Cooper Union, Foundation Building — © Brian Rose
I have not previously weighed in on the controversy embroiling my alma mater The Cooper Union, one of the most prestigious and historic schools in America. I read the paper, I look at websites, and hear things, but I have no inside track on what is going on. What I do know is troubling, and I believe the school’s viability is in grave danger.
In a nutshell, Cooper was founded by the industrialist Peter Cooper as a school for art, architecture, and engineering that was affordable for all regardless of ability to pay. It was located, appropriately, on the edge of the teaming Lower East Side, and for decades it has been tuition free. One of the few all scholarship institutions of higher learning in the world. Many of its graduates are now leaders in their respective fields–and have a particularly important impact on New York City.
Due to hard economic times, mismanagement, and the growing cost of higher education, Cooper finds itself in financial trouble. The board of trustees is about to make a momentous decision on whether to charge tuition possibly ending the school’s unique charter as stated by Peter Cooper to be “open and free to all.”
With regard to the art school, should the board decide on charging tuition, Cooper will then have to compete head-to-head with several highly esteemed art schools in New York City, as well as many other fine schools around the country. Cooper’s strength has always been the quality of its students–astonishingly bright and talented–the best of the best chosen without regard to ability to pay. Cooper’s facilities, two architecturally outstanding buildings notwithstanding, are meagre compared to other art schools. Cooper, being a small school, has fewer course offerings than others, and its faculty, while outstanding, is equal to those who teach elsewhere, but not necessarily better.
Charging tuition will end the uniqueness of Cooper Union and place the school at a competitive disadvantage. It will no longer be the most sought after art school in the city. The best students will choose schools with more to offer for their money. The money raised from tuition on a mere 1,000 students will not ultimately solve other structural financial problems. A death spiral is possible, if not likely.
A way has to be found forward that will retain Cooper’s unique tuition free status. The principles espoused by Peter Cooper must be reestablished, and the school should embark on new fund raising efforts. Those of us who do not have much money to give, do have our work, which could be leveraged to raise money. The art alumni need to be engaged, not simply asked for pledges. While doing my Kickstarter campaign last year to fund my book, I thought about how Cooper might undertake a similar campaign, except on a much larger scale, using the work of alumni as rewards for donations. Forget phonathons and other outmoded fundraising models.
It’s not just about money–it’s about engagement. A sense of belonging and responsibility. Should the board choose for tuition, many alumni will walk away, and that will be the beginning of the end.