Today the students of the Cooper Union will go to their campus with a completely different relationship towards their school, their community, and their roles within both. For students entering this school, it has represented a safe haven; a studio, a sanctuary, a city of ideas within the city itself. None of us in the past years have been truly warned of the serious, damn near critical fragility of our home. There is no need to explain the virtues of a free education, or the ethical implications of changing from that model towards one of a tuition-based college. The results would be catastrophic. Many of us right now feel betrayed, shammed, lied to, screwed over by this recent turn of events.
But, there is one lie we have been telling ourselves.
That this school has been “free” at all.
The Cooper Union has never been free. Even though for the past century students have not had to pay tuition, someone did. This school has survived as a charity organization, a real estate magnate, landowner, paid its personnel, administrators, faculty, maintained (and even expanded) its facilities through shrewd business deals and (mostly) effective financial management. At one time this was handled by Peter Cooper and his peers. Even in his day, with his brilliant ideologies and seemingly infinite wisdom, he knew someone had to foot the bill. He adapted to the economic situation of his time and adopted models that he felt worked towards a greater ideal, to make education free to everyone, full-stop.
Peter Cooper understood the need for free education required, ironically, a lot of money.
This is because the Cooper Union was an experiment for Peter Cooper. He didn’t have a clean fool-proof model for what a free school would be, so he tried an alternative. Cooper union was that alternative. A private school, funded on a the money of industry and development. He hoped that we, the students, alumni, the administrators, trustee members, and future presidents would be able to improve on this model, to take Cooper Union on as our own responsibility. We have seen this school endure wars, depressions, meltdowns, riots, the 70’s (big pants), God forbid the 80’s (big hair), and we even managed to stay open and “free” during our recent economic crisis.
That is until now.
I should explain my particular situation in regards to the Cooper Union. I went to college knowing full well that that I would have no financial assistance (even then I was footing the bills at home). I had gotten into NYU TISCH for Film and T.V. and had to come up with my own financial plan to attend. I managed two years at NYU. Towards the middle of my second year, I knew I couldn’t keep up with the costs. I was working 3 jobs, 4 at times, and was struggling to maintain focus on my studies. I was being kicked out of the school because I owed them $25,000 and couldn’t find the money. In a last ditch effort to stave off going home and working to pay back an incomplete education, I applied to the Cooper Union. Miraculously, I got in. Two years at NYU cost me $80,000 in loans, with interest I’ll be paying back upwards of $150,000. My loan repayments start this month.
Cooper means something utterly fundamental to my life, and since attending the school I found myself enraptured by how easy it was to forget about the money, the guilt, and anguish, hustling from job to job. I was able to make my work. There is nothing more sacred to an artist than time. I finally had time at Cooper. Time to think, to write, to create. And I have never forgotten how essential the school has been towards this end. I encourage all of us, as students, alumni, and the greater Cooper community, to think about how important this school has been to you.
This divide we have found ourselves sitting on, between the student voice and the Board of trustees, between the soul and the spine of the institution, is one we have created, and its one we can destroy.
Rather than approach the Board as a vehement gathering of disconnected, disingenuous individuals who have been scheming behind our backs, we need to address them as a collective of volunteers, who do share our ideals about the institution. We need to remind them about the ambitions of Peter Cooper, and their allegiance not only towards the institution but also towards it’s student body.
We need Convince them of two major points; that we will not let Cooper fall into the decay of the capitalist majority of American education, and that we are willing and able to help remodel the school to function in this new century.
In order to make Cooper union truly free, we as the students and alumni need to take earnest control of the situation, to change our anger and frustration into passion and enthusiasm; to use the creativity and ingenuity we brought towards our time at Cooper towards this sobering but also awakening goal.
We need to save our own school.
But this will take time, and energy, energies we have never thought we needed to tap into. We will need to work diligently with the school to save it, not against it, and challenge ourselves with the responsibility of reaching out beyond the seams of the Cooper fabric, and into the National and even Global sphere, for influence, advisement and support. We need to listen and inform ourselves on the reality of Cooper Union’s history, not just the catchy phrases and philosophies of Peter Cooper, but his actions.
By putting ourselves as a proactive energy towards this institution and its sacred message, we can ensure that future generations will know how priceless free education actually is.
By collaborating on ways to solve this financial burden, we may even do more than preserve Peter Cooper’s legacy.
We may even improve it.
I look forward to seeing how this school adapts to the new century, and how we redefine the terms of both a free education and what it means to us.
“Our task is to educate their (our students) whole being so they can face the future. We may not see the future, but they will and our job is to help them make something of it.”
- Sir Ken Robinson
Noemi Charlotte Thieves
(Atif Hashmi, School of Art Alum 2011)