Free is not for Nothing.

The Vote to Save Cooper Union

Kevin Slavin
Jan 9, 2014 · 10 min read

Tomorrow, January 10th, the Trustees for (myself included) will vote on whether to keep the school lean and free, or to introduce tuition, after 150 years without it.

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

The trustees will vote, there’s 23 of us. If you know the history of all this, you can skip the first three sections. If you’re just joining us, start here. And if you’re one of the other 23 Trustees who are voting, I beg you to read the whole thing twice.

My Cooper Union.

I studied design and sculpture in the late 80s and early 90s, in New York City. I went to a very special school, the most selective art school in the nation: Cooper Union. I was 20 when I entered, and had to work frequently while there to help support myself. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it again and again.

Cooper Union was also free, for me and for everyone else who could get in. Founded in 1859, it was designed by Peter Cooper to provide full tuition for the handful of students who worked hard enough. Maybe 60 artists a year, 15 architects, a few hundred engineers. Peter Cooper, a genius, crafted a plan to subsidize everyone’s education forever, through a deal with the State of New York and some clever real estate contracts.

Cooper Union remained free for over 150 years. There’s almost nothing like it in the United States. It was the North American Passenger Pigeon, the last of which was killed by a 10 year old with a BB gun.

Cooper Union’s extinction arose through a similar carelessness. But until it’s gone, there has been at least one place that provided a free education to anyone that deserved to go there. It was a meritocracy. In America. Show me another.

How it Ends.

Toward the end of those 150 years, a series of factors conspired to bring it to a close: unsupervised, poor, and negligent financial decisions, a profoundly irresponsible and unapologetic President or two, opaque and unaccountable decision-making, and several years of paltering and deceptive communications, to the press and to the community.

In 2013, faced with a “suddenly-revealed” existential crisis of staggering deficits, the Board of Trustees (with a new President they brought in) voted to put tuition in place.

The board explained that tuition is necessary to forestall closure, even though a tuition plan still requires a $50MM bridge loan. They explained that it maintains the principles of the school, because it’s still, you know, cheaper than really expensive schools.

They will tell you that it’s tuition, yes, but half-price, $20,000. They will tell you that students without privilege will still get the aid they need.

Those things might or might not be true. They might or might not stay true. But they have nothing to do with free.

A Plan to Keep it Free.

In response to (and in negotiation with) the longest student occupation in the history of the United States, a Working Group was formed to find a plan to keep it free. It was composed of Trustees, alumni, staff and students. The Working Group did the long overdue work of finding every means necessary to keep the school free. This is, in principle, the President’s job. Whatever.

Right around this time, I was voted by Alumni to become an Alumni Trustee. This post began as a response to another Trustee who spoke up in my first meeting. He is a well meaning guy who has given a lot of time and money to the school. But he doubts there is any way forward without tuition.

That doubt is important because the trustees, faculty, students and alumni worked very hard to detail an alternative to tuition. Called the “Working Group Plan,” it outlines a Cooper Union that is smaller, tougher, leaner, and free. It’s a plan that cuts bone with the meat. The plan sucks. But it keeps Cooper free.

Not everyone.

Not everyone supports the plan. The President doesn’t support the plan. A dean he hired (a professor who just arrived from North Carolina with clear opinions out of the gate) doesn’t support it, and nor does the President’s chief of staff. Also, the President of Vassar doesn’t support it (she sits on the Board of Trustees.)

But many of us support the Working Group Plan, as alumni, Trustees, students, faculty. We support it reluctantly, because it’s not great news. But it’s the best news possible.

It would certainly be easier to accept tuition. But we support this more difficult option because we understand the value of free. And unlike most of those who doubt its value: we lived it. Unlike the President, unlike his Chief of Staff, unlike the President of Vassar, unlike most everyone who opposes the plan to keep it free, we experienced a free school firsthand, and we know what it means, to us and to the world.

The Working Group’s Plan is risky. Like the Tuition Plan, it requires a bridge loan (a smaller bridge loan, but still.) And the financial risk is quite real, either way. Some of us differ in how we calculate the weights of each plan, in their relative financial risk. That debate should be purely actuarial.
Equally important, however, is figuring out how to calculate the other type of risk in each plan. The risk to the meaning and the quality of the school.

Where This Begins.

This begins as a response to the Trustee who fears that the Working Group plan — with deep cuts, tight space, and median-pay — will reduce Cooper Union to a “low quality institution.”

He’s not crazy to fear that. Taking something that’s already lean and poor and cutting it further isn’t an obvious path to “high quality.” But for any of us who experienced the free Cooper Union, we know what made it high quality, when it was already lean and poor.

It wasn’t the compensation for the professors, who work for far less than they could make doing most anything else. It wasn’t the studio space for the artists; in 1990, my sculpture studio was half of a 6-foot desk in a hallway. It wasn’t the dorms (we never had them when I was there, and we never wanted Cooper’s money to get spent for them.) It wasn’t state of the art labs for the engineers. It wasn’t the expensive neighborhood, as “vibrant” as it might be. It sure wasn’t a climbing wall or swimming pool. It wasn’t fancy and expensive buildings by starchitects who never graduated Cooper’s world-renowned school of architecture.

And it wasn’t the idea that we, individually, didn’t have to pay. I wouldn’t have had to pay if I’d gone elsewhere (and I had that choice.) Had I gone elsewhere, I wouldn’t have had to work as hard to help support myself.

But Cooper Union chose me, and I chose Cooper Union. I didn’t go because it was free for me. I chose Cooper Union because it was free for everyone. And anyone who actually experienced that knows that the only way to jeopardize the quality of the education there is to charge for it.

Free is not a Number.

If you’ve never experienced it, “free” just seems like a lower number on a slider that has “half-price” in the middle. But free is not a number.

If you paid for your education, you’re likely to understand education in transactional terms. In straightforward economic terms, it means that if you charge some money, you can have some stuff. With more money comes more stuff, higher quality stuff.

But “free” is something different than “less.” And free is not less than cheap. It’s something else entirely.

Instead of education, try thinking about love. There are people who pay for love. Some pay a lot, some pay a little. But let’s be honest: everyone knows that the moment you start paying anything, it’s not just love plus money. It’s something else entirely, and the problems in paying aren’t solved by paying less than others.

Where We’re Coming From.

In the debate among the trustees, one trustee stated openly that the trustees, faculty, and alumni who worked on the tuition-free plan don’t have the requisite “academic expertise” to evaluate the possible consequences.

We — all of us who went there — are drawing from our own experiences. Not necessarily from the perspective of “academic expertise” but from, let’s say, the user’s perspective.

What our experiences often have in common is this: for many of us, Cooper wasn’t even the cheapest way to go to school. And it certainly didn’t offer the best facilities, campus, labs, studios, athletics, or dorm life. It was always about immense sacrifices.

So the question is: why did we go? We went not because of the financial value of free — that is, zero tuition — but rather, because of the academic value of free.

Free for everyone meant that the students who were there were beholden to nothing (nothing!) except their passion, talent, hard work, and brilliance. This unique, very particular sensibility — that, more than any other thing they could build, hire or install — this was the experience of the institution.

When I taught there for one fateful semester, I was paid a negligible wage. And I’d planned to donate it back to Cooper Union. When the crisis emerged and everything went sideways, I spent all the money I got to help fund student projects and to pay visiting lecturers. I funded lab fees for all my art students to take a session in a genetics lab, and I gave the rest of it to a student who hit legitimate financial hardship (quietly.)

I would never have done that in an institution that charged their students. At Cooper Union I was paid poorly, and I was proud of it. I would have worked all day just to be able to teach at Cooper Union at night.

Because “free” affects far more than than a fiscal bottom line. It affects the intentions, behavior, ambition, and performance of everyone in the system. In other words, it determines the academic quality.

Speaking of Academic Quality.

Let’s talk about the expertise to evaluate it. If the academic excellence is so sure to suffer under the Working Plan, why do so many of the faculty endorse it? Why do faculty who will have their wages frozen endorse it? Why do faculty who will be forced out support the plan? Are they not experts in academic excellence? Are they not the only experts on the effects of tuition-free academics?

The most important data I see in helping us to inform our decisions is this: a 35% decline in Early Decision applications once Cooper announced half-price tuition. In other words, 35% fewer people made Cooper their top choice, 35% fewer were willing to commit to it if they got in. Welcome to Year Zero.

If you ask the people recruiting for the Art School, they will tell you flat out: if students are just comparing which school will come up with the requisite financial aid, they’re comparing apples to apples. And apples to apples, Cooper Union will come up short.

Cooper Union always demanded great sacrifices of everyone involved with it, whether you needed access, materials, a computer room, a lab, a place to live… there were always tremendous sacrifices.

Introducing tuition allows (and demands) evaluating the financial value of those sacrifices. Because sacrifices on price feel — and become — quite different than sacrifices on principle.

Those of us who knew a free Cooper know that introducing tuition places Cooper in an apples-to-apples comparison around academic quality. And we know what people think about them apples: a 35% drop in Early Decision applications. If that’s not the headline, find a different paper.

The Only Hope for Academic Quality.

The only hope for Cooper is to remain exceptional.Let’s for once, be honest about its shortcomings, which won’t get any better just because people pay to go there.

Remaining free is what will allow Cooper Union’s shortcomings to remain what they were for us: a source of pride, of worthy sacrifice, a reason to fight, and strive, and someday, to give back.

Academic quality is a framing, a mindset, for the best students and for the best faculty, all of whom have choices about where to settle down. They won’t come to Cooper because it’s cheaper. They went there because it was free. We were seeking an exceptional environment. Genuinely exceptional. Cooper Union was exceptional.

It came to the edge through mismanagement and misconduct. And now, I fear, misunderstanding. Most anyone who experienced it knows that the tuition-free education was the source of academic excellence, not the threat to it.

The Price of Sacrifices.

The Working Group has made a plan that demands great sacrifices from everyone involved. I hate the plan. But I back it. So do many of the trustees, many of the alumni, many of the students.

We back it because we all understand the financial risks of both plans. But those of us who know the value of free also understand the deep, meaningful, academic risk of tuition.

There are deep sacrifices to be made in the Working Group’s plan. But those of us who went to a tuition-free Cooper Union know from sacrifices. And we know the difference between sacrifices made on principle, and sacrifices made on discount. We back the painful financial plan that addresses principles.

Attending a free school of sacrifices taught me something about what free meant. Building a half-price school of sacrifices is to succumb to the culture of Cubic Zirconium and Corinthian Leather. It’s fool’s gold. Ghetto scrip. It’s not for real, and it’s not for good.

It will come to nothing and free was never for nothing.

When it’s time to vote tomorrow, I will support the Working Group’s plan to make Cooper Union’s sacrifices meaningful, instead of cheap. If you are one of these 22 people, I hope you do too:

Richard Lincer
Francois de Menil
Jamshed Bharucha
Charles Cohen
Joseph Dobronyi
Tom Driscoll
Mark Epstein
Raymond Falci
Jeff Gural
Jeffrey Hersch
Catharine Hill
Eric Hirshhorn
Malcolm King
John Leeper
Edgar Mokuvos
Dan Okrent
Bruce Pasternack
Lee Skolnick
Johnny Taylor
Monica Vachher
Rachel Warren
Jeremy Wertheimer

See you tomorrow.

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