The legacy of the Cooper Union

Julian Clarke November 4, 2011

This is a fragment of something I wrote earlier in a private email, so apologies for some of the abruptness.

The real decision that everyone has to make very soon is what the board actually means to them. If we say that this school ours (students, faculty, alum), then it is our obligation to do anything in our power to save what it means to us. To lay all the blame on others is to effectively admit that while the culture at the Cooper Union represents us, we do not actually represent the institution as a whole. I don’t think it can or should be so black and white.

That said, a full tuition scholarship for every student admitted was a foolhardy decision to begin with– just like many of the greatest and most creative innovations in history. That commitment would obviously become a challenge for everyone who has ever set foot in the lobby of the Foundation building. A century later, it is hardly surprising that the stress of maintaining this commitment has been exacerbated by the desire to improve and expand (from the renovation of the Foundation building to the NAB) as well as the blistering fluctuations in the economy.

For curiosity’s sake, of course we will want to know how exactly we got to this point, but from a pragmatic standpoint the matter becomes trivial. Anyone with a crystal ball and a pen could have made the list, balanced the internal decisions with future external circumstances, and come up with a sound yet truly banal plan of operation. Yet, the Cooper Union is not a glorified lemonade stand. It is embodied by its students, faculty, and everyone else who has given a cent from their pocket or a second of their time. Perhaps the last 20 years demanded prescience beyond what we were capable of, and our ambitions got the better of us. The point we are at now indicates a failure to reconcile this and a failure to communicate.

In principle, we are privileged to be members of such an intimate institution. Yet even on the smallest levels, from our group projects in studio to student council to the administration, people are people and people fail. Even the best intentioned ideas and decisions can go horribly awry when there is either miscommunication or no communication. Until now we had very little to listen and now we have a lot to say. I hope that everyone– students, faculty, alumni, donors far and wide, the president, and the trustees– will seize the opportunity to take responsibility and collaborate with each other to find the best possible solution.

President Bharucha has reached out to us. We too must reach out to him and the trustees. The trustees operate to facilitate an environment which needs to give back more, and the students and the faculty operate to define that environment. If this becomes a new chapter in the history of the Cooper Union, let’s make it a productive one. Let’s make sure our legacy of a tuition free education doesn’t undermine but rather promotes a new legacy, taking risks and facing the challenges, of principled innovation for years, decades, and centuries to come.
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