No Longer Free

January 13, 2014

Cooper Union trustees rejected a last-ditch effort to keep the New York City college free. 

Their vote Friday makes it all but certain, following months of controversy, that the college's legacy of free education will end for incoming students this fall. Opponents predict the $20,000 tuition will badly hurt the college, which was founded by industrialist Paul Cooper to educate the working class and has become a well-regarded training ground for artist, architects and engineers.

“I went in to try and prevent a murder, but I arrived to find a corpse,” Kevin Slavin, a trustee who tried to keep the college free, said in an online post after Friday’s vote, in which he blamed years of poor management and predicted a dire future. “A corpse from a tragedy that happened years ago.”

According to Slavin’s account, trustees overwhelmingly rejected an 18-member working group's plan to keep the college free.

Slavin, who joined the board last year to champion its tuition-free model, called the working group plan “the Plan that Sucks” because of the cuts it would have forced. But he voted for it anyway to try to save the tuition-free legacy.

The plan to charge tuition, announced last April, set off a two-month student occupation of the president’s office. In a deal that ended the occupation, administrators agreed to make a “good faith effort” to rethink the highly controversial tuition plan. In December, the working group of alumni, administrators, faculty, students and trustees released its report. It concluded that the college could not only avoid financial ruin but actually end up better off without charging tuition by making a series of cuts and taking steps to raise revenue from things other than undergraduate tuition.

But several allies of the administration released their own “minority report” that threw cold cold water on the full report and argued that Cooper Union's solvency depended on charging students. That argument carried the day Friday.

“The Working Group plan puts forward a number of recommendations that are worth pursuing under any financial model,” the board said in a statement Friday. “However, we believe that the contingencies and risks inherent in the proposals are too great to supplant the need for new revenue sources. Regrettably, tuition remains the only realistic source of new revenue in the near future.”

The board said it might try to make Cooper Union tuition free again if it could. Backers of the tuition plan also point out the college plans to offer aid to the lowest-income students trying to live in expensive New York City, something it doesn't do now, which could make it easier for some to attend even with the tuition. But Slavin and others portrayed tuition as a grave wound to the college.

Michael Borkowsky, an alumnus whose 17 years as a trustee ended in December, fears for the future.

“When you have something that is unique in all the world, giving that up, seems to me, as a very desperate move," he said in a telephone interview Sunday.

Borkowsky said the administration, now led by President Jamshed Bharucha, never really considered alternatives to charging tuition. He said pro-tuition trustees may not appreciate how important free tuition is to the college’s standing and predicted a decline in student quality.

“It seems to me that that’s inevitable: with tuition you’re not going to get the level of applications you get without tuition, so the selectivity will drop over time,” Borkowsky, a 1961 graduate, said.  He said the majority of the board and the administration are simply not accounting for this long-term risk. “If you’re dipping down further down in the applicant pool to get the students who can afford to pay, that’s your risk, that your quality is no longer the same," he said.

In what could be an early indicator of that danger, there’s been a 35 percent decline in early decision applications since Cooper Union announced in April that it would charge tuition, according to Slavin.

About 20 percent of Cooper Union students are eligible for the Pell Grant, an indicator of their income level, but because the college does not routinely collect financial data on students and because there are so few free colleges, it is now set to enter uncharted territory.

Critics of the tuition plan also argue the institution is now listless.

Barry Drogin, an alumni member of the working group, said the mission of the college has been lost. He pointed to the part of the board statement that said trustees wanted to “work together to develop a contemporary mission for the institution.”

“I don’t know what the mission of the college is right now,” Drogin said. “It’s something. It was my understanding that you’re supposed to create a mission then create a financial plan to meet the mission.” What Cooper Union now has, he said, is a financial plan but no mission.

The college receives much of its money by owning the deed to the Chrysler Building. The financial risk to Cooper Union of relying so heavily on that revenue source has been stark in recent years. Besides multimillion-dollar annual shortfalls, the university has about $230 million in debt and other liabilities and only about $100 million in assets.

Revenue from the Chrysler Building slumped in the 1990s with the rest of the New York real estate market, Borkowsky said, even as Cooper Union’s cost increased. Former college President George Campbell took charge at the turn of the century and started a capital campaign to restore the financial stability but the campaign didn’t meet its goals and, to make matters worse, it built a major building before it had donations to fund construction.

The problems boiled over a few years ago, and trustees spent 18 months reviewing the finances before they announced the plan to start charging tuition.

Victoria Sobel, a recent graduate who fought the tuition plan, is among critics who said officials never really considered a tuition and no-tuition plan side by side. Instead, these critics contest, only after the student protests did the board finally look at alternatives. 

"That line of thinking needed more thought, but it's difficult for the board at this time to give not charging tuition more thought," Sobel said.

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