Charging tuition at The Cooper Union—a beacon of educational equality in Manhattan’s rapidly changing East Village, which I represent in the state Senate—is a betrayal of New York’s trust that not only jeopardizes the college’s reputation, but also its standing in our community. Unless a lawsuit brought by a coalition of students, alumni and faculty succeeds in preserving Peter Cooper’s mission of free tuition at this historic school—or the Attorney General intervenes—tuition bills will start arriving next month in the mailboxes of incoming students for the first time in the school’s 155-year history. That would be a shame.

In 1859, the New York State Legislature passed an "Act to Enable Peter Cooper to Found a Scientific Institution in the City of New York." That institution would go on to become one of the nation’s most elite, enduring and meritocratic colleges, founded on Peter Cooper’s guiding principle that education should be “free to all.”  The Cooper Union dedicated itself to excellence in arts and sciences and opened its doors to the working class, women and people of color. Sustained by an endowment that includes the Chrysler Building, it has indeed been “free to all” since 1859, through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression and numerous recessions.

In defiance of Peter Cooper’s vision, the current president and the Board of Trustees have decided to charge incoming students tuition for the first time in the school’s history, citing a “fiscal crisis” at the school—even as more than $165 million has been spent on a new academic building and a lavish inauguration party for the president.  

The administration has predictably faced a backlash from the school community. Students have occupied the president’s office in protest and the faculty has twice cast a vote of “no confidence” in the president. Many alumni have slowed or stopped their support for the school because they believe it has veered from its core mission. But the state and City of New York have an equally important interest in preserving free tuition at Cooper Union. 

When the state enacted legislation codifying Peter Cooper’s vision of free tuition a century and a half ago, it established the basis for decades of public support and financing. For example, Cooper Union does not pay property taxes on the Chrysler Building, even though it is not used for academic purposes—a tax subsidy worth $19 million annually. The school has had to defend its unique tax subsidy repeatedly throughout its history and has done so by citing its tuition-free status, which, as they have argued in court, essentially makes it an extension of the city's public education system. 

If Cooper Union becomes a tuition-based college, it will no longer be a unique extension of our state’s public education system, raising the question of whether it is still deserving of taxpayer support. In the long run, the cost of charging tuition may in fact be higher than the benefit.

It’s especially troubling that Cooper Union hasn’t publicly made an adequate case for its departure from the school’s traditional operating model. One of the answers being sought by the coalition of students, faculty and alumni is an accounting of the “fiscal crisis” that supposedly led the administration to start charging tuition in the first place. They deserve a thorough and transparent explanation from the college, detailing exactly how the administration managed the school’s finances and arrived at the decision to charge tuition, despite the fact that the rent Cooper Union receives from the Chrysler building will soar from about $9 million this year to $32.5 million in 2018.

New York needs the same Cooper Union we have had for the past 155 years providing excellence in engineering and the arts. It’s time for the board, state and local government officials, and all parties involved, to forge a plan that will preserve Peter Cooper’s model of free tuition and save this great institution from becoming just another college.  

 

Brad Hoylman is a state Senator representing the 27th District, which includes Cooper Union. 

On Friday, August 15, a State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan will hear oral arguments in the case of THE COMMITTEE TO SAVE COOPER UNION, INC. v. THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE COOPER UNION. Following the hearing Hoylman will hold a press conference with members of Save Cooper Union.