan on March 7. They questioned the school’s budgetary reliance on tuition, rather than on grants or attempts to grow its endowment, and pointed out that scholarships have not kept up with rising tuition. Rajan told Santa Clarita Valley television on the day of the meeting, “I think that the way we fund higher education in this country is very broken,” but that CalArts was just doing what other colleges had to do.

Still dissatisfied, students circulated a petition, asking, among other things, that the school’s board postpone the scheduled March 12 budget finalization vote. The board did not postpone, and held its meeting at Hauser & Wirth Gallery’s expansive and expensive downtown campus — a move that recalls the MOCA board’s habit of meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a place familiar to wealthy trustees but distanced from the institution and its needs. Students stood outside the gallery holding signs reading “You are nothing without us” and “Don’t profit off our backs.” After the vote, Rajan once again bemoaned the broken system, vaguely telling Hyperallergic that “This is the higher education crisis we’re hearing about.” But it seemed the burden of averting this crisis fell disproportionately on students. Ali and Siedenburg pointed out that they protested because they felt they had to. “We saw that it threatened the stability of our cohort and that it simply was not an option to let this tuition hike pass over our heads,” they wrote.

While the art school’s tuition increases conform to nationwide trends, CalArts’ price tag outstrips the national average. Private school tuition grew to approximately $43,500 this year from an average of $27,000 in 2009, according to US News and World Reports. In a 2015 op-ed for the New York Times, law professor Paul F. Campos argues that this rise has little to do with increased teaching resources. “Salaries of full-time faculty members are, on average, barely higher than they were in 1970,” he writes. “By contrast, a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration.”

There are ways to avoid reliance on high tuition, as Victoria Sobel learned firsthand when she participated in a working group of Cooper Union alumni, faculty, and administrators in summer 2013. The group set out to draft a feasible financial plan for Cooper Union, one that would not necessitate tuition — this was, after all, a school founded by a man who imagined its freeness as “the means of raising to competence and comfort thousands of those that might otherwise struggle through a life of poverty.” The group devised a tuition-free plan that involved extensive restructuring (including faculty buyouts and smaller pay packages for administration), which they submitted to the board in December 2013. According to legal documents filed with the New York Supreme Court in 2015, a competing faction of administrators who had been privy to the working group’s deliberations filed a report undermining their findings. The board promptly rejected the group’s plan.

Sobel, who returned to school her senior year after taking a leave of absence to live at the Occupy Encampment, does not feel that her Free Cooper work ever ended. She recalls the day of her graduation, when she occupied the president’s office and only left briefly to receive her diploma. “That kind of defined the not leavingness of it all,” she said.

Victoria Sobel and Casey Gollan’s 66th class of the semester on October 29, 2018 (via Wikipedia)

After graduation, she and collaborators Joe Riley and Casey Gollan received a residency at the newly founded, experimental Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU). There, not far from Cooper Union, they taught a class called “They Can’t Kill Us All” about possibilities for free education. They also met with current and former Cooper students at the BHQFU’s headquarters, continuing conversations they’d begun while protesting. “To me, it’s an undocumented period,” said Sobel, “but it was actually much more robust” than what the Free Copper movement had been at school. In 2015, Sobel and Gollan received a Vera List Center fellowship, and since the List Center is at the New School — founded to further democracy and egalitarianism, now over $50,000 a year — they brought the conversation about free education, student governance, and alternative education there. In 2016, Cooper Union faculty member Walid Raad invited them to teach a class at their alma matter, about the school’s charter, history, and financial governance. The class continued through this spring, and then it was canceled for a confluence of bureaucratic reasons.

Class and passers-by watch as Cooper Union students drop a banner reading “The World Turned Upside Down,” “Free Society,” and “Free School” in May 2017 (via Wikipedia)

Sobel sees the cancellation as a symptom of numerous unsolved problems related to how institutions see themselves. “What is the role of learning about the history of education and one’s own institution?” she asked. “There’s no consensus on whether or not […] it should actually be an intuitive part of every student’s academic career.” She sees the lack of transparency about institution’s histories, financial situations, and cost structures as an issue of consent. Schools, in her view, employ predatory recruitment strategies, promising students resources and experiences they may not actually have access to after enrollment. For instance, in 2016, the entire Roski School of Art and Design class of University of Southern California (USC) dropped out in response to such misleading promises (loss of faculty who had drawn them to the school, loss of scholarship funding). And frustrated CalArts students insist that their school cannot fulfill its promise of an “all-inclusive community for a diversity of authentic voices” if it keeps hiking tuition. Without real knowledge of their institution’s functioning and agendas, said Sobel, students can’t knowingly consent to the education they receive.

Artist Meghan Gordon spent her two years as a CalArts MFA candidate proposing alternatives to the way the school ran. During her first year in 2013, she and collaborator Leander Schwarzer started an artist’s residency out of their studios. Visiting artists would stay with one of them, do studio visits, and give lectures or do performances in various locations across campus. Gordon found that artists who visited through the official Paul Brach lecture series often gave cookie-cutter talks about their career. She wanted something more responsive to the visitor’s strengths and student needs. “These really should be tailored to what the person wants to do, what feels good for them,” she reflected. “If they don’t want to do a lecture and they want to meet with every student, what’s wrong with that?” For Canadian artist Jamie Hilder’s talk, they reserved the president’s board room, and held the talk on the balcony. Hilder used a dry-erase marker to make notes on the mirrored window off of the balcony, out of which then-President Steven Lavine could see, though they could not see in.

During her second year, Gordon ran a bar called “some times” out of her studio. Like a real bartender, she often found herself playing a therapeutic role, serving drinks and listening to stressed-out students. Looking back, she realizes that much of her time in graduate school was spent organizing and managing alternative communities at the school — rewarding but exhausting work.

Sobel says she kept working with Free Cooper Union long after graduating because the issues seemed relevant far beyond the school — she cites recent protests over the Whitney’s board members as one example of a demand for more transparency and accountability at art institutions. “It feels like something very large is tangibly at stake,” she said. She and her collaborators will continue to teach their class about Cooper Union this fall, rerouting it to informal locations. “We’ve basically been here the whole time and it’s looked like a lot of different things,” she said.

What started for Ali and Siedenburg as a last-minute resistance, is also becoming a long-term endeavor. They have reached out to other schools beyond Cooper Union, and closely followed efforts of students at Sarah Lawrence College, where base tuition is $56,020, to make the school friendlier to low-income students. They’re not sure what their next steps will be, only that there will be more. “We came to learn that this is a part of our practice and regardless of whether or not we are currently enrolled,” they wrote, “we will face similar issues with institutions in our professional lives.” If #CalArtsWithout initially felt like a detour from their education, it’s connected them to a much larger community, within CalArts and beyond it, of others who want greater accessibility and diversity in arts institutions. “When traumas arise, it is always the case that these traumas bring people closer together.”

Catherine G. Wagley

Catherine G. Wagley writes about art in Los Angeles. She is a contributing editor at Momus and Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles (Carla), and she has written criticism and journalism...

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