Sometimes, progress comes in the form of college kids barricading themselves in the top floor of a school building. Or, at least, that’s what happened in the Peter Cooper Suite (or, the clocktower) of Cooper Union’s Foundation Building yesterday, in the midst of a diversionary student protest in Cooper Square.
“We wish this wasn’t our only recourse,” said senior Casey Gollan in a phone interview this morning. “Things like walk-outs were condemned, or ignored by the administration.” This action is the latest in a yearlong series of student meetings and alumni proposals to prevent the school from finally announcing this spring that, for the first time in 110 years, it would be charging admission to incoming graduate students. Now, the school is rumored to have tabled undergraduate tuition as well.
“We’ve really been planning this for months,” Casey went on. “We came out of the first week thinking that we needed to act. People came together with the idea to do something that’s stronger as an action, is non-violent, but that is in support of the philosophy of the school.” They’ve reviewed their legal rights and the school rulebook, he says, and the group of eleven art students and one New School student journalist are prepared to stay indefinitely until their demands are met. (This happened last year at the New School, too, but with spray paint. It was cut short by the holiday break). In a press statement, Cooper students stipulate that the administration must publicly re-affirm its mission for free education, that the board must immediately make its decisions more transparent, and that President Jamshed Bharucha must resign.
According to Gollan and a few students on the ground, they have secured all of the entrances with homemade wood and steel barricades. There is a toilet. There is Twitter and livestream. In a phone call this afternoon, Gollan reports just having received pizza and coffee by balloon from the Bruce High Quality Foundation, one of several groups acting in solidarity with the barricade, including Strike Debt, Free Universities, and the anarchist group A New World in Our Hearts. The police have been contacted, but have not yet come onto school grounds.
A group of art students and faculty held a press conference this afternoon as banners flew from the historic Foundation Building windows. They held signs reading “Free as Air and Water,” “Save Cooper Union,” and “Where Is Our President?” A channel two news anchor reported on the scene. At least four teachers from the School of Art had spoken in favor of the school re-affirming its commitment to free education.
Students widely reported that President Bharucha had just been cornered coming out of 41 Cooper Square (the new $111 million building, which many blame for the budget problems) by a group of fifty students aggressively asking questions. They didn’t get any answers, though the conversation got “heated,” according to a group of sophomore girls who asked to remain anonymous. Students generally complained that the administration had been evasive.
Soon after, though, an administration member handed me a printed statement assuring us that “the eleven art students who have locked themselves in the Peter Cooper Suite do not reflect the views of a student population of approximately 1,000 architects, artists and engineers.”
The statement goes on to clarify that the school will need a financially sustainable plan to survive, that President Jamshed Bharucha and Vice President T.C. Westcott have held over 80 informal meetings with the community with details on the website, and that tuition is currently valued at $38,550 per student annually. It also states that, in 2013, the school will be reviewing proposed plans for individual schools from deans and faculty.
Alumni have also been putting forth proposals; last year, the “Free Cooper Union” initiative raised $315,663 in pledges which would have been made available had the school have chosen not to charge tuition. A large group of alumni also authored an extensive proposal, “The Way Forward,” which proposes options like repositioning the school’s substantial real estate assets and replacing deans with rotating faculty. Still, though, no one has a completely sustainable solution.
“‘The Way Forward’ is about a half answer,” said Cooper Union alumnus and computer science professor Sean Cusack. “It’s about half the budget if they did all of it. If they did that and then a few things from the Revenue Task Force set, that would almost solve everything. If [they mixed] some of their internal process, plus some of the external process— it wouldn’t completely solve it, but we’d be solvent for quite some time and have more time.”