[UPDATE BELOW] A group of Cooper Union professors, alumni and admitted students are suing the university's administration, seeking to halt their recent—and highly controversial—decision to charge tuition to both graduates and undergraduates for the first time in the school's history.
Earlier this year, the school's Board of Trustees voted to uphold a proposal from April 2013 that would allow the school to charge half-price admission for undergraduates starting this fall. The administration cited the historically free school's critical economic problems as the impetus for the move. But critics—including a group comprised of alumni, students and professors called The Committee to Save Cooper Union—argued that the board dug itself into a financial hole, borrowing money to finance developments like the $110 million-plus Cooper Place building.
And according to court papers filed on Tuesday, in addition to funding unnecessary building expenditures, "President [Jamshed] Bharucha spent over $350,000 on his inauguration celebration — $50,000 of which went to pay celebrity guest speaker Fareed Zakaria." In addition, the president allegedly shelled out "over $23,000 for expensive furnishings for the president’s house, including almost $10,000 on new blinds and over $8,000 for a custom buffet," along with cash to procure private bodyguards and security. The suit requests that the courts permanently block the school from charging tuition and to order an audit of its finances.
Cooper Union spokesperson Justin Harmon told us he can't comment on ongoing litigation, but provided the following statement:
The decision to charge tuition was tremendously difficult and every member of the Cooper community feels the profound effect it has had, but our first responsibility is to the students, faculty and to the future of Cooper Union. We are disappointed that the Committee to Save Cooper Union would choose costly litigation over constructive conversation.
Cooper Union will continue to adhere to the vision of Peter Cooper, who founded the institution specifically to provide a quality education to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Beginning this fall, we have increased financial assistance to the most needy students. In fact, the number of Pell grant students has jumped for the incoming class starting this fall—we are now able to help more of the students who need it the most. And, we have improved the need-based aid that covers housing, supplies and other costs of attendance. Cooper Union will remain among the most affordable elite institutions in the world.
The school plans to start charging tuition this fall.
Update 3:56 p.m.: The law firm representing The Committee to Save Cooper Union, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, tells us the administration suffered numerous financial missteps that eventually led them to charge tuition, with one partner describing the situation in a statement as "a complete travesty resulting from a massive failure of leadership." Added Michael Essl, an Associate Professor of Art and co‐founder of The Committee to Save Cooper Union: "I've had more students in my office crying than in my last ten years as a professor at Cooper Union. Students feel like their dreams to study in a meritocracy have been crushed and that Peter Cooper's vision has been destroyed...This institution is not just facing a fiscal crisis, but is really in a fight for its identity and survival."