Cooper Union is back from the dead.
This afternoon at two o’clock the New York State Attorney General will announce the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Committee to Save Cooper Union, a group of activist students, faculty, and alumni against the Cooper Union trustees. The settlement will impose various reforms to Cooper Union governance, establish an independent financial monitor for the college, and begin the slow, difficult process of re-establishing Cooper Union as a free, healthy institution.
Today’s settlement is a huge victory for those who have fought to preserve the mission that Cooper Union has advanced since its founding a century and a half ago and a final repudiation of the failed administration whose financial mismanagement, fomenting of division, and punitive governance laid Cooper low.
The signs of rebirth at Cooper have been visible for months. Five of the most recalcitrant trustees resigned (in an extraordinary fit of pique) in June, and widely-despised president Jamshed Bharucha quit the following day. Other resignations and retirements followed, as it became clear that the Attorney General’s investigation of Cooper Union had real teeth.
There’s a tremendous amount to unpack here, and I’ll be writing much more in the coming days. In particular, the release of the full text of the settlement this afternoon will answer a lot of questions (and likely raise many others). In the meantime, though, a few highlights:
- Today’s announcement doesn’t mandate a return to free tuition at Cooper, but it creates a variety of mechanisms designed to foster that goal, including a “Free Education Committee” of the trustees with a mandate of developing a plan for the re-establishment of a tuition-free Cooper. The committee will present its plan in January 2018, when Cooper’s annual revenue from its ownership of the land beneath the Chrysler Building will more than triple to $32.5 million.
- Though the lawsuit asked that the state find Cooper Union had an obligation under its charter to remain tuition-free, the planned agreement makes no such determination. Under such a finding, tuition would have been reversed immediately and current students would likely have been entitled to sue for refunds, and it is not clear how Cooper would have absorbed the resulting deficits.
- The Committee to Save Cooper Union said in a statement last night that the terms of the settlement agreement “provide far more power to the community and genuine oversight than CSCU could have possibly gained with its lawsuit alone.” Although the consent decree was agreed to by all the parties, the settlement also includes a cy pres, imposed unilaterally by the Attorney General, that amends the terms of Cooper Union’s governance documents in order to bring the college back into compliance with the spirit of its charter.
- The agreement places two students on the Cooper Union board of trustees as voting members, along with several new alumni trustees. I will be particularly interested in seeing what provision the consent decree makes for the free and fair election of the student representatives, given that the Cooper Union trustees in 2013 refused to seat the student elected to the board as a result of a process agreed to at the conclusion of that spring’s student occupation of the president’s office.
More soon, but for now I’ll reiterate: This is a huge victory, one that many observers would have dismissed as inconceivable not very long ago. The administration that imposed tuition at Cooper and declared war on the college’s student, faculty, and alumni activists has been removed and repudiated, and the college’s governance has been remade according to a vision of community, inclusivity, and free education.
This is a historic moment, not just for Cooper Union but in the fight for free, democratic education in the United States.