Cooper Union Upheaval

The president and five trustees resign, saying their vision for the embattled college is substantially different than that of the rest of the board.

June 11, 2015
 
Jamshed Bharucha

It was a matter of hours from when the resignations of five Cooper Union trustees rolled in until their names were erased from the college’s website.

And it was a day later that the President Jamshed Bharucha announced he too would resign, more than a year before his employment contract expires.

Yet the upheaval that led to the acrimonious departures has been years in the making.

Recent controversial decisions -- including the board's announcement last year that Cooper Union would abandon its tuition-free model -- and the dismissal of Bharucha, who is deeply unpopular with many student and alumni groups and the New York State attorney general, have led to contention and unrest at the New York City college, especially among the leadership ranks.

Cooper Union is a well-regarded training ground composed of three colleges for artists, architects and engineers that, until last academic year, provided free education to students since its founding in the mid-1800s. It was unusual among private colleges, especially those that aren't work colleges, in having been free to students for so long.

Five members of the 23-member Board of Trustees resigned Tuesday, with three openly citing dissatisfaction with college’s direction. They are staunch supporters of Bharucha, a three-year veteran of the Cooper Union's top post who announced his own resignation, effective July 1, on Wednesday evening.

Under Bharucha’s leadership, the college began charging tuition as a way to dig itself out of annual operating deficits of more than $15 million. Deficits existed long before Bharucha took office, and many allege they were exacerbated by poor real estate decisions that also predate the president. Cooper Union has a $723 million endowment.

Bharucha has argued that charging tuition is essential to keep the quality of Cooper Union high, and that the university is providing student aid to continue access for low-income students.

"The focus of my presidency has been to secure Cooper’s finances for generations of deserving students in the future, while preserving excellence and increasing socioeconomic access," the president wrote in a collegewide email announcing his resignation.

Bharucha’s approach received heavy opposition from students, alumni and faculty, who believe charging for attendance is against the mission of Peter Cooper, an industrialist who founded the college nearly 170 years ago to educate the working class.

He had also lost the backing of the board.

In a recent vote trustees -- reportedly under pressure from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman -- voted 13 to 6 not to renew Bharucha’s contract when it expires next year. Although the vote was not made public, the five who resigned were likely among those who wanted to renew the contract, at least based on their public statements.

In their resignations, the departing trustees were harsh in their criticisms of the college.

“If the schools fail in the future, it will not be due to the change in the scholarship policy,” wrote former chairman of the board Mark Epstein, who pledged to withdraw his financial support of the college. “It will be due to the organized opposition to it.”

Added trustee Monica Vachher, “The board is unwilling to make or support often difficult decisions that would be in the long-term best interests of the institution.”

Advocates of reverting back to a free model filed a lawsuit in 2014 in the New York Supreme Court alleging that the board, in deciding to charge tuition, breached its fiduciary duty to protect the college’s mission. They argue that the college is not allowed to charge tuition without permission from public authorities, and sought changes in the administration and governance.

The lawsuit has made little progress since it was filed last year, and Cooper Union administrators are seeking to have it dismissed. But Schneiderman in March began investigating the college's financial troubles and its decision to start charging tuition.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Schneiderman’s office is unhappy with a lack of transparency from Bharucha and was advocating for his departure. The April vote to dismiss Bharucha was in part a response to Schneiderman’s investigation.

"Our investigation into finance and governance issues at Cooper Union is still ongoing, and we are pleased that recent discussions with members of the board and school community have been both cooperative and productive," said Matt Mittenthal, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, in a statement.

Many who have spent years advocating against a tuition model celebrated the recent resignations. Some have been calling for the resignations of the president and certain board members for years, and see recent events as a victory.

“There’s some kind of sea change taking place,” said Casey Gollan, a 2013 Cooper Union graduate and an organizer of Free Cooper Union, one of several advocacy groups that has fought the tuition model.

“The trustees, even in the way they resigned, make it so much about themselves and their egos and leaving in a huff that we haven’t been able to get a real accounting of the situation,” Gollan said. “I think we’re going to see a lot less obstruction in terms of moving forward with a free Cooper Union.”

The Committee to Save Cooper Union, a group affiliated with the ongoing lawsuit, has been one of the most vocal organizations calling for the president's resignation.

"We hope that this resignation marks the beginning of a new chapter for Cooper Union – one that honors Peter Cooper's mission of free tuition, transparency and fiscal conservatism that has benefited thousands of students over the years," the group said in a statement.  

Epstein, in his resignation letter, said he is not acquiescing to his detractors.

“There are some in the Cooper community that will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort. I am not resigning due to any pressure from that group, rather that I no longer want to associate with them,” he wrote. “Although I respect the rights of those of the faculty, alumni and students to act as they see fit, I no longer want to support them.”

Not all faculty and students were dissatisfied with the president and the decision to begin charging tuition.

"Faced with a small but vocal community of belligerent protestors who refused to do the math, and an overzealous attorney general, the board lost its nerve and its way," three faculty members -- Eric Lima, George Sidebotham and Alan Wolf -- wrote in a joint statement. The trio belongs to a group in support of changes at the college. "We have lost our best and brightest leaders."

Attempts to contact trustees went unanswered or were denied, but Richard Lincer, chair of Cooper Union’s board, did provide a statement saying all board members were given equal opportunity to offer opinions on the college’s future.

“At the end of the day, all decisions -- including those the resigning members dissent from -- have been approved by overwhelming majorities of the board,” he said.

Yet those who are not on the board have accused trustees of being opaque. For example, the board does not make its votes public (the vote on Bharucha’s contract was leaked), and it’s often unclear by what margin new measures pass.

“The board of trustees hasn't been very transparent regarding the future direction of the school,” said Daniel Lepek, an engineering professor and a member of Cooper Union’s Faculty-Student Senate, which is charged with advising the Board of Trustees on academic issues.

In a separate statement, the board said it was grateful for Bharucha's service: "The financial exigencies with which he was confronted upon his arrival were not of his making and he deserves credit for sounding the alarm about the need to take urgent action to ensure Cooper Union’s long-term financial sustainability."

Cooper Union's vice president for finance and administration, William Mea, will serve as interim president as the college searches for a new leader. Mea joined the institution in September 2014. Bharucha will become a visiting scholar at Harvard University in the Graduate School of Education.

The trustees who resigned include Epstein, a real estate manager and longtime board member; Vachher, an investment banker; architect François De Menil; Vassar College president Catharine Hill; and Daniel Libeskind, architect of the World Trade Center redevelopment.

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