The eleven Cooper Union students who barricaded themselves in a classroom in the school’s Foundation Building at Astor Place ended their week-long protest on Monday. The students aimed to draw attention to the school’s decision in April to charge tuition for some of its graduate programs, which, like the schools undergraduate degree programs, have been free to students thanks to an endowment established in 1902. Over the years, this has made Cooper Union one of the most desirable—and as a result, one of the most selective—schools in the country.
Cooper Union leadership has said that the school must find a way to cover its increasing operating costs, but the students took the position that grad school tuition creates a slippery slope, one that they worry could easily bleed over to undergraduate degree programs. The New York Times reported that students affiliated with Cooper Union Student Action to Save Our School “presented a document by a group called the Undergraduate Tuition Committee, which appeared to suggest charging undergraduate tuition.” Cooper Union representatives countered by saying that this was only one of several preliminary exploratory measures that will be reviewed in 2013.
If nothing else, students succeeded in drawing attention to their cause, arguing that a tuition-free school was essential to the school’s mission. Symbolically, the students camped out in the eighth floor suite named after Peter Cooper, the New York industrialist who founded the school. Cooper, who lacked a formal education himself yet went on to great success in business, firmly believed that everyone should have access to an education. In his remarks at the closing exercises of the first session of the new “Union” in 1860, Cooper stated: “The income of the corporation derived from the rents of the stores and offices and of the Hall, has been sufficient to maintain a free reading room filled with magazines and newspapers, a picture gallery, the school of design for women, classes of instruction in chemistry, mechanical philosophy, mathematics, music, architectural, mechanical and free-hand drawing, free of expense to all applicants.” Cooper Union’s Great Hall as well as its new Morphosis building are already serving as busy venues, but maybe there are more business tips to be taken from Cooper himself—the shops at Cooper Union? Cooper Union co-working space? Here’s hoping that the trustees think as creatively as Cooper once did.