Both the City University of New York and Cooper Union are currently considering sweeping changes to their codes of student conduct, changes which — if recently circulated drafts are implemented — would dramatically curtail students’ expressive rights at those institutions.

Actually, that’s not quite right. Yes, changes to student conduct rules are being contemplated at the two universities, and yes, the changes under consideration would curtail students’ freedom to speak, organize, and agitate, but it’s not CUNY and Cooper as institutions that are contemplating the changes. It’s their trustees.

1479586_10201575413040971_428725376_nThis distinction is relevant for two reasons. First, because many students and faculty at both Cooper and CUNY have spoken out against the proposals, and if shared governance were more robust at either institution the discussions would be proceeding in a very different way. And second because the idea of non-students establishing and enforcing conduct rules for students was once much more controversial than it is now.

There are still some campuses in the United States at which some student disciplinary charges are considered by student judiciaries of one kind or another, and some where students have a say in what the disciplinary rules of the campus will be, but such bodies are uncommon and usually quite circumscribed in their ability to act freely.

It wasn’t always that way.

Take a look, for instance, at this quote from Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Union, excerpted from a letter that he wrote to the college’s trustees in 1859:

“Desiring, as I do, that the students of this institution may become pre-eminent examples in the practice of all the virtues, I have determined to give them an opportunity to distinguish themselves for their good judgment by annually recommending to the Trustees for adoption, such rules and regulations as they, on mature reflection, shall believe to be necessary and proper, to preserve good morals and good order throughout their connection with this institution.

“It is my desire, and I hereby ordain, that a strict conformity to rules deliberately formed by a vote of the majority of the students, and approved by the Trustees, shall forever be an indispensable requisite for continuing to enjoy the benefits of this institution. I now most earnestly entreat each and every one of the students of this institution, through all coming time, to whom I have entrusted this great responsibility of framing laws for the regulation of their conduct in their connection with the institution, and by which any of the members may lose its privileges, to remember how frail we are, and how liable to err when we come to sit in judgment on the faults of others, and how much the circumstances of our birth, our education, and the society and country where we have been born and brought up, have had to do in forming us and making us what we are. The power of these circumstances, when rightly understood, will be found to have formed the great lines of difference that mark the characters of the people of different countries and neighborhoods. And they constitute a good reason for the exercise of all our charity. …

“I trust that the students of this institution will do something to bear back the mighty torrent of evils now pressing on the world. I trust that here they will learn to overcome the evils of life with kindness and affection. I trust that here they will find that all true greatness consists in using all the powers they possess to do unto others as they would that others should do unto them; and in this way to become really great by becoming the servant of all.”

Peter Cooper envisioned a college in which students would establish their own rules of conduct, a college in which the trustees would merely certify the students’ decisions. The students would review and update those regulations annually, and they would — Cooper hoped — do so in a spirit of generosity and forbearance.

It’s a long way from Peter Cooper’s vision to the university administration’s decision this summer to send armed guards to a peaceful campus demonstration.


The graphic that accompanies this post is an image of a printed version of the Peter Cooper passage quoted above. It was sent to me by Cooper alumna Carol Wolf, who took the photo.