Former humanities adjunct professor Litia Perta recalls one of the first community summits following the announcement of Cooper’s financial problems.

Why Cooper Union Matters

Originally published by The Brooklyn Rail in December 2011

On a clear night in early November 2011, hundreds of people filed into the Great Hall at Cooper Union. By 7:00, the auditorium’s 900 seats were full and hundreds of people crammed into standing room at the back. The event was not open to the public and security guards in the lobby were checking everyone for some form of Cooper ID. The current student body is counted at 918, so it only took a quick glance around to see that the event had drawn far more than just current students. Both faculty and alumnae had also come out in great numbers for the emergency meeting that had been called with Cooper Union’s Chairperson of the Board of Trustees, Mark Epstein, and his much quieter fellow Board member Richard Lincer.

At issue was the recently leaked information that the Board of Trustees was considering charging tuition to Cooper students—a move that many believe radically undermines the philosophy that is at the institution’s core. Financial newspapers and business journals have reported widely in the last few years on the safety of Cooper’s endowment and on the wisdom of many of its investment strategies, and so the news that the school carried a deficit of over eight million dollars during the summer of 2011 year sent shockwaves throughout the community. When, only some months later, that deficit was recalculated and announced to be over 16 million, it sent people reeling. The late October leak that the Board seemed to have decided that converting Cooper Union to a tuition-based institution may be the only way to keep the school solvent was met with bewilderment by students and faculty members alike, who demanded to know what, exactly, was going on.

While financial transparency was unfortunately not one of the results of the November meeting, what did become clear was a paradigmatic divide between the representatives of the Cooper Board and the people who actually comprise the institution.

In the current educational climate where astronomical tuition and routine hikes are the norm, Cooper’s policy is both unusual and unique. It may be a rapidly receding notion, but the students at Cooper are engaged in nothing less than the pursuit of knowledge and thinking for their own sake. The philosophy that courses through the institution is that education is a higher good, one that enriches the individual and, in so doing, enriches the human community. In this framework, education has its own value—and this is what makes Cooper Union radical and worth saving, perhaps even worth imitating: It is operating on a fundamentally different idea of what education is, and what it can be. So unfamiliar has this notion become, so fully has it been absented from current educational discourse, that it now rings of privilege or luxury—some kind of Enlightenment-era credo available only to the patriarchal elite. But when did it become okay to think that if an idea or a theory does not have an immediate, measurable, quantifiable economic use value it is a privilege to learn about it? When did such complacency develop around this kind of argument, enabling it to become the silent and seemingly obvious norm?

Since the 1980s, universities have responded to the pressures of economy by increasingly commercializing themselves, selling their educations as a product. That education has faltered as a result of this is evident all around us. The discourse has become one of investment: Exorbitant loans are justified on the grounds of the value of the product they purport to put out—namely, students that generate income (which then, in theory, enables them to pay off their educational debt). This model keeps education squarely in the place of an instrument within a distinctly capitalist frame, and it has far-reaching consequences. It has already shaped the way schools prioritize disciplinary weight inside the curriculum so that humanities and arts budgets have dwindled to almost nothing. It has limited the nature of discussions in the classroom and the priorities of the students so that it has become commonplace for students to demand higher grades for mediocre work, because of an over-concern with their own marketability once they pass through the institution’s walls.

The danger of losing Cooper Union to the privatized, tuition-based educational model is not simply that we would lose one of the last bastions of non-instrumentalized education. The danger lies also in the fact that it would be like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, as even tuition-based institutions are faltering everywhere. And we are only now beginning to conceive of the economic impact that six billion dollars of collective student loan debt will have for generations to come.

At a time when conventional structures are failing all around us, this seems like the moment to re-invent, re-imagine, re-conceive of what education is, and so what a school like Cooper might be—perhaps even how other schools can follow its model. Instead, the current Board of Trustees threatens to revert to examples that arguably don’t work.

Both the new president, Jamshed Bharucha, and the Board of Trustees repeatedly talk about needing to generate more revenue in order to sustain the school. There are students of wealthy families at Cooper Union who could conceivably afford to pay tuition fees but as soon as the institution ceases being need-blind, it would find itself in the same strange boat as so many other schools that tend to have two admissions lists: those for the students they actually want and those for the students who can afford it.

Perhaps more concerning is that if Cooper entered into the tangle that would inevitably ensue by trying to charge tuition, it stands to jeopardize the peculiar tax status it now enjoys. In 1902, Cooper Union acquired the land that the Chrysler building now stands on. Each year, the owners of the building come up with property tax that would usually be paid to the city of New York but, in a strange series of contested court proceedings stretching back to 1931, that property tax gets paid directly to Cooper Union. This tax equivalency status is one of the institution’s major sources of revenue. While President Bharucha has dismissed the idea that charging tuition could undermine this agreement, the precedent is one that has been historically difficult to defend—and it seems to hinge on the argument that the institution is of direct benefit to the city. In many ways, Peter Cooper’s intention to provide an education specifically for underserved communities—for the working classes and poor women—is a mandate to which it would be wise to recommit.

In all of these discussions, the emphasis tends to be on the need to generate more revenue. What goes unmentioned or strategically obfuscated are the institution’s itemized expenditures.

How much does it really cost to educate someone?

Of the commonplace tuition fees, how much goes to what are known as “administrative costs” and how much is direct instructional expense? It seems that in the turn towards privatized education, a Wall Street mentality has slipped into the mix: If you deliver a product and you do it well, you get a bonus, and that bonus—that administrative cost—is shouldered by the students you supposedly need more tuition from in order to educate.

The annual operating budget at Cooper Union has been quoted at 61 million dollars per year. While numbers have been bandied about that show total expenses, they are slippery at best and a clear picture of how much it costs to run the institution has yet to be released. Some information is available in the public tax record that Cooper, along with any other institution of higher learning, is required to file with the state. And these documents reflect a very disturbing trend. In the last 10 years, administrative costs at Cooper have doubled. Payments to the officers of the institution (the president and the various administrative and academic deans) have also doubled in a decade. This does not seem to have any direct relationship to an increase in the duties of these officers, nor does it seem to have a logical relationship to the number of students for which each officer is responsible.

Similarly, while full-time faculty salaries have gone up only 2.5 percent per year, as is regulated by their union, salaries of the administrators have increased at much higher rates. In 2009, then President George Campbell’s total compensation package was $668,473—which included a cash bonus (for what, exactly, it is unclear) in the amount of $175,000.

I have had a somewhat illustrious career as a second-class faculty member—i.e., an adjunct professor—teaching at some of the country’s most esteemed institutions: Wesleyan University, Bard College, U.C. Berkeley, and Cooper Union among them. I was hired to teach at Cooper in 2006 when I was a doctoral candidate and my semester’s fee for 14 weeks was $4,500. Sometime later, after completing my Ph.D. and spending a year as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University, I returned to Cooper Union. It was the fall of 2009 and I was re-hired by the college’s dean of the humanities at the exact same rate I was paid in 2006. I was told at the time that the budget could not accommodate any fee increase for having received my Ph.D., nor could it afford paying any increase for the standard annual rates of inflation. That same year, the dean who hired me received a compensation package valued at $239,724.

Seventy percent of Cooper Union’s classes are taught by people like me: non-tenured faculty. For the most part, we have no job security, no health insurance, and no hope for a salary increase; moreover, we are generally considered expendable in that, if we won’t work under those conditions, the school can easily find someone who will. I find it troubling that the institution now justifies the need for more revenue without making public its detailed expenses.

The vast disparity between the value Cooper assigns to my work as a teacher and to a dean’s work as an administrator makes questionable the idea that it costs a lot to educate someone. Exactly where is the money going?

That there is a need to re-evaluate our educational priorities seems clear. Something that has gone unmentioned during the discussions around charging tuition at Cooper is the fact that student loan debt is the only kind of debt that can never be forgiven. Even a declaration of bankruptcy will not absolve you of it.

Of all the many places I have taught, Cooper Union is the only place where the openness of thought, the eagerness around intellectual exploration, the transformative nature of a liberal—a liberating—education is both palpable and electric. If the institution is now in trouble, let all that are a part of it see the numbers so that everyone might participate in a solution. Now is the time to re-think and re-structure, to move toward a future model: one that values instruction, one that honors educational costs without inflating them, one that chooses to protect future student generations from the kind of debt peonage that is everywhere. A question worth asking is whether the current Board of Trustees is up for this kind of re-imagining. Is it wise to entrust those who got the school into this predicament with the task of getting it out?

What is needed now is a vision: a way of seeing long down the line to a time when perhaps there will be many all-scholarship schools, when the value of a free education is once again understood, proclaimed, protected. This debate does not only affect the community of Cooper Union. If you believe that all people should have the chance to broaden their minds, if you hope to engage in higher education, if you have children you want to send to college, if you struggle under the weight of student loan debt—then this is your fight, too.