The Cooper Union Considers Tuition—A Personal Account From An Unexpected Activist

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By Henry Chapman

The Cooper Union free education

The Cooper Union has been a prominent model of free education in the United States for over 100 years in the belief that high quality education should be “as free as air and water.” Recently, the school has proposed charging tuition in an effort to solve financial problems, although the specifics of such a plan are yet to be determined. Since those proposals were made known, many in the community have passionately defended the importance of free education.

In the past week, the only thing I have been able to think about has been the potential loss of The Cooper Union’s core mission of free education. Every conversation I’ve shared comes back to it and is saturated by it. I am hardly the only one. Based on my conversations with fellow alums, current students, and community members, it is actually quite universal to feel like this.

The Cooper Union

I broke the news on the internet by putting a petition online. The next morning I felt the chill of anxiety as the petition had already attracted hundreds of signatures. Things were moving rapidly and the political implications of every action felt greater. Current students were e-mailing to ask if this was strategically astute, others out of bewilderment, and others relieved a stance had been taken. I can only say that with 2,500 signatures and counting the pressure of publicity has postponed any decision by the Board of Trustees on tuition. This I consider a victory for all those who care about Cooper, those of us who want the institution to move honorably and responsibly into the future.

The current students keep me going and without them I would feel completely lost. Everyday that I am not at work I sneak into The Cooper Union and listen in on meetings with student council members, taking notes and hazarding my own opinions. The current students constantly affirm my belief in the institution. There are many examples, such as in a Joint Student Council meeting on Tuesday morning when Art student representative Alan Lundgard defended the possibility—believed by many to be impossible—of bringing the entire student body together on this. When I told him I also doubted it was possible, he said without hesitation, “No, it is. We have to come together on this.”

Walk out poster by Julie Anne Harris

Walk out poster by Julie Anne Harris

And in reality, he is right. We are together on this. On Wednesday, in Cooper Square, the students organized a walk-out “work-out” in which classes were held, students studied, painted, and went over equations together outside. I floated around, not ever knowing if I was quite at home there, until I took up a seat next to art student Rachel Browning, and helped sand down strips of birch for a project of hers. She told me that she had promised herself not to come to the walk-out because this was time she desperately needed to prepare for an upcoming exhibition. But when the time came, she realized that she could not feel right with any alternative. She had to be there.

Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha

Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha pinning a homemade button of Peter Cooper to his lapel during the "work out.".

The newly inaugurated President has been nearly universally praised within the school by faculty and students alike, and in my own meeting with him (he has made every effort to meet with members of the community, even calling me on my cell to arrange a time to meet with him), I found him to be serious and thoughtful. He sees himself as pragmatically assessing the situation. From a technocratic perspective, tuition can be weighed as a possible, but by no means definite, solution. But passionate defense of the ideal of free education cannot – and should not – be dismissed as fleeting or naive. At a meeting, so crowded that many alumni and students were locked out when the Rose Auditorium reached capacity (an irony, particularly for those who see the new academic building which houses the auditorium as, itself, a symbol of an exclusive and alienating process) the President spoke passionately when he said “I will not be the President that closes this down.”

The constructive opposition of the student body, alumni like myself, and those concerned parties in the community all stand with the president on that. But as the embodiment of the aspirational ideal of free education, The Cooper Union cannot stay open as The Cooper Union without it.

The Cooper Union
The Cooper Union

Signs made by students at the "work out."

Photographs by Masha Vlasova (’11).


Henry Chapman is an artist living and working in New York City. A graduate of the Cooper Union, he recently attended the Vermont Studio Center residency. His work has been shown most recently as Recess Activites, Inc. in New York.

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