Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees voted Friday to move forward with plans to begin charging tuition in the fall of 2014. It was the second time the board has voted to implement tuition at the school that has remained tuition-free since its founding in 1859.
The first vote, in April 2013, ignited a firestorm among students and alumni, which culminated in a 65-day occupation of the college president’s office. As part of negotiations to end that occupation, Cooper Union administrators promised to go back to the drawing board and “leave no stone unturned” in their efforts to keep Cooper Union free.
Kevin Slavin, an alum and a Cooper Union trustee who has been vocal about his opposition to charging tuition, said on Facebook the vote “wasn’t even close. It wasn’t close to close.”
Board chair Richard Lincer announced the decision in an email sent out on Friday night.
To: The Cooper Union Community
From: Richard S. Lincer
Date: January 10, 2014
Subject: Working Group Report
In late June 2013, an ambitious plan took shape to provide an alternative to a tuition-based financial plan for The Cooper Union. Authored by trustees, faculty, staff and alumni, this alternative came to be known as the “Working Group Report.” In December, the board began a rigorous review of the assumptions underlying the financial plan that had been adopted by the board in April 2013, and studied in depth the specific recommendations of the Working Group.
This review was conducted by everyone on the Board of Trustees with the assistance of the Huron Group, The Cooper Union’s financial consultants. Since the goal of the Working Group was to provide a plan that allowed The Cooper Union to provide full-tuition scholarships, the entire board supported the Working Group’s ambitions and goals.
Despite agreeing with the goals of the plan, the board has reluctantly concluded that the Working Group recommendations cannot — by themselves — be prudently adopted as a means to assure the institution’s financial sustainability into the future.
The Working Group plan puts forward a number of recommendations that are worth pursuing under any financial model. However, we believe that the contingencies and risks inherent in the proposals are too great to supplant the need for new revenue sources. Regrettably, tuition remains the only realistic source of new revenue in the near future.
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the members of the Working Group. In a very real way, their efforts typify those The Cooper Union has relied on for many years: faculty, students and staff putting their full energy and intelligence into the service of a larger ideal. Moreover, the Working Group undertook their work at a particularly difficult moment, because we face a $12 million structural deficit and because so many care so much about The Cooper Union and what it has represented. On behalf of The Cooper Union, the board extends its sincere and profound gratitude for the countless hours of work by a large and dedicated group within the community.
The efforts of the Working Group have value both because they identified a number of proposals that are worth pursuing and also because they reminded us that this crisis, while financial in origin, creates an opportunity to explore deeply the identity of the institution and its meaning within our extended community. The Cooper Union, after all, is more than a financial construct–it embodies a set of values. It is an ideal that moves faculty to teach and students to learn. It inspires the entire community to be as active and involved as it has been. While there have been substantive differences about how to move forward, we all have agreed that we must find a way to serve that ideal despite the constraints we currently face.
While we cannot now restore the full tuition scholarship, the board will commit itself to exploring Working Group recommendations, which — coupled with investments in our academic program — can continue to position The Cooper Union as the one of the most unique and exceptional educational institutions in the United States. As part of that long-term commitment, we will set out to develop the resources that can allow us to increase student aid over time, augmenting need-based financial aid and ultimately perhaps even restoring the full tuition scholarship.
We cannot reasonably project how or when we can restore this aspect of The Cooper Union’s legacy. But as we work together to find new ways to get The Cooper Union onto stable financial ground, we will also work together to develop a contemporary mission for the institution.
We must, and will, find a way to move The Cooper Union ideal forward despite the changed economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. Despite the changes, our admissions will continue to be based strictly on merit. The spirit that animates learning in the classroom, the studio and the lab must remain fundamentally egalitarian. We must reaffirm our commitment to educating the working-class students for whom Peter Cooper founded the school in 1859.
The economics alone are bigger than tuition. The overall landscape of higher education and the economic realities of New York City are different. The Cooper Union’s traditional tuition scholarship has benefited all students who can attend, but has never sufficiently addressed students’ increasing living expenses. Historically, these costs may have been negligible, but they now constitute a barrier to participation for many prospective students.
For some students, a full tuition scholarship is not enough. The Cooper Union still attracts a sizeable proportion of students whose financial circumstances make them eligible for Pell grants (approximately 20 percent). Many of these students are able to commute to campus, but many others must find housing in order to attend. It seems imperative that we do better by these students than we do right now. In order to ensure the access that motivated Peter Cooper to found the school, we need to provide additional aid to ensure that any deserving student can attend.
To these ends, the board will constitute a group of trustees to work with faculty, students, administration, staff, alumni and friends to clarify the mission for the 21st century and to develop a strategic plan for implementing the mission. Foremost among their concerns will be sustaining merit-based admissions, increasing accessibility for students from all backgrounds and, to the extent our resources allow, adding resources to the overall tuition scholarship.
The committee will be reaching out to the community in the coming months and will ensure that this process is inclusive and transparent. We recognize there have been strongly felt feelings on both sides of the tuition issue. We also recognize that now is the time for The Cooper Union community to come together to build on all the strengths we can offer. The Working Group report can best be understood, we think, as a step in this process of looking carefully at our current realities and developing creative alternatives that can carry the institution forward. We look forward to continuing this process with the community.
We commit, as we have always committed, to access for everyone who deserves to get in, and to programs that deserve to be called the best.
Richard S. Lincer, chair
The Cooper Union Board of Trustees