In a series of six blog posts written for Reuters between 2011 and 2013, financial analyst Felix Salmon wrote what many consider to be the canonical account of a collapse in leadership at Cooper Union.

The Tragedy of Cooper Union (A Six-Part Series)
  1. Cooper Union’s murky finances, November 9, 2011
  2. Why Cooper Union can’t be trusted, April 25, 2012
  3. It’s time to air Cooper Union’s dirty laundry, April 24, 2013
  4. The tragedy of Cooper Union, April 29, 2013
  5. Are Cooper Union’s finances fixable?, May 11, 2013
  6. Cooper Union’s shameless trustees, May 20, 2013

Cooper Union’s murky finances

In the immediate wake of the greatest financial crisis in living memory, Cooper Union looked like a genius. Remember this article by John Hechinger? Here’s the headline, if you don’t:

One College Sidesteps the Crisis

In particular, Hechinger credited a low-risk investment approach at Cooper Union.

The expansions stem from Cooper’s decision three years ago to ratchet back the financial risk in its endowment, enabling it to avoid the losses that have racked its peers. The college renegotiated a lease to lock in a future income stream from its key property, sold another parcel at a favorable price, raised its cash holdings and picked investment managers that hedged against stock-market declines.

Administrators say they wanted to be especially careful because of the school’s no-tuition policy, which leaves its budget largely dependent on investment income…

John Michaelson, who heads Cooper’s investment committee, said other schools could benefit from taking a lower-risk investing approach.

You know how this is going to end, don’t you.

As Cooper Union officials try to quell the uproar over news that the college may start to charge tuition, some students, alumni, faculty members and college trustees are advocating an inquiry into how the school got into such serious financial trouble.

One bit of the story stands out: it seems that the endowment was leveraging its bets with borrowed money — and has been doing so since 2006.

Cooper Union spent $166 million on a new academic building at 41 Cooper Square, replacing two outmoded buildings. To help pay for that and other projects, and to retire old bonds, it borrowed $175 million in 2006.

The college also invested $32 million of that borrowing in its endowment, calculating that the endowment investments would earn a higher rate of return than the interest Cooper was paying on the loan. That turned out to be a bad bet when the recession hit.

There’s still a lot of murkiness surrounding Cooper Union’s finances, which don’t seem to be quite as bad as the NYT — or, for that matter, Cooper Union president Jamshed Bharucha — is making out. The endowment is still near its all-time high, with the most recent number being $577 million, while the annual deficit right now is $16.5 million. You can call that unsustainable if you want — and Bharucha does — but there’s no immediate threat to the college here.

Certainly the financial situation at Cooper Union is murky: former president George Campbell Jr is quoted in the NYT as saying “that Cooper’s financial problems had always been well documented in public records like financial statements, reports on trustees’ meetings and his annual addresses on the state of the college”, but I can’t find any of those statements, reports, or addresses on Cooper’s website. Guidestar has the 2009 Form 990, but it’s a bit out of date, and it’s not easy to understand — especially the $319 million in liabilities, including $175 million in “secured mortgages and notes payable”, which help result in total annual interest expenses of more than $10 million. (Salaries and wages, by contrast, the only larger item on the expense statement, are $22 million.)

So I’m very sympathetic to calls for an audit at Cooper Union. There’s no reason that the college’s finances should be this opaque — and the idea of creating a “task force” to investigate options seems designed to ensure that a lot of that information remains confidential. At the very least, the task force should be charged with putting together a detailed history of Cooper Union’s finances right up to the present day, and making that history public for all to see. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to believe anything we’re told about what’s going on there.

Why Cooper Union can’t be trusted

Remember the murky finances of Cooper Union, which went from healthy to disastrous in no time at all? There’s a lot of controversy about what went wrong, where exactly the problems lie, and what’s the best way to fix them. But one thing’s abundantly clear: the management and trustees of Cooper Union have been unhelpfully opaque about the college’s finances for years, and the college’s students and alumni are fed up with the “trust us, we’ve worked it out this time” approach.

The first thing that’s needed, before any big decisions about things like tuition fees, is transparency about Cooper Union’s finances, and generally much more openness and clarity from management. After all, this is the place where contractor Jonathan Rose got a $2 million contract to oversee the new flagship academic building, while before* his mother Sandra Priest Rose sat on Cooper’s board of trustees — all without any kind of disclosure as to how he was selected. Was Sandra Priest Rose’s pledge of $5 million towards the building contingent on her son getting that contract? No one knows.

But transparency, it turns out, is exactly the opposite of what we’ve ended up getting. Yesterday, Cooper Union’s president, Jamshed Barucha, posted a “framework for action” on the college’s website. In it, we’re told that something called the Revenue Task Force has released an “interim report” which has “recommended” that Cooper “explore” charging fees for “academic programs that build on our unique strengths”, which “may include master’s and other professional programs”.

All of which sounds rather tentative, but in principle the timing here is propitious. Tomorrow sees the Second Community Summit at Cooper Union where the Task Force’s report could be discussed and debated.

Except, discussion and debate isn’t really what Cooper is looking for here. Barucha has not released the Task Force report, and shows no sign of doing so. And for all the qualifiers in his note, it’s quite clear that the decision has already been made. “Cooper Union to Charge“, says the WSJ; “Cooper Union Will Charge Tuition for Graduate Students“, says the NYT.

The WSJ is a good guide to the official Cooper Union line:

The school’s economic troubles date to the early 1990s, when rent it received from the land it owns under the Chrysler Building decreased from $13 million to $11 million while school expenses increased.

It’s far from clear that this is even true: Barry Drogin, for one, who has looked into this issue very deeply, says quite unambiguously that “the Chrysler Building rent and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) have risen steadily every year, with large increases scheduled every ten years starting in 2018.” In any case, the Chrysler-building-rent problem is long solved. Revenue from the building will be $32.5 million in 2018, $41 million in 2028, and $55 million in 2031. Cooper’s fiscal problems have nothing to do with insufficient income from the Chrysler Building, and the fact that Cooper still seems wedded to that storyline is worrying.

And then there’s this:

Mr. Bharucha said he has received backing for the plan in recent discussions with faculty and alumni nationwide. “There is very strong, if silent, majority who are highly supportive of a plan that energizes the institution,” he said.

I love the idea of a “very strong” majority which is “highly supportive” of this plan — and yet, for all their incredible support, are somehow completely silent. Bharucha might as well have said that pigs fly when you’re not watching them: his statement might be unfalsifiable, but at the same time it’s also completely implausible. Cooper’s stakeholders are incredibly mistrustful of Bharucha and the trustees, and it’s hard to see how even a silent majority could be supporting a plan which exists only in the vaguest possible form.

After all, we’ve been here before. In 2006, Cooper Union filed something called a cy pres petition, in a successful attempt to get New York to allow it to borrow money against the Chrysler Building. That petition only came to light years later: the whole process, at the time, was shrouded in secrecy. And you can see why that might be: even as Cooper was loudly proclaiming its health in public, the petition was saying that “The Cooper Union currently faces the possibility that it will become unable to carry out its statutory mission in the not-too-distant future”; that it “currently faces a grave fiscal crisis”; and that even faced a real risk of losing its academic accreditation.

As part of that petition, Cooper committed to implementing something called a Master Plan, which involved cutting spending, raising $250 million, increasing the amount that alumni donate to the school, and other things, none of which really happened. As the board of trustees reported in 2011, “three key components of the Master Plan were not achieved as anticipated” — all of which were vastly more germane to the current fiscal crisis than any change in Chrysler Building rents in the early 1990s.

In other words, there’s really no reason why anybody should trust Bharucha or the trustees — to have any faith that they’re being fully truthful with the rest of the school, or that they’re in any position to successfully execute on their promises.

And what of the huge new $160 million (ish) academic building? The trustees still say that it has nothing to do with the fiscal crisis, despite the fact that it’s responsible for some $10 million a year in interest payments:

It is also important to state that 41 Cooper Square was not the cause of the current financial dilemma. Its construction relieved Cooper Union of the costs that would have had to be incurred to renovate the old engineering building and the Hewitt Building to make them acceptable sites for a 21st century education and meet accreditation standards.

This just doesn’t pass the smell test. There’s some small possibility that it’s true, but unless and until the trustees show how they arrived at this conclusion, I have no reason to believe them. The engineering faculty actually voted against the construction of the new academic building, saying that they were more than capable of staying where they were at significantly lower cost. (This fact was, of course, not included in the cy pres petition.)

More to the point, there’s never been a coherent account of how exactly Cooper Union ever intended to pay off the massive $175 million loan it took out to construct the new building. It needed its income from the Chrysler Building to pay its annual costs; and of course it doesn’t have any tuition revenue, since it doesn’t charge tuition.

This is the main thing that has never been adequately explained — by constructing the new building, Cooper Union added on a permanent $10 million annual expense, without any stated means of being able to cover that expense. The new academic building is a sunk cost at this point, of course. But until the trustees explain their logic surrounding its construction, it’s going to be extremely difficult to trust them to do the right thing going forwards.

*Update: Finally, some clarity on the Jonathan Rose/Sandra Priest Rose question. Tellingly, it comes from Roxanne Donovan, a representative of Jonathan Rose Companies, rather than from Cooper Union. She says that Jonathan Rose was hired more than a year before his mother was invited to join Cooper’s board; she also says that there was a formal RFP process for the selection of Jonathan Rose Companies.

Why Cooper Union wasn’t able to be transparent about this itself simply baffles me, and really makes my point. Just because you’re being secretive doesn’t mean you have something to hide.

It’s time to air Cooper Union’s dirty laundry

If you want to really understand the importance of Cooper Union and its century-long tradition of free tuition, I can’t recommend Sangamithra Iyer’s excellent article in n+1 highly enough. And it contrasts greatly, of course, with the official statement from Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees, saying that the college is going to stop being free very soon: beginning, in fact with the students entering in September 2014. The statement is curiously upbeat, for a decision which essentially marks the death of Cooper Union as we know it. And it’s chock-full of the kind of doublespeak which is all too easily deciphered:

After eighteen months of intense analysis and vigorous debate about the future of Cooper Union, the time has come for us to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive well into the future…

Under the new policy, The Cooper Union will continue to adhere to the vision of Peter Cooper, who founded the institution specifically to provide a quality education to those who might otherwise not be able to afford it…

Maintaining the highest standards of excellence means that we must constantly aim to improve through investment…

Although we appreciate that these decisions are difficult for everyone to accept, we look forward to working together with all of you to building a future that will ensure the preservation of Cooper Union as a great educational institution that remains true to Peter Cooper’s founding principles.

The fact is, as Iyer clearly lays out, that charging tuition runs in direct violation of Peter Cooper’s vision and his founding principles. Indeed, the original Cooper Union charter held the institution’s trustees personally responsible for any deficit, while ensuring that education was free to all enrolled students.

Over the past 40 years or so, however, Cooper Union has been living beyond its means, financing structural deficits by periodically selling off various bits of land that it owned inside and outside New York City. That’s clearly an unsustainable strategy, and it finally came to an end when Cooper Union sold off the last sellable plot it had — the old engineering building at 51 Astor Place, which is now becoming a big ugly office block. The proceeds from that sale failed to remotely cover the costs of building the fancy New Academic Building at 41 Cooper Square — a building which the NYT’s architecture critic, Nicolai Ourourssoff, declared upon its opening to be an icon of the “self-indulgent” “Age of Excess”.

But here’s the most astonishing thing, at least to me: no one seems to care how this happened, no one has been held responsible, no one has been blamed. The current trustees talk vaguely about how they “share your sense of the loss” of free tuition, but they don’t apologize for their decision, and not one of them, as far as I can tell, has resigned in protest or shame.

Make no mistake: Cooper Union suffered a massive failure of governorship, and its trustees have abandoned the principle which underpinned the entire institution. A trustee is someone who governs for the benefit of others — and Cooper Unions trustees have failed, spectacularly, in their first and highest role, which was to preserve Peter Cooper’s tuition-free institution.

And after failing so miserably at their own jobs, the trustees then had the nerve to announce, right in the middle of dropping their bombshell, that they expected the current students of Cooper Union to give more to the institution! Never mind that Cooper Union will never be the same again, and that the whole reason why it is so beloved has now been jettisoned. Start donating today, and maybe future students might be able to save a few hundred bucks on their future tuition bills. Or maybe the president will just get a raise to $1 million a year. Who knows: the trustees seem to be capable of anything.

There’s a lot of recrimination going around right now, and the entire Cooper Union community is in desperate need of some catharsis; the trustees, collectively, and over time, managed to break the very thing that they were entrusted to preserve. Cooper Union’s students, and alumni, and faculty, and supporters all deserve a full accounting of exactly how that happened, and who was primarily to blame. It’s in the nature of institutions like boards of trustees that they are very good at protecting the guilty, but in this case the trustees have to come clean. No one will ever trust Cooper Union, or its trustees, or its president, unless and until such an accounting is made public. And, justice demands it.

The tragedy of Cooper Union

This time last year, I wrote about the pressure that public companies face to grow at all costs, and how destructive that pressure can be. Growth is, weirdly, inimical to longevity: if you want something to last for a very, very long time, then what you really want to create is something large — but not huge — and which doesn’t need to grow at all. The world’s oldest companies are nearly all family-owned affairs; they’re big enough to keep those families well-off, and they tend to produce goods or services for which there is a steady demand across the centuries. (Hotels, for instance, or wine.)

Peter Cooper understood this well. A wealthy man, he owned a lot of land in Manhattan — including the land underneath what is now the Chrysler Building — and he knew that land would, literally, produce healthy rents in perpetuity. A philanthropist, Cooper knew exactly what he wanted those rents to be spent on: he created the Cooper Union, a college with the defining characteristic that it would charge its students nothing. It was — and is — a noble cause. And in the early days, its trustees quite literally bought into that cause: they helped out with its endowment, and covered its deficits in years where it lost money.

Cooper understood that free education doesn’t really scale. If you’re charging, then extra students provide extra income which can pay for extra teachers and administrators and buildings. But if you’re giving education away for free, then it’s imperative that you operate strictly within your means. The only way to grow is if you persuade some new generations of wealthy benefactors to contribute their own money or land. But at Cooper Union, that hasn’t happened for many decades.

As a result, Cooper Union has always been an extremely special educational institution, the kind of place where a little went a very long way. The faculty was not well paid; the facilities were bare-bones. But the students were fantastic, because Cooper could pick the very best of the very best. And the college’s overriding social mission engendered a huge amount of loyalty and love for the institution, as well as being reflected deep in its curricula. Here’s Sangamithra Iyer, for instance:

When I graduated from Cooper, in 1999, I received a scholarship for a master’s program in geotechnical engineering at UC Berkeley. That summer, a major earthquake devastated Turkey. The first day of classes, the first thing one professor said was that Turkey smelled “like 40,000 dead people” and that “engineers who know that smell do their work a lot differently than those who don’t.” It was this sense of social responsibility that led me to pursue engineering, but also to leave it from time to time. A Cooper education freed me from debt, and allowed me the freedom to pursue purpose, not profit-driven endeavors. Its Union, for me, not only united the arts and the sciences but also was about making connections between the technical, the political, and the social.

While the Cooper Union ethos never left the students or the faculty, however, it did seem to desert a significant chunk of the Board of Trustees and the administration. Starting as long ago as the early 1970s, the board started selling off the land bequeathed by Cooper, not to invest the proceeds in higher-yielding assets, but rather just to cover accumulated deficits. Cooper hated debt and deficits, but that hatred was not shared by later administrators, who would allow debts to accumulate — bad enough — until the only solution was to sell off the college’s patrimony, thereby reducing the resources available for future generations of students. If you visit Astor Place today, the intersection once dominated by the handsome Cooper Union building, the main thing you notice are two gleaming new glass-curtain-walled luxury buildings, one residential and one commercial, both constructed on land bought from Cooper Union.

Then, when you turn the corner and look at what hulks across the street from the main Cooper Union building, you can see where a huge amount of the money went: into a gratuitously glamorous and expensive New Academic Building, built at vast expense, with the aid of a $175 million mortgage which Cooper Union has no ability to repay.

The bland name for the building is a symptom of the fact that Cooper’s capital campaign, designed to raise the money for its construction, was a massive flop: no one gave remotely enough money to justify putting their name on the building. It’s also a symptom of the fact that no one on the board had any appetite for naming it after George Campbell, the main architect of the scheme which involved going massively into debt in order to construct this white elephant.

Campbell, pictured grinning widely in a now-notorious 2009 WSJ article, claimed that Cooper was a financial success story when in fact it was on the verge of collapse. He’s the single biggest individual villain in the Cooper story, and it’s a vicious irony that Cooper’s latest Form 990 shows him being paid $1,307,483 in 2011 — after he left Cooper’s presidency. (Cooper Union explains that the amount represents six years of “deferred compensation/retention payments”, but the timing couldn’t be worse.)

Campbell’s enablers and cheering squad were a small group of trustees, many of them Cooper-trained engineers gone Wall Street, who had so internalized the ethos of the financial world that it never occurred to them that they shouldn’t be constantly trying to get bigger and better and shinier. Campbell was paid $668,473 in his last year at Cooper — he was one of the highest-paid college presidents in the country, despite running a naturally small institution with serious space and money constraints. Board-member financiers enabled his dreams of growth and glory, hoping that some of the glamor from the newly-revitalized institution would reflect back on themselves. Naturally, when the whole project turned out to be a disaster, they scurried ignobly off the board as fast as they could.

The turnover on the board continues: the latest Form 990 alone shows six trustees — Marc Appleton, Robert Aquilina, Judith Rodin, Moshe Safdie, William Sandholm, and Philip Trahanas — resigning their posts over the course of the year. And if you look at the current list of trustees, you’ll see there have been other resignations since then: Douglas Hamilton, Vikas Kapoor, Audrey Flack, Stanley Lapidus, Giorgiana Slade, Cynthia Weiler, and Ronald Weiner. That’s 13 resignations in the course of just over two years; the entire board has only 22 members.

For an institution which was founded to exist in perpetuity, this kind of board turnover is decidedly worrying, especially since it was the board which decided and announced that Cooper Union will start charging tuition. If this board is just passing through, with precious little aggregate tenure or institutional memory, the legitimacy of that decision is surely greatly reduced.

What’s more, a weak board puts extra power in strong presidents — and both the current president, Jamshed Bharucha, and his predecessor, George Campbell, seem to have been able to persuade the board to implement anything they wanted to do. Bharucha is no fan of Campbell, for obvious reasons, but in many ways the two well-paid presidents are quite similar. I recently obtained a highly-unofficial transcript of the September 2012 board meeting*, where Bharucha was far from despondent or apologetic about the fact that Cooper’s board felt as though it was being forced to choose between charging tuition and closing down entirely. “Turning adversity into opportunity is really an opportunity that very few institutions have,” he said, before talking about something called “a vision process”. Later, he comes out with this:

I resonate very much to future-oriented thinking about higher education. I assure you that I will be guiding the institution to embrace these technologies and we’re not going to be trapped in the past. I think if we get over this hump there will be so much opportunity… I think we can lead… We don’t have a global brand. We’ve got to build that global brand.

Similarly, the trustees’ statement includes worrisome language like this:

Maintaining the highest standards of excellence means that we must constantly aim to improve through investment. We must engage in a continuous process of strengthening our academic programs, our faculty, and the clarity of our academic reputation. The institution will invest in our programs and our faculty to ensure that we always are, and are regarded as, equal to the best.

This is emphatically not Peter Cooper’s vision. The United States is full of higher-education institutions trying to carve out “a global brand” for themselves, often through “investment”. They generally have multi-billion-dollar endowments, global name recognition, and undergraduate tuition costs somewhere north of $40,000 a year. You could name a dozen of them off the top of your head, and Cooper Union would never be one of them. On the other hand, what you can’t do is name a dozen — or even two — institutions like Cooper, based on a social mission and free tuition and low-key excellence, where the pedagogy is not reliant on the provision of climbing walls, and where the health of the institution is not reliant on jet-setting deans who address the World Economic Forum on the subject of Global Leadership.

An investment is what you do when you spend money today, with an eye to reaping a profit in the future. Investments, by definition, are associated with future cashflow: if they’re not, then they’re not investments. Once Cooper Union starts “investing” in programs and faculty, it will have to charge for those programs and faculty in order for the investments to bear fruit. All of which is to say that this tuition charge is permanent: once it’s implemented, the chances of it being reversed are de minimis.

Bharucha, like Campbell before him, is intensely focused on improving Cooper Union’s name recognition. Cooper Union has historically not been very well known, even among New Yorkers: they often think it’s some kind of labor union, rather than an undergraduate college. That’s fine: the people who matter — the teenagers applying to the art school, the entire architectural profession — know exactly what Cooper Union is, and what it stands for. Not every non-profit organization needs its own awareness campaign — but of course if Cooper Union now has to start attracting richer kids capable of paying $20,000 a year in tuition, it’s going to have to start marketing itself more aggressively. Again, that’s not something it historically ever wanted or needed to do, and it’s not something Peter Cooper would be remotely happy about. His resources were meant to go towards education, not towards marketing and billing and “development”.

Another thing that Bharucha and Campbell had in common: both entered into talks about essentially selling Cooper Union to a deeper-pocketed institution. Campbell talked to NYU in the mid-2000s; Bharacha talked to Bard more recently. Obviously, none of those talks got very far; the NYU discussions ended when it decided to buy Polytechnic University instead, in 2008. In either case it’s hard to see how Cooper Union’s social mission and commitment to tuition-free education could have been preserved in perpetuity.

But the end result — what we ended up with — is arguably worse. Once you start charging tuition, you can’t go back: you build a huge amount of infrastructure for students who feel entitled to certain amenities, given how much they’re paying. And the college becomes a business with a P&L, having to chase revenues and persuade potential students that it’s a better financial deal than the various alternatives they have.

The result is that Cooper is certain to lose its much-cherished selectivity: according to the transcript, the September board meeting discussed a report from Maguire Associates which concluded, intuitively enough, that there’s simply no way to charge $20,000 a year and still accept less than 8% of applicants. That selectivity helps Cooper Union rank top among “regional colleges” in the influential US News ranking; both the selectivity and the ranking are sure to fall once tuition is introduced. (Cooper Union claims that it will have “need-blind” admissions, and that if you’re eligible for any kind of Pell Grant, you will get a full scholarship. But there’s no getting around the fact that it will need a certain number of paying students in order to make the math add up.)

Bharucha has also managed to ensure the undying opposition of Cooper Union’s most passionate students. Just this weekend, they painted the lobby of the architecture school black in protest, unaware that during the September board meeting, Bharucha complained about their “politics of destruction”. The relationship between Cooper Union’s administrators and its students has never been worse — and that’s not going to make it easy for Cooper to be able to paint itself as a prestigious institution worth paying $20,000 a year to attend.

In September, according to the transcript, Bharucha talked of the “enormous reputational risks” of charging tuition, and the “difficulty recruiting new students”. So it’s not like any of this was unexpected. “If it weren’t for all this noise”, Bharucha said in the meeting, he would be much more confident that charging tuition could work. But with it, he said, “it will be very difficult” to make a success of the new strategy.

The board has gone along with Bharucha’s strategy anyway, in the belief that all the alternatives are worse. In large part they were forced into their decision by the mortgage on the New Academic Building: you can’t shrink your way to sustainability when you owe MetLife $175 million, and you have to come up with the eight-figure debt-service payments somehow. Given that no one was about to write a $100 million check to Cooper Union, the only other place to find the necessary money was by charging. Even if doing so means destroying the very basis upon which Cooper Union was founded.

*A word about this transcript. Cooper Union spokesman Lloyd Kaplan told me that board meetings are not officially recorded or transcribed in any way, which is consistent with what my sources are telling me — which is that the meeting was recorded without the knowledge or consent of the board members.

The transcript is an important document, and I’m sure it will make its way onto the internet sooner or later. I’m not going to be the one to do that, however, because I have no evidence which can vouch for its authenticity, or demonstrate that the people named in the transcript actually said what it says they said. Conversations with two different sources have convinced me that the transcript is accurate; even then, however, I have only directly quoted Jamshed Bharucha, the president, rather than any unpaid board members.

Kaplan has told me that Cooper will have no comment on whether Bharucha actually said the things I’ve quoted him saying: he won’t confirm that he said them, but neither will he deny that he said them. My sources and I are sure that the quotes are accurate, but you should be aware that it’s never going to be possible to be 100% certain on that question.

Are Cooper Union’s finances fixable?

James Stewart has an important column on Cooper Union today: if you read it carefully, it hints at how much further Cooper might yet fall from its founding mission of providing free education. Cooper’s trustees are press-shy these days, but Stewart snagged an on-the-record interview with one of the most important ones: John Michaelson, the chair of the investment committee.

Stewart chides Michaelson for his reliance on hedge funds, which have not served the Cooper endowment well. In the 2012 fiscal year, for instance, Cooper’s returns on its managed endowment were negative: they were down 5%, in a period where a standard mix of 60% stocks and 40% bonds would have returned a positive 8%. And with more than $100 million in hedge fund investments in 2008, Cooper was paying more than $2 million a year in hedge fund management fees alone, never mind performance fees. That’s the kind of money the college desperately needs for operational expenses.

Still, overall, Stewart is far too gentle on Michaelson, who was pictured grinning next to former president George Campbell in a highly-mendacious 2009 WSJ article extolling the performance of the Cooper endowment. Here’s how Stewart characterizes the endowment’s performance:

Compared with many universities, Cooper Union did a good job managing its endowment through the recent financial crisis. As recently as 2009, the school maintains, it ranked first among all American universities for endowment performance.

In reality, as Stewart never really explains, that “endowment performance” was entirely fictional — it was magicked out of thin air when Michaelson revalued the land under the Chrysler building upwards in order to mask a torrid performance from the rest of the endowment.

On top of that, Cooper levered up its endowment at exactly the wrong time, borrowing $34 million at an interest rate of 5.875% and investing it in the endowment, where it promptly evaporated during the financial crisis. Michaelson tries to explain this away by saying that the borrowed money was kept in cash, while it was the rest of the endowment which lost money. But if you look at the endowment that way, then, as Stewart points out, hedge funds accounted for more than 60% of the funds Michaelson was managing. That’s an insane ratio, especially given that Michaelson was quoted in the WSJ as being “especially critical” of the Yale Model of investing in illiquid alternative asset classes.

Stewart also goes easy on the trustees — Michaelson foremost among them — for making their single biggest mistake: borrowing $166 million to build the grandiose New Academic Building. “Hardly anyone disputes Cooper Union’s need for new engineering facilities,” he writes — and he’s hilariously, egregiously wrong about that. Virtually everyone outside the Board of Trustees disputed Cooper’s need for new engineering facilities — even a large chunk of the engineering faculty, which had the most to gain from the new building. The “need”, it’s now abundantly clear, was not a real need at all; instead, it was a device, an excuse to make the decision to construct the new building seem reasonable, even necessary.

Stewart essentially says that Cooper did need to build something new, it just didn’t need to build something quite as grand and expensive as it ended up with. But he’s deeply and importantly wrong about that. Here’s the thing about mortgages: they’re not just free money, they’re something you need to pay off, over time. And in order to do that, you need income. When Cooper Union’s trustees, including Michaelson, took out a $175 million 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 5.875%, they knew exactly how much money Cooper would need to repay that mortgage every year.

And they had no idea where that money was going to come from.

This — much more than any endowment mismanagement — was the colossal, fatal error made by Cooper’s trustees. There are generally two ways of paying down a mortgage: either you go to work and earn money you then use to pay the mortgage, or else you rent out the building itself and use the income it generates to cover the mortgage payments. Neither route was available to Cooper: all of its income, and then some, was needed to run the school, which meant that there was nothing left over to pay the mortgage. And with the exception of a tiny coffee shop on the ground floor, Cooper isn’t renting out any of the new building.

At the end of Stewart’s piece, Michaelson makes a very important admission:

Mr. Michaelson conceded that the school could have continued to invade the endowment to cover deficits and would have survived until 2018, when the higher payments from the Chrysler lease kick in. “But what kind of school would you have had by then?”

The answer, of course, is a free one; if this really was an option, then the trustees owe the Cooper community a serious, detailed explanation of how and why they ended up making the decision to charge.

But the real answer is that while the higher payments from the Chrysler lease would be enough to cover the operating costs of a small, excellent college, they would not be enough to cover Cooper’s operating costs and the mortgage payments on the new building. Michaelson is making it sound, here, as though he decided to charge tuition for the sake of the school. In fact, he decided to charge tuition because that’s the only way that the school can pay off the monster loan he took out with no conception of how he could ever pay it off.

What’s Michaelson’s explanation of where he thought the money for the mortgage payments was going to come from? He doesn’t seem to have one, but the closest thing that Stewart finds is a deluded “if you build it, they will come” mindset:

Trustees told me that the college’s development consultants told them that a signature building with a marquee architect — in this case, Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects — would attract a large donor eager to have his or her name on a trophy building.

But no such donor materialized, and experts I consulted said Cooper Union had it backward — the first step is to attract the donor, who then is involved in choosing the architect and designing the building. “I’ve never heard of a case where you build the building first and hope a donor comes along,” said Kenneth E. Redd, director of research and policy analysis for the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Passing the buck like this to anonymous “development consultants” is just despicable. It was the board which borrowed $175 million without being able to pay it back, not the development consultants. And what’s more, it was the board which locked in a fixed 5.875% interest rate for the next 30 years, which isn’t the kind of thing you do if you’re basically just borrowing money on a short-term basis before a deep-pocketed donor comes along to pay off the mortgage in full.

And in any case, according to what we now know, once the building had been constructed and no beneficient billionaire had materialized to pay for it, Cooper was financially doomed: it had no ability to pay off the monster mortgage. If that was the case, then why on earth was Michaelson telling the WSJ — after the New Academic Building was finished — that Cooper’s financial condition was positively rosy?

All of this, however, is stuff we already knew, pretty much. The scariest part of Stewart’s article comes with another quote from Michaelson, where he grumbles about the fact that most of Cooper’s income comes from the Chrysler Building. (The land under the Chrysler Building was bequeathed to the college by Peter Cooper.)

Stewart quotes Michaelson as saying that having 84% of the endowment in a single asset “is against everything I stand for”. He then does a lot of back-of-the-envelope calculations designed to show that maybe Cooper should sell the land under the Chrysler Building, and intimates that the main reason Cooper hasn’t done so is the board’s “nostalgic attachment” to the asset.

On its face, this is completely crazy. The land under the Chrysler Building is worth substantially more to Cooper Union than it is to anybody else, because under a deal that Cooper Union struck with New York City, the college receives more than $18 million per year in something called payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs. That’s the amount of money that the building would normally generate in property-tax payments for the city; instead, those payments end up going straight to Cooper Union, and New York City gets no property tax revenues at all from the iconic skyscraper.

If Cooper sold the land under the Chrysler Building, all those property tax payments would revert to New York City, rather than the new owner, and a substantial revenue stream would be effectively destroyed, rather than sold. I don’t know what the net present value is of the Chrysler Building’s PILOTs, but it’s got to be somewhere in the region of half a billion dollars, if not more. It makes no sense whatsoever to give that up for nothing.

So why is Stewart taking this cockamamie talk seriously, and why is Michaelson talking with a straight face about selling the land under the Chrysler Building? The answer, I fear, is that Cooper Union, in deciding to charge tuition, has given New York City more than enough ammunition to tear up the deal whereby Cooper gets the Chrysler Building’s PILOTs.

Cooper Union says that the current occupation of the president’s office “has created a poisonous and dangerous atmosphere that can potentially destroy the school forever”. No one in the administration is going to come out and say explicitly what that means, so let me translate it into English for you: they’re saying that the more noise Cooper’s students make in protest at the tuition decision, the more likely it is that New York City is going to decide that it wants its property-tax revenues back, and that Cooper Union, without free tuition, is not a worthy enough cause to justify an effective $18 million per year public subsidy.

If Cooper loses its PILOT payments, then that really would be financially devastating for the college, and it would at that point be effectively forced to liquidate the Chrysler asset, whether it wanted to or not. It seems to me that Michaelson is using Stewart to help lay the groundwork for such an eventuality, and is trying to make the case that selling the Chrysler Building land is not such a dreadful thing to do after all.

I don’t buy it. But looking at what Michaelson says in Stewart’s piece, I can’t help but wonder whether maybe there is a solution here after all. The problem, remember, is that Cooper can’t sell the Chrysler Building land because if it were to do so, the new buyer wouldn’t receive those massive PILOT payments. But what if the purchaser of the land were another important civic institution? Could Cooper Union, working with the Bloomberg administration, work out a deal whereby the Chrysler Building land — with its PILOTs intact — could get sold to Trinity Church, or one of New York’s big non-profit hospitals, or even possibly the Bloomberg Foundation? New York has no shortage of massively-endowed foundations and non-profit organizations which have the wherewithal to buy such an asset; many of them might be interested in it.

It’s not clear why New York City would have any particular desire to go along with such a deal, unless they could by doing so claim to have managed to preserve Cooper Union as a tuition-free college embodying Peter Cooper’s founding principles. In other words, Cooper’s board of trustees would have to go back on their decision to start charging tuition. But the proceeds from selling the Chrysler Building land would be more than enough to pay off the mortgage on the New Academic Building; and at that point, the trustees would just have to work out how many students they could afford to teach on the income from the money left over. Cooper Union would continue to exist, it would continue to be free, and Mike Bloomberg would end up capping his tenure as mayor by saving a noble institution from the brink of disaster. I think Jamshed Bharucha should put in a call, even if he has to do so from his home phone.

Cooper Union’s shameless trustees

It’s tragic that Cooper Union has decided to start charging tuition. The fateful announcement was made by Mark Epstein, the self-aggrandizing chairman of the board of trustees, and was greeted with dismay by thousands of Cooper students, faculty, alumni, and friends.

It’s the trustees who are in charge of the school, and the trustees who most need to be held accountable for what happened. To date, Jamshed Bharucha, the president of Cooper Union, has shouldered most of the blame — and he does deserve a good chunk of it. The decision would not have been taken without his pushing for it, and while he has the full support of the board, which is paying him $650,000 per year, he has signally failed to garner the support of the broader Cooper community. (It will take the tuition payments from 67 average students just to cover Bharucha’s salary; to put that in context, a full freshman class comprises about 20-35 architecture students, 65 in art, and 115 in engineering.)

That said, Bharucha’s situation is a bit like that of Greece’s George Papandreou: he’s a leader who inherited a crisis which was much deeper and more serious than he had any reason to believe. Cooper’s parlous state was bequeathed to him by the previous president, George Campbell, but also by the a board of trustees which signed off on a series of dreadful decisions, most catastrophically the decision to borrow $175 million to build a shiny new building, while having no ability whatsoever to pay that money back.

In order to recover from such atrocious decision-making, the first thing you have to do is to draw a clear line under the past, being very explicit about what went wrong and where. If you can’t admit your own past mistakes, then you’ll be doomed to continue to make those mistakes in the future.

Which is where Mark Epstein comes in. Epstein, unlike Bharucha, was intimately involved in most of Cooper Union’s worst decisions. He should therefore be disqualified from making even more bad decisions, at least unless and until he can demonstrate that he understands what the board did wrong and how they managed to bring Cooper Union to its fiscal knees. This is one reason the tuition announcement was received so badly: the Cooper community quite understandably has no reason to trust that Epstein’s board will do the right thing. Quite the opposite.

There has been no hint of any apology or remorse from Epstein when it comes to the board’s past mistakes; indeed, he hasn’t even come out and admitted that the board made any mistakes at all. When I appeared on Democracy Now with him Thursday morning, he aggressively defended everything the board did in the past, including the decision to build the ridiculously expensive New Academic Building.

Epstein set the tone for the conversation from the very start:

Let me first categorically state that had we had enough money and were able to generate enough revenue to cover our expenses and keep the school with 100 percent scholarship policy, that was our intention. But we can’t. We don’t have the ability to raise enough revenue.

A big part of that problem—and I’ve made this public before—is that we don’t have enough alumni support. Traditionally, only 20 percent of our alumni, who have gotten 100 percent scholarships, give back to the school on a regular basis. You know, contrast that with Princeton. Princeton charges now $40,000-some-odd a year for scholarships, and they’re one of the best schools at alumni participation. They get a participation rate of approximately 65 percent.

I’ve pretty much responded to the first part of this already, so suffice to say: if you’re running a free school, you don’t start with your expenses and then try to work out how you’re going to “raise enough revenue”. Instead, you start with your revenues, and then work out how many students you can educate with that sum of money.

As for the idea that the alumni are to blame, and that Cooper should be more like Princeton — well, that is so misguided, on so many levels, that no one capable of making that statement should ever be the person who makes the decision to start charging tuition. Princeton is very good at being Princeton, but Peter Cooper was never trying to create a center of research excellence, where Nobel laureates regularly rub shoulders and where undergraduates can study any subject under the sun.

Cooper prides itself on being one of the most selective colleges in America, and picking students solely on merit. Princeton is also highly selective, but can’t claim that its admissions process is entirely merit-based: some 40% of legacies applying to Princeton end up being admitted, compared to just 9% of non-legacies. Alumni donate to Princeton in large part because they rationally believe that doing so will help their kids get in there; Cooper’s alumni, in contrast, would be horrified were Cooper to start admitting applicants on the basis of who their parents are. Besides, most kids don’t even want) to attend Cooper, given that the only choices it offers are art, architecture, and engineering.

Epstein basically wants Cooper’s students to pay for their education after they’ve graduated — but if you wanted to create the kind of school where students effectively paid their tuition ex post rather than ex ante, you wouldn’t create Cooper Union. Art students don’t tend to go on to particularly lucrative careers, and neither do architects, who generally have an astonishingly low incomes given the amount of skill and education required to do their jobs. Even the engineering school only rarely generates highly-paid graduates, and then often only when they leave engineering to pursue a career on Wall Street.

Within days of Epstein’s announcement that Cooper would be forced to charge tuition for the lack of alumni donations, Ronald Perelman announced that he was giving $100 million — to Columbia Business School, a place which really doesn’t need the money. Perelman will get his name on a building, of course: The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Business Innovation will sit across from the Henry R. Kravis Building, which was itself the result of another $100 million donation. But that kind of thing has never been what Cooper Union is about, and it’s profoundly depressing that Epstein seemingly aspires to it.

On Democracy Now, Epstein talked about how Cooper had “raised $60 million in specific naming opportunities for the new building as part of the capital campaign”; as far as I know he has never admitted that the campaign was anything other than a glowing success story: “a triumph of grit, determination and the gradual evolvement of dedicated volunteer leaders: the board, alumni and friends”.

In 2007, Cooper Union’s five-year strategic plan talked about alumni giving as a key area of success, and added:

Current financial projections indicate that in fiscal year 2008, the college is likely to achieve positive cash flow for the first time in about a quarter century, and longer term projections indicate that the overall annual cash deficit problem will then be left behind for the foreseeable future.

As late as June 2009 — with the worst of the financial crisis behind it — Cooper’s board was still getting the message out that the college had “sidestepped the crisis” and was “basking” in good fortune. No hint there of desperate financial straits, or any need for massive and urgent alumni donations, without which the board might be forced to break the century-old tradition of free tuition.

So you’ll excuse me if I raise an eyebrow when Epstein points the finger at tight-fisted alumni, rather than accepting any blame at the board level. Cooper has never had much in the way of alumni donations, and in fact alumni donations have been much higher in the past 15 years or so than they ever were before. So where did this sudden desperate need for extra alumni donations come from — and who on the board decided that it made sense to embark on a plan which required unprecedented levels of alumni giving? Cooper’s alumni have a lot of love for the institution. But there aren’t very many of them — it’s a small school — and they don’t tend to become massively wealthy.

According to Epstein’s version of events, Cooper is a victim of circumstances largely outside its control: “the costs of education have gone up,” and Cooper Union’s revenues haven’t managed to keep pace. And it’s certainly true that Cooper’s costs have gone up. Never mind the enormous presidential salaries, just look at the interest payments on the loan which Cooper took out to construct its New Academic Building.

Stay with me here: according to Epstein, the poorest 25% to 30% of students will still get a full scholarship, and the richest 25% to 30% of students will be expected to pay the maximum amount of $19,250; the rest will be assessed on a sliding scale between the two endpoints. To a first approximation, then, we can anticipate that total tuition payments will average out to roughly $9,625 per student. The interest payments on the $175 million loan from MetLife come to $10.3 million per year, which means that Cooper will need the income from roughly 1,070 students just to pay the interest on the loan. (Never mind the extra $5.5 million per year in principal repayments which start in 2019.) Coincidentally, 1,070 is pretty much the size of Cooper’s entire student body.

The conclusion is hard to resist: Cooper Union’s tuition payments are required to pay off the interest on its $175 million loan, and if it hadn’t taken out the loan, then charging tuition might not have been necessary.

So, is that $10.3 million per year — all of which goes directly into the maw of a giant insurance company — a legitimate “cost of education” at Cooper Union? Yes, in that Cooper can’t educate its students unless it makes those payments. But we’re not talking, here, about some generalized and inchoate force which is driving tuition payments up across the board; we’re talking about a very specific decision, made by Cooper’s trustees, which had dreadful consequences.

Of course, Epstein doesn’t see it that way. Here’s what he said on Thursday:

The building helped us financially; it did not hurt us. We had two buildings that were in need of tens of millions of dollars in upgrading to make them building and fire code compliant, to make them ADA compliant. The accrediting boards that determine whether or not we can offer degrees questioned the validity and the viability of our facilities, because they were falling behind par.

The new building was paid for by selling the ground lease under our old engineering building, which we got $97 million for, right before the crash. And we raised $60 million in specific naming opportunities for the new building as part of the capital campaign. The new building going up on our old engineering building site, being built by Minskoff, will generate $2 million a year at least, ongoing, to the school. The building was paid for by those funds, not the loan.

The loan proceeds were eaten up by the deficit.

Let’s be very clear about what Epstein is saying, here. Cooper borrowed $175 million, in the form of a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. It then built a new building at a cost of slightly less than $175 million. But don’t for a minute conclude that the loan was used to pay for the building! Not at all! The loan was simply “eaten up by the deficit”.

Here’s my challenge to Epstein, and to Cooper Union: find me one person — just one — who (a) believes this version of events, and (b) isn’t a member of Cooper’s Board of Trustees, either now or when the decisions were made. In fact, I would be astonished if even a majority of the current board would agree that the new building was helpful rather than harmful, financially. You just need to look at it to see how much of a white elephant it is; you don’t need to know that the engineering faculty — which mainly uses the new building — voted against it twice, and that the myth about the new building being required in order for Cooper to keep its accreditation is, well, let’s just say that none of the faculty believes it.

The reality is that you don’t need to know anything about the building at all in order to understand that you can’t take Epstein at face value here. All you need to know you can be found in one sentence from the official Cooper Union FAQ:

The MetLife pre-payment penalty for the 30-year loan is approximately $81 million (as of August 2012).

You read that right: even if some gazillionaire (or capital campaign) dropped $175 million into Cooper’s lap tomorrow, they still couldn’t pay off their $175 million loan: it also has a whopping $81 million prepayment penalty.

The trustees’ story is basically that they expected to be able to pay for the new building through their capital campaign: one of them told James Stewart that the college expected to raise $125 million more than it actually did. And Epstein told me, when I asked what the $175 million was for, that “part of it was used as a bridge loan, while the building was being built, because the moneys from the capital campaign takes years to come in”.

But here’s the question: if the MetLife loan was meant to just be a bridge to future alumni donations, then why was it structured as a 30-year fixed-rate loan with a prepayment penalty of as much as $81 million? The capital campaign ended in 2012, not in 2036.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that Cooper’s trustees, who couldn’t be trusted a year ago, still can’t be trusted today — and that so long as Mark Epstein is chairman of the board, the broader Cooper community simply will not rally behind him and give his decision to charge tuition any kind of broad-based legitimacy.

On Friday, Kevin Slavin — one of the most outspoken opponents of charging tuition at Cooper — was elected to the position of alumni trustee for the period from December 2013 to September 2017. Slavin didn’t even run: he was a write-in, a protest at the way in which Cooper’s trustees seem to be unaccountable to anybody. The vote wasn’t for Slavin, so much as it was against Bharucha, and Epstein, and everybody else on the board who has consistently downplayed their own culpability in the Cooper fiasco.

Charging tuition doesn’t solve Cooper’s financial problems — far from it. In order for Cooper to get onto a sustainable footing, it’s going to need to regain the admiration of multiple constituencies, including current students, alumni, current faculty, and prospective students. It’s pretty clear that the board isn’t going to get that support by blustering and stonewalling and pretending that they didn’t do anything wrong. So maybe, if and when Bharucha manages to find a new communications chief, that person could start by persuading the board to give a full explanation of — and take full responsibility for — everything which went wrong.