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Upheaval Galvanizes Cooper Union

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Image illustrating the student body’s newfound solidarity, prepared this week by Free Cooper Union (all images courtesy Free Cooper Union)

In a memorable appearance at St. Mark’s Bookshop in the fall of 2011, Slavoj Žižek held forth on the importance of saving the bookstore from its then-impending eviction from a Cooper Union-owned building, referring repeatedly to the predatory landlord as “the Union Cooper.” The mangy Slovenian’s malapropism seems downright prescient these days, as the university’s students, faculty, and alumni come together and look inward to rebuild the century-old promise of their institution.

And a lot has happened since last week’s historic tuition announcement. Hyperallergic recently learned that this Tuesday, the Joint Student Council met to complete the second draft of a document called the Inter-School Statement, the first-ever statement co-authored by students and faculty from all three schools. The drafting of the text, which has been in development since February, has been imbued with a new sense of urgency as the Cooper community attempts to wrest some agenda-setting power from an administration that has already abandoned what they consider to be the school’s vital purpose.

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Engineering students fly a banner from Cooper Union’s Thomas Mayne-designed building

This offensive has also notably taken the form of a trustee candidacy: Kevin Slavin, a technologist and assistant professor at MIT, announced on April 23 his intention on to run as a write-in candidate in Cooper’s ongoing alumni elections. His position was no doubt bolstered by Monday’s searing Felix Salmon piece, which centered around a leaked meeting transcript, and Wednesday’s May Day events, marked by a heavy police presence in and around Cooper Square.

Also remarkable this week is the emergence of activism from the Engineering school, which had previously been largely silent — a curious contrast to the hyper-active Arts and Architecture students (the latter painted their lobby black on Sunday). But on Tuesday, a banner carrying the slogan “Designed for Free Education” appeared on the side of the school’s landmark Thom Mayne-designed building on the corner of East 7th Street, home of the engineering school.

School of Architecture students painted their lobby black on Sunday
School of Architecture students painted their lobby black on Sunday

These developments come amid a broader desire to recapture Cooper’s pathos, a bastion for free and radical inquiry standing athwart Manhattan’s Babel of global capital. For Karim Ahmed, a senior in architecture, painting his school’s lobby black was, on its own, “a cathartic moment of grief.” Assessed alongside this renewed maelstrom of student activity, Ahmed believes that Cooper is reaching “the critical mass [we] need to make a larger statement.” The stakes are high, he told Hyperallergic: “I wouldn’t be immensely surprised if by the end of next year much of the best faculty is gone.”

A gentle suggestion
A gentle suggestion

His concerns are not entirely unfounded. Two professors noted for their popularity with students — Michael Dorsch, an art historian, and Robert Uglesitch, a physicist — have left in the last year, both allegedly citing a souring relationship with the administration. Neither responded to our request for comment by press time. The shattered confidence in Jamched Barucha and the Board even extends to their own senior leadership, with the entire Communications department gutted by departures over the last year, culminating in the resignation of VP for Communications and External Relations Claire McCarthy, announced in a campus-wide email from President Bharucha on Monday.

Another student activist, School of Art senior Casey Gollan, tells Hyperallergic that in their fait accomplit coverage of last week’s board announcement, “a lot of the mainstream press spoke too soon…riffing on the Board’s press release and extending for them this seemingly logical narrative that ‘the recession was bad for everyone.’” Gollan is optimistic, finding in this week’s developments, and Free Cooper Union’s ongoing contingent fundraising campaign, a rejoinder to the “glum, inevitable tone” surrounding the initial announcement.

Next week, there are plans for a May 7 press conference on the steps of City Hall. Students from all three schools intend to show up, some marching with their projects, staging a show at Bloomberg’s feet. The students, united, will never be defeatist.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Kevin Slavin announced his board candidacy for Alumni Trustee on Monday, April 29, rather than April 24, the day tuition was announced. The piece has been revised to reflect this fact.

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