[UPDATE BELOW, the short of it: we got punked] In order to keep its well-respected undergraduate education free, Cooper Union has gone and done something drastic. The school's president Jamshed Bharucha has just announced in a letter that, starting in 2015, the school is going to lease out its gorgeous new $115 million dollar academic building at 41 Cooper Square to NYU's Polytechnic Institute. Guess the stories about the school being broke were true.

Once NYU moves in, Cooper Union will move its classes to a still-to-be-determined location (they've set up a website where students can offer suggestions—staying in the East Village does not seem to be a priority). According to Cooper, the lease of 175,000 square feet of space to NYU will help "ensure $20 million in new revenue annually by 2018," which in turn will allow students to continue to attend for free while putting the school "on a sustainable path for the future while maintaining reverence for its past." How long the lease is for is not immediately clear.

To make the somewhat shocking proposition of moving out of its truly wonderful new building more palatable, Bharucha threw in another move into his announcement today. He's taking one for the team and moving out of the school's "Preisdent's Residency" at 21 Stuyvesant Street immediately. Instead he's going to live in regular old Academic housing next door to St. Mark's Books. In terms of showing that everyone has to take cuts in tough times, and softening the blow of giving up a crown jewel, that's a good move on Bharucha's part. But it doesn't mean this doesn't just sting.

Update: Well, that story was too good to be true. A rep from Cooper Union tells us the website and letter we linked to above were NOT from the school. In the context of the school's ongoing financial concerns, however, the story as presented (with a slick website and a legit seeming e-mail with release) seemed initially plausible. Nevertheless, we sincerely regret rushing to publicize this before getting official confirmation from Cooper Union.

Meanwhile, those looking to learn more about efforts to keep the school tuition free head over to Friends of Cooper Union, where they're gearing up for a Community Summit on Thursday, April 26.

Update 2: We've now exchanged a few e-mails with the kid behind the hoax, a Cooper Union junior named Alan Lundgard (whose since-closed still-active cooper.edu e-mail was what caught us off guard in the first place). He claims to have been behind the protest unilaterally—he "felt there would be repercussions, and that I was in a unique position absorb them"—with credit to The Yes Men and made the fake website while taking a web design class at the school. As to the point of the hoax, here's what he had to say:

As a current Junior and Student Council President in The Cooper Union School of Art, I am guaranteed the incredible gift of a full-tuition scholarship. This protest is meant to help preserve that gift for future generations of students. The question has become: what do we consider more expendable, a 110-year tradition dedicated to the value of tuition-free, merit-based education, or a three year old trophy building that is partially responsible for the Institution's current fiscal turmoil?

It goes without saying that Cooper Union is one of the last remaining institutions of higher-education that grants full-tuition scholarships to each student admitted solely on the basis of merit. As national student loan debt passes one trillion dollars next week, Cooper Union's model is worth protecting and emulating, not scrapping.

Although not directly subject to the debilitating effects of unforgivable student loan debt, it is clear to the student body that the importance of protecting Cooper Union's mission has consequences beyond our tiny college. Everywhere the spiraling costs of tuition and the crippling pressures of student debt limit the ability of graduates to pursue the American dream. In this context, it is more important than ever to advocate for Cooper Union's ethos-- without discrimination based on one's ability to pay, but on the merit of hard work and dedication-- that education should be as free as air and water.