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Cooper Occupation Ends With Agreement, Amnesty for Activists

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Students, faculty, and trustees meet at alumnus Michael Lebron’s house in Cooper Square (image via Free Cooper Union)

In a message sent at 4:07 pm to the Cooper Union community, Jamshed Bharucha announced today an agreement with the activist group Free Cooper Union, which had ended its 65-day occupation and vacated his office on Friday. The email, which was preceded a few minutes earlier by a campuswide message containing the text of the agreement drawn up with the students, ended on a conciliatory note: “We may not all agree on everything we face but I am committed to lead Cooper Union in a way that places the institution in a strong position for the future.”

But the text of the 526-word agreement provides relatively little in the way of a roadmap, instead loosely sketching out the process for the formation of a small working group, an organ that will work toward a mutually agreeable solution to the ongoing fiscal crisis at the university:

The 16-member working group, chaired by trustees Michael Borkowsky and Jeffrey Gural, will consist of trustees, administrators, students, full-time faculty and alumni. It will submit a report to the board by December, for consideration at the board meeting that month.

According to student activist Casey Gollan, the agreement was hammered out at alumnus Micheal Lebron‘s apartment in Cooper Square, and followed specific outreach to the occupying students by trustees Michael Borkowsky and Jeffrey Gural; the two trustees will also be chairing the working group. Members of the group have been promised unfettered access to Cooper records, and Gollan noted that some may be asked to sign non-disclosure agreements before viewing sensitive documents.

But despite these positive developments, and a promised amnesty granted to all involved students from legal and college sanction, things are far from smoothed over. “I still think Jamshed isn’t really around — he’s going on vacation — this isn’t like all wounds are healed, it’s still a strange situation, but at least now we can work on two levels,” Casey Gollan told Hyperallergic. But he echoed fellow Free Cooper Union organizer Victoria Sobel’s sentiment of “cautious optimism,” adding that ultimately the situation “worked out in our favor for now and we’ll see what happens.”

Specially-produced Trustee Matchbooks, each featuring a trustee headshot and bio, distributed by Cooper Union at their very first post-tuition protest.
Specially-produced Trustee Matchbooks, each featuring a trustee headshot and bio, distributed by Cooper Union at their very first post-tuition protest. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The accord also represents a PR respite for Cooper, which had seen its Communications department gutted in recent months by departures allegedly caused by the bungled responses to intensifying waves of student activism. Indeed, the first official announcement that landed in my inbox, after the Free Cooper newsletter, came from LAK Public Relations, the firm which has apparently been handling Cooper’s PR. The “Non-Profits & Institutions” section of their website notes expertise in “chart[ing] new courses during challenging times.”

The LAK letter was sent about thirty minutes ahead of both the campus-wide announcement and the short note from Jamshed mentioned above. Though it’s probably not worth reading too much into the timeline, that the story broke hours earlier with the release of the Free Cooper Union newsletter is a fitting conclusion to this whole affair: even in the denouement, Free Cooper controlled the message.

“I don’t think it’s the end of [our] activism,” Gollan said, promising that although the agreement was signed in good faith with Cooper administrators, the end to the present chapter — the occupation of Jamshed’s office — is merely that. Future strategies seem murky. As part of the agreement signed with the administration, students agreed to abide by the school’s Code of Conduct. “Yeah, I think it was complicated — originally in the negotiations it was requested that students promise to leave the [President’s] office and never come back again, and that just wasn’t a realistic ask.”

Beyond the spectre of further direct actions, the Free Cooper movement has a difficult road ahead. Although the working group will be granted access to the institution’s most sensitive information, the independent fund that Free Cooper intends to establish (likely an  extension of their Money on the Table effort) will almost certainly be precluded from challenging Cooper’s fundraising system, which is the institution’s lifeblood. The group suspect they will be barred from using official alumni databases for soliciting donations; they have already begun building their own lists. And therein lies the test: like every insurrectionary movement, will Free Cooper Union be co-opted by the bargaining table, or will they succeed in building the clout needed to steer the university away from its troubled course?

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