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What Save Cooper Union Means

A personal account of the student protests around the end of a tuition-free Cooper Union.

Alice Yang

In a different time, entrepreneur and philanthropist Peter Cooper founded the free school Cooper Union in 1859 with the intention to build an educational institution as “free as air and water”. The three schools within it, Art, Architecture, and Engineering, are trade schools that have the purpose of constructing the city within which the school is located. The school was meant to be integrated into the community that surrounded it and to serve the city. This was a time when Enlightenment ideals of education were esteemed and tax exemptions first began to encourage the founding of private charities, particularly in the Northeast. (The institution of charity, similar to that of education, began within organized religion as a tool to extend power and, later, was used by capitalism to prevent insurrection.) Cooper, armed with a mixture of politics and morality, founded his school to provide practical education to those in the working class so that they could compete in business affairs as well as to educate citizens to represent themselves better for the benefit of a democracy. Its aims, like Cooper’s views, were capitalistic and democratic and its method was that of upward social mobility through education. The school was free so that its admittance would, ideally, be egalitarian.

When I began at the Cooper Union in 2010, the school was still free and the troubles had not yet begun. Though it was located in New York City, its student population was much whiter and much more privileged than that of the city. At the time of my application, the school wore the byproducts of elitism due to its free cost as well because it was able act selectively with admissions in a country teeming with $40,000 tuitions as well as play the part of “not your parents’ school” with its eccentric reputation.

The first tidbit of gossip about what would be later termed “the financial crisis” was about St. Marks Bookstore having to close its 3rd Avenue and 9th Street location because the school was raising its rent to tens of thousands of dollars a month. This upset the citizens of the East Village, the very community the school was supposed to serve, from whom the school was already alienated due to the construction of the New Academic building, a monstrosity made of glass and steel complete with its starchitect’s last initial stamped on one side. This is the same building the administrators at Cooper later blamed for their lack of funds and the one that the Cooper community blamed the administrators for erecting in the first place, naming it as financial mismanagement.

In 2011, two years after the completion of the new building, the school began publicizing claims of its financial demise. In 2013, plans of charging tuition leaked to students from anonymous faculty members and shortly thereafter, the school announced an assembly through email at 7:00 AM. The assembly took place that same morning, a few hours after the email was sent, where Mark Epstein, Chair of the Board of Trustees at the time, unceremoniously announced to the student body the decision to charge tuition. The rest of the day was conducted like a funeral rite complete with lit candles and impassioned speeches. Somebody lit his hat on fire and cried.

At the end of the semester before, the ritual End of the Year Art Show had been held. This time, there were serial debates that never seemed to reach any conclusion and never seemed to want to end. The idea debated was to give the artworks in the show to its visitors for free in the spirit of Peter Cooper's initial vision of freedom and community. A portion of the students, mostly graduating seniors, disagreed. They did not want to lose the portfolio that they felt could be used in graduate school applications or for sale in the business of art commodification. These seniors had spent the majority of their education within a school that had no crisis, was elite because of its free price, and work long and hard in the competitive isolation of their studio practices. If the loss of the school's token prestige was threatening to the particular elitism coloring their diploma, the free show that devalued art in favor of the political was equally threatening. Eventually, the show was divided into two parts. All artwork except those shown in New Academic Building (yes, that New Academic Building) was free for the public to take.

The First Protests

The first protests at the school coincided with the Occupy Wall Street movement growing in the Financial District and a handful of students had left school to become active in Occupy. On 1T day in 2012, the day that student debt reached one trillion dollars in the United States, protestors owing upwards of $100,000 in debt burned bills from Sally Mae at Union Square before marching down Broadway and making a detour to Cooper. The unspoken point of tension was that few people from the only school visited in this mass protest actually owed that much in debt due to the free tuition and many Cooper students had the luxury of not even knowing what Sally Mae was. Only when the movement dwindled in 2013 and the student protestors returned to art school, bringing the energy and tactics of OWS with them, did post-Occupy organizations such as Student Bloc NYC and All in the Red, including members from Columbia, NYU, Medgar Evers, and the CUNY schools, activate Cooper Union by using it as a discussion and planning space. The returned students, Victoria Sobel in particular, became new leaders in the continued but very different student action. When May Day 2013 came, students gathered in Peter Cooper Park constructed a Free University, truly open and free to all. The Free University was more of an idea than anything else but it was an idea that, made an appearance, needed no funding, and involved more bodies than an admissions officer could count.

In the beginning, the fear was that the school would change to be more like everywhere else. This was an alienating and stagnating feeling that crippled the institution. No amount of talk within the school itself could do anything to alter this feeling and the all-too-quickly-consuming grief rendered students and faculty passive. Only later, through action, not always thought out nor overly smart nor perfect but always eventful, participatory, and, for the first time, truly involving students all over the city, did that feeling of education gone stale begin to turn into something else. Newer protestors cared less about what the school used to be like, knew it was gone for good, and talked more about what was happening on a larger scale. They wanted to not only keep Cooper free but to create possibilities that had not existed before and did not have to stay within the Cooper Union. In the end it wasn’t the free Cooper Union that mattered but the students who rallied around and believed in that free education regardless of where they came from. Even in the height of this second protest, within the space of the occupation of the president's office that lasted two months, it felt like the protesters in the event of the protest were watching themselves watch the virtual but real protest of communicating the event to the elsewhere. Occupiers read Facebook comments and watched the Twitter activity that justified the real action.

Ivory Tower

In the film Ivory Tower much criticism was aimed at the alienating aspects of higher education, that the demographic-based marketing tactics of administrators in universities and colleges results in young people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds learning to socialize together in specific and predicable patterns. Higher education is becoming more stratified in terms of class and the idea that it brings about social mobility is increasingly harder to justify. The campus itself becomes a micro-environment more and more irrelevant to anything other than itself. The story has only become more complicated with the rise of foreign students willing to pay and to pay more than the average American student, with school administrators, who have more power and bigger paychecks than ever, eagerly recruiting these students both on and offline, and Chinese prep schools specifically teaching high school students how to apply for American universities. (Inside Cooper's president's office I found a copy of a magazine that spelled out Chinese social media for school administrators wanting to better recruit students of this demographic).

It isn’t just that American schools are the site of WASPy associations becoming tighter knit, nor of middle class co-eds getting to party before sentencing themselves to a life’s time in the stagnant workforce, they are also a site of aspiration for those with money but lack of opportunity in developing nations with high class divisions. The fear is not that the higher education system is not sustainable – the fear is that it is, as an economic institution, sustainable only as a luxury good affordable for the globally elite.

A luxury good needs a high abstract value to justify its high exchange value. The nature of this abstraction can come from almost any source, whether social, philosophical, even historical. According to Hannah Arendt in her book On Revolution, “Isonomy guaranteed equality but not because all men were born or created equal, but, on the contrary, because men were by nature not equal, and needed an artificial institution, the polis, which by virtue of its [law] would make them equal.” Historically, freedom is constructed, while liberation, on the contrary, is enacted and can never be sustained. And because institutional equality must be constructed, could it be that egalitarianism itself has become a purposefully priceless and vague value that serves to justify the astronomical price of the education product? And in buying and selling the educational product, are we becoming further divorced from egalitarianism as anything other than an abstract entity? Could capitalist, democratic institutions have egalitarian effects in today’s backdrop of neoliberalism and consumerism or are such ideals irrelevant for all and inaccessible for most?

The Cooper Union is frequently framed in hindsight as the last beacon of free education that, regretfully, disappeared. In actuality, the story of its historical freedom is not being hidden but perpetuated and manipulated by the very administrators that want to charge for it. Peter Cooper's intentions are constantly quoted, in vague and sanitized ways, by the Board of Trustees in a familiar spirit of democracy and capitalism. Even today, on the official Cooper Union homepage, the story told is an idyllic one about an institution founded on the belief that “education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony” and goes on to claim that Peter Cooper “made his school free for the working classes”. The school's business class does not hide the beginnings of the institution but simply reinvents it as something, in archaic words, able to carry sentimental weight in the contemporary context.

The protest is not a quest for freedom but a tale of liberation from what being one of the only free schools in the United States means. Neither the school nor its protest was meant to have a steady narrative and its protestors were not politically perfect. It was only in the breaking of an initial narrative, recognizing the old and dead ideals that created new student solidarities. Cooper Union may not be free today and no new ideals have been named yet, but the protest as an event was a space that provided an alternative too many desperately needed.

Alice Yang is a recent graduate of the Cooper Union School of Art. She has studied in the China Academy of Art and Staedelschule in Frankfurt. After her involvement in student protests Yang exhibited in shows at EKA Project Space and LaMaMa Gallery,NY, collaborated in starting a dollar store/gallery "Triple Crowne Goods" and has written online for Arte Fuse. Based in Brooklyn she is a writer, practicing astrologist, artist, and first generation immigrant with a Chinese background.

Copyright © Alice Yang. All rights reserved.