Cooper Union, as it has existed for the last century and a half, is dead.
“As we work together to find new ways to get The Cooper Union onto stable financial ground,” the board chair wrote in a statement released after yesterday’s unprecedented vote to impose tuition, “we will also work together to develop a contemporary mission for the institution.”
Got that? The old mission has been retired, but the college still exists, so a new mission must be found.
“Despite the changes, our admissions will continue to be based strictly on merit,” the statement said. And that will certainly be true, in a narrow sense, for now. But applications have already begun to fall — early admissions requests dropped by a third this year. The imposition of tuition will degrade the applicant pool, and it will change it. The students who apply, and the accepted students who choose to attend, will become both richer and less talented.
How did this happen? There’s a lot we don’t know. Despite the statement’s promises of inclusiveness and transparency there was no specific discussion of the board’s process in the statement — not even a vote count, much less a list of who voted which way. The Cooper Union board of trustees are not, in this sense, accountable to the Cooper Union community. One wonders how the process would have differed if individual trustees had known from the start that they would be voting and defending their votes in public.
The one trustee who did vote in public was Alumni Trustee Kevin Slavin. He published an essay laying out his intentions on Thursday, and a Facebook post discussing the meeting and the vote last night.
“By now you know that the Cooper Union that was around for 150 years is really over. No way round it.” That’s how he began last night’s post. The trustees voted to impose tuition, and the vote, he said four or five times in different ways, wasn’t close. “The consensus was a very broad one,” he said. “Broader than you think.” The crisis in Cooper Union was a deep and old one, he said, and the alternative to tuition offered by the Working Group plan was not sufficient. He went into the meeting hoping to prevent a murder, he said, but when he arrived he found a corpse.
The delay between the vote and the announcement of the vote, he explained — seven or eight hours of delay, if I’m remembering right — came in part because he wanted to be sure that the statement, “if it was going to say something terrible, that it try to acknowledge the terribleness as respectfully as possible.” But there are limits to what a murderer can say to the family of the person he has just killed.
Felix Salmon summed up Cooper Union’s new dilemma well last night. “Something which is romantic and beautiful when it’s free,” he wrote, “becomes simply shabby if you start trying to charge tens of thousands of dollars a year for it.” As the country’s most celebrated free university, Cooper Union was a unique and astonishing institution. This fall, with the imposition of tuition, “it becomes a second-choice college in the most expensive part of the most expensive city in the world.”
There are plenty of second-choice colleges on this planet, but there was only one Cooper Union.
And now there’s one fewer.