In the wake of the news that their free university might begin charging tuition, more than 100 Cooper Union students left class this afternoon and took up residence in the middle of Cooper Square. The event, which organizers are hesitant to call a “walkout,” currently consists of students and professors “occupying” Cooper Square in front of the Foundation Building; it will continue until 6.
The scene reflected Cooper’s diverse student population, which many students believe is itself a result of the lack of tuition: Students solved economics problems on a chalk board, sat cross-legged on the ground with sketchpads on their laps, and lounged on a bright red couch with their homework.
“I think it’s really to bring everybody together, mostly to raise awareness that this is a really huge issue for the school, and to demonstrate to the community, to the public, and to the administration how the student body feels about the possibility of tuition,” said Joe Riley, a junior in the School of Art and one of the event’s organizers.
That feeling of camaraderie was evident not only in the action itself, but in the groups of students huddled together on blankets and helping one another bring out more chairs as students continued to arrive. Cooper Union is the only university in the country that does not charge tuition.
“Cooper Union is a special place because it’s free. Our reputation depends on that, and more important than that, our importance in society, and in history, depends on that because it’s a place where the American dream still exists, where if you work hard, you can improve yourself. Knowledge should be free. Human society, its purpose is to teach one another — that’s what makes us special. And this is one of the best expressions of that: Cooper Union,” explained William Vickery, a junior in the Civil Engineering department.
Cooper has a new president, Jamshed Bharucha, who has not yet endeared himself to the student population. “He’s trying to get to know everybody and introduce a catastrophically terrible idea at the same time, and hopefully he’s up to the task,” said Benjamin Degen, an alumnus and adjunct instructor in the School of Art.
Students are not giving Bharucha any sympathy or leeway despite his newness, and many feel that this proposal will undercut everything that Cooper Union represents. “This school functions on merit-based scholarship, and to introduce tuition will jeopardize the integrity of the selection process, the student body, the caliber of work that’s being created, and essentially the mission statement that Peter Cooper wrote when he opened the school,” said Levi Mandel, a junior in the School of Art.
“It completely destroys the ideology of the school, and the school will be destroyed along with that,” said Riley.
He was, however, optimistic about the outcome of the tuition proposal. “I think we’ve already started to have an effect on the administration. From what I understand, they recently decided to not make a decision on the issue as early as they thought they were going to. I think now that all these events have started happening, the train has slowed down, and that’s what we really need right now: We need more time to be able to work against this thing.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 2, 2011