Open Letter to the Alumni, Students and Faculty of Cooper Union:

Benjamin Degen November 1, 2011

        The President and the Board of Trustees are planning to meet to discuss the possibility of charging tuition at The Cooper Union.  The fact that this option is on the table is proof in itself that the Board of Trustees have failed to manage the school responsibly and in keeping with Peter Cooper’s foundational ideas.
        Cooper Union has persevered in its original mission of tuition free education for over one hundred years.  This institution has withstood two World Wars, The Great Depression, and countless national and international financial recessions and panics. What then are the circumstances today that are so extraordinary as to force The Cooper Union to abandon its original mission?
        We are now told that The Cooper Union has been in a state of crisis for the past ten years. This was not the rosy picture painted in the June 30, 2009 article featured in the Wall Street Journal titled: “One College Sidesteps the Crisis: As many endowments suffer, no-tuition Cooper Union builds, and basks.” The article speaks of how Cooper Union is relying on lower risk investments and rent income from large real estate holdings to protect the school’s endowment from instability in the stock market. The article highlights the importance of safe investment in light of “…the school’s no-tuition policy, which leaves its budget largely dependent on investment income.” Cooper Union’s then-president George Campbell is quoted as saying: “We knew that if we took a big risk and lost, we couldn’t recover.” Was the Board of Trustees ignorant then of the school’s true financial condition or were they being untruthful in reporting it?
        Why would a school in the middle of a financial crisis willingly initiate the most capital-intensive building project in its recent history? If our endowment was in jeopardy why did we undergo a $111.6 million dollar building project? And all of this while the 51 Astor place building stands derelict? There are two possible explanations. The first: The Board of Trustees has been completely incompetent and untruthful and has acted recklessly with Cooper Union’s endowment during a very financially risky time. The second: The Board of Trustees has had a plan of expansion for many years. Our current “crisis” has been completely manufactured by spending towards this expansion. The school’s current state is being portrayed as an unforeseen emergency to force the issue of tuition- an issue that the Board must have been considering for some time.
        Either the board is incompetent and unable or fundamentally opposed to upholding the original mission of The Cooper Union. This original mission is the founding and sustaining of a merit based, full scholarship school for all students.
        All legal and procedural measures must now be taken to stop the Board of Trustees from voting the Cooper Union out of existence. The Board must give a full accounting to the Alumni, Students and Faculty of their future plan for The Cooper Union. If any members of the board, or the school President feel that the expansion of The Cooper Union should take precedence over its responsibility to its original mission all efforts must be made to replace them with administrators who will uphold the core values of The Cooper Union. We do not need schemes for new buildings or expansionist vanity projects. We need creative and honest administrators who are committed to a realistic plan for sustaining Cooper Union’s future existence.

Benjamin Degen         A’98
Adjunct Instructor, Cooper Union School of Art
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