I am writing this letter out of concern for the future state of Cooper Union as it confronts financial instability. I understand that hard choices may be on the table and under consideration, but am contributing a line of reasoning, an argument, that may be useful in defining why precisely keeping the school tuition free is more important beyond the obvious potential impact on student and parent pocketbooks. I strongly believe charging tuition has strong implications for the institution and becomes an ethical decision.
If Cooper Union begins to charge tuition for all students it will remove a scarce avenue of economic and class mobility from the New York landscape; here in this city where class and money is everything, controlling access and career destiny. Especially in the arts. It is supposedly American to believe that anybody can become anything, and while in reality the greater systems in our society and country presently work against that, Cooper was always a beacon of this American idealism (by American, I mean the US, not the Americas). In this city of immigrants from all around the world, why would we allow the possibility of mobility by merit that Cooper Union embodies to die?
Nowadays I meet and work with artists from overseas; they are inevitably from the upper classes. For a long time, I took for granted that anyone could be an artist, thanks to my Cooper education - and due to the relative invisibility of class factoring in for success at the school. In the developing world (in places such as India, where I recently spent time), an engineering degree is what many of the best and the brightest work towards. Subsidized engineering degrees remain a beacon of hope for many immigrant students from developing nations newly arrived in New York City. I don’t know how many return to their native countries to bring skills back home, but you can bet that many later financially help other places in the world.
Current students have brought up the specter of consumer-driven education - if all students (parents) are paying, the college becomes compromised, it starts selling something. I have friends teaching at nearby art institutions in the city where this is already true. The level of engagement isn’t the same, the students just don’t care so much to work on their educations as they know (or think they know) that they can purchase their way through life afterwards.
It would be a sad day if we lost this ethical space, where one gains access through merit, intellectual curiosity and hard work are a given, this four or five year haven and place to grow.
This financial crisis has been looming on the horizon for at least six years, even before the new building, perhaps those at the school who knew believed the end of the Mayan calendar was coming in 2012, the numbers on paper were and are shocking. BUT there are many avenues to correct this financial structure, hole, mistake. Money always follows ideals. Money is often used as an excuse to justify choices. But deciding what is important is first and foremost. Money will follow.
If Cooper Union begins to partially charge tuition for some students this will mark a sea change; I cannot stress this enough. Many students who may qualify for full scholarships may turn away without applying, believing that they have no merit. Remember that many Cooper students cannot rely on their parents and do not have strong support systems in their lives before attending Cooper Union. They rely on their wits, and young teenage minds are not very practical, logical, and experienced. They are simply too young to make good judgments at a time in their lives when these choices can change everything in their future. To split the student body into two; tuition paying and not, also creates a two-tier system, destroying the sense of equality, equity, currently existing within the halls at Cooper. And those paying students may get lazy, dragging down the student body as a whole.
Another serious concern about Cooper Union instituting partial tuition is about those who may fall through the cracks. A gap of income indeterminacy may arise - like the way subsidized housing and national subsidized health care for the very poor does not assist some struggling people because the numbers used as guidelines do not match the reality on the ground. Determining benchmarks for scholarship and non-scholarship students is a tricky business and could easily cut off a lot of people in the middle, and act for or against students depending on factors of strong or weak family support.
I feel confident in President Jamshed Bharucha’s leadership and ethical principles. I like his ideas about possible funding from other sources, such as research funding, other granting programs. These funding dollars must follow the ethical principles of the Cooper Union, and I hope that any research monies will be scrutinized carefully. Engineering schools in particular are vulnerable to research dollars from the Department of Defense, and Cooper Union should not be allowed to become another arm of the US war machine.
In conclusion, I strongly urge the President and the Board of Trustees to take the tuition option off the table. In moving forward, I look forward to everyone’s creative efforts in this matter. And we will help. Believe me.
Versions of this letter have been submitted by email today to the President of The Cooper Union and to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at The Cooper Union. - LN