Cooper Union, the historically-free college of art, architecture and engineering in Cooper Square, will continue to charge tuition in the short term but will transition back to a tuition-free model "as soon as practical," following a supreme court judge's decision on Wednesday.
"[The trustees] may have lost sight of Peter Cooper's ideals, including that of free education," Justice Nancy Bannon wrote in her 25-page opinion.
However, "If the Cooper Union is unable to charge tuition in the short term, the school's viability would be significantly jeopardized."
Peter Cooper, a self-taught industrialist, inventor, and philanthropist, founded Cooper Union in 1859. He never had formal schooling, and believed that education should be "as free as air and water." Since the fall of last year, new students matriculating at Cooper Union have paid $20,000 per year—the equivalent of a 50% scholarship. This fall, according to the school, about 25% of the freshman class got full scholarships because of financial need.
Bannon's opinion solidifies a September settlement between Cooper Union's Board of Trustees and the Committee To Save Cooper Union (CSCU), a group of alumni and faculty that sued the historically-free school last fall over alleged mismanagement and its decision to charge.
Cooper Union's tuition decision also prompted Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate the school's finances.
In 1999, Cooper Union had a $10 million deficit, exacerbated by the construction of $100 million 41 Cooper Square and alleged mismanagement of the land underneath the Chrysler building, the school's largest asset. By 2011, the deficit had ballooned 60% to $16 million—a development that former-president Jamshed Bharucha disclosed three months after his arrival that summer.
This spring, as details of the school's financial trouble spread, Bharucha and five board members who had long been his vocal supporters stepped down.
"The view is that the board is changing," Scott Lerman, '81, a strategic advisor for CSCU said in September. "Some of the most vocal anti-free-tuition people are gone. Others don't really believe it's possible to be free, but they've agreed to something that we never thought they would agree to."
A new Free Education Committee of students and alumni was established last month, and two voting students and two voting alumni were added to the board. Following yesterday's decision, an independent financial monitor will be instated to oversee the board's spending. Schneiderman will reassess the school's finances in the spring of 2018.
Cooper Union spokesman Justin Harmon told us this fall that the board supports returning to a tuition free model. However, the financial "hurdles" are still "large."
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Board Chair Richard Lincer wrote, "We are pleased to have the court’s formal approval on an agreement that... establishes a formal mechanism to evaluate the feasibility of returning The Cooper Union to a full-tuition scholarship model."