Cooper Union will officially start charging its undergraduates tuition, after the Board of Trustees rejected a 54-page report compiled by a Working Group of alumni, staff, students and trustees that outlined a plan to keep the school free.

In a statement yesterday, the Board of Trustees announced they had voted against the Working Group's report [pdf], which, among other things, suggested the school reduce faculty's salary expenses, sell the school's sole resident hall and slash the president's salary. The report, which was submitted to the Trustees last month, offers a sobering look at Cooper Union's already lean amenities, but those who worked on it hoped it would be a last ditch effort to keep a school founded on the principle of free education from rejecting that fundamental purpose. "If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free," Kevin Slavin, a Cooper Union alumnus and one of the Board's 23 Trustees, wrote on Thursday. "If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie."

But at yesterday's vote, the Board rejected the Working Group's proposal, upholding a plan from April 2013 to charge half-price admission and adding need-based aid—a plan that sparked outrage and protest from alumni and students alike. "The Working Group plan puts forward a number of recommendations that are worth pursuing under any financial model," the statement read. "However, we believe that the contingencies and risks inherent in the proposals are too great to supplant the need for new revenue sources. Regrettably, tuition remains the only realistic source of new revenue in the near future."

In a piece today, Reuters blogger Felix Salmon lamented the Board of Trustees' vote, noting that by charging tuition the school "has dissolved into utter banality."

The minute that Cooper starts charging tuition, it loses its soul. It becomes a second-choice college in the most expensive part of the most expensive city in the world, which will never regain the kind of love and loyalty among its students and teachers that produced the summer’s sit-ins and the fall’s Working Group Report.

Now on some kind of objective basis, looked at by passionless bureaucrats, it might actually be a better university. The students will have more space and light, the teachers will be better paid, the engineering labs will be more spiffily outfitted. Slavin’s post is addressed to a fellow trustee who was making exactly this argument — that adopting the plan would cause Cooper to become a “low quality institution”. But as I wrote back in April, high-quality universities are actually much more commonplace than the institution which has proudly stood in Astor Place for the past 150 years. And when Cooper Union starts charging tuition in an attempt to match its “competitors”, it will in the process lose something much more important.


Post-vote, Slavin wrote a Facebook post on the Save Cooper Union page condemning the Trustees' vote. "I will miss the Cooper Union I went to," he wrote. "And I’ll try to get it back, and for the record, some of the Trustees in that room are serious about that too. But not today. Today I’m just going to mourn it, and say how grateful I am to everyone for giving me the chance to fight for its survival."

The school plans to begin charging tuition next fall.