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Cooper Union Update: Trustee Culture and Leak

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A 99% van projects a Free Cooper Union slogo on to the side of the Foundation Building (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

An exhausted-sounding Peter Cafiero, outgoing President of Cooper Union’s Alumni Association, took to the Rose Auditorium stage on Monday night to introduce the annual Alumni Council Forum, noting that “hopefully this will continue the process of better connecting everyone, and build a community which we of course desperately need to keep doing.” Despite the future promise embodied by the recently-elected slate succeeding Cafiero, consisting of John Leeper and Kevin Slavin, desperation is a good starting point as we enter the third week of Free Cooper Union’s occupation of President Jamshed Bharucha’s office.

The consensus view surrounding the alleged misdeeds of Cooper’s current administration is coming into focus, driven by fiery rhetoric coming from Felix Salmon in regular installments, with the most recent piece titled “Cooper Union’s Shameless Trustees.” The indefatigable Reuters blogger — whose output was once rightly described as Stakhanovite — has become something of the de-facto voice for Cooper’s discontents, at least to the broader world. In his repeated excoriations of Cooper’s management he has conspicuously avoided prescribing an outcome to the standoff between the administration and Free Cooper Union, an omission that can be chalked up to something other than oversight.

“Basically they could make our lives a living hell by going through every dime spent on everything here,” Peter Cafiero is alleged to have said in a decidedly different context than Monday’s forum —  a closed-door Cooper trustee meeting on September 19, 2012 — and the incendiary implications of his comments have only fueled the outrage this week. The quote comes from a transcript leaked to Sydney Brownstone of the Village Voice, and her accompanying story this morning breathlessly lays out the most shocking exchanges, like the one above, that pepper the 42-page document.

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An illustrative excerpt from the leaked transcript

Though the transcript is delivered with every incriminating pretext — the cloak-and-dagger deliberations of an overwhelmingly male cabal, the out-of-touch attitudes of the board members merit a broader understanding. Many private (and public) universities have increasingly surrendered strategic leadership to their part-time trustees, many of whom come from managerial or financial backgrounds and carry a certain MBA bravado about the entire enterprise of higher education. As suggested by the decision-making at Cooper, this anointed class considers trusteeship as more of a career trophy than a mantle of stewardship.

And the effects of their rule have been particularly catastrophic, with university endowments, from Harvard on down, savaged by the financial crisis due to large holdings in alternative investments across a dizzying array of developed and emerging market private equity and hedge funds. The increased allocation of endowment funds in those risky asset classes — which ought to have been avoided entirely, as endowments are generally invested with long-term returns in mind — paralleled the increased influence of alternative investors on university boards.

Don Blauweiss speaks at the Alumni Council's event on Monday evening (LiveStream screenshot)
Don Blauweiss speaks at the Alumni Council’s event on Monday evening (LiveStream screenshot)

Cooper’s board is fully symptomatic of every pathology inherent to such a managerial culture: a callous aloofness (Chairman Mark Epstein: “Welcome to 1968… [laughter] Haven’t been tear-gassed in decades.”) and open contempt for academia (Trustee and private equity investor Stanley Lapidus: “Their cushy … jobs that are un-economic.”) If it all feels like a little bit of corporate stereotype slapstick, that’s because it is, and it’s as much the case on Cooper’s board as it is on countless others. Which brings us back to the idea of Free Cooper Union’s resistance, characterized by some critics as obstinate, yet functioning, hopefully, as a clarion call to the rest of higher education.

What Jamshed Bharucha recently told the New York Observer captures much more than he meant to imply: “Unless you’re willing to actually sit and learn that complexity, it’s quite natural to just get angry and assume something untoward is going on.” At Cooper, the stakes were clearly defined, and Bharucha’s regime flipped a historical binary switch, from no-tuition to tuition. It was a stark watershed moment, and untangling the web of mismanagement only fueled the outrage. For the rest of American higher education, the story was more subtle, and the cupidity of that managerial class has for decades delivered a familiar story — obscene tuition growth far outstripping inflation and public-private student loan cartels. And with those issues fully brought into the frame, Free Cooper Union’s outrage should only be the beginning.

At 8:00 pm EST tonight, members of Free Cooper Union will stage an interpretive reading of the leaked transcript. Tune in to their stream then as they add some non-ironic comedic value to the document.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kevin Slavin’s position: he was elected Alumni Trustee, and John Leeper, not Slavin, is Peter Cafiero’s successor as Alumni Association President. Both will sit on the Board.

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