COOPER SQUARE — Dozens of Cooper Union students and alumni upset over the college's consideration of proposals to charge tuition at the free university sent an uncompromising message to the new school president Wednesday.
Current Cooper Union professor and 1991 architecture school graduate David Gersten echoed the concerns of many students, teachers and alumni when he called the situation a “grave crisis” at a meeting Wednesday with the school's president.
“It is not that the Cooper Union holds up free tuition,” he said. “Free tuition holds up the Cooper Union.”
Gersten added that the dilemma presents a momentous occasion to address the college’s long-held practices of a tuition-free school ever since Peter Cooper founded it in 1859, saying at the time that education should be "free as air and water."
“We have the opportunity to galvanize and clarify free education as a fundamental right,” Gersten said. “The stakes of what happens here are enormous.”
Cooper Union junior Joe Riley, 21, who co-organized Wednesday’s demonstration, blamed the financial shortfalls being claimed by the schools on mismanagement by the board. The 152-year-old school has said it is struggling to fill a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
“Tuition will effectively destroy the school,” Riley said at the meeting with Bharucha and dozens of other students. “There are other ways, and those other ways are holding the board [of trustees] accountable.”
“There’s a lot of anger here about past financial history," Riley added. "We have to hold the board and whoever is involved accountable for these past financial mistakes.”
Many of those present at the meeting called for more transparency regarding the college’s finances, accusing the Cooper Union of acting in secret and creating “hysteria” within the school community by not informing alumni of problems, before posting an open letter about the school’s financial predicament on the school’s website Tuesday.
“I’ve heard you say that tuition is on the table. I would like for you to hear me say that tuition is not on the table. You do not dictate terms for us,” said a furious Cooper Union instructor, Ben Degen, who graduated from the art school in 1998.
“If the board doesn’t like this, I invite them to open their books," he added, telling Bharucha, "If you’re in with these crooks who screwed up this institution, you’re off the table.”
Others were less hostile to Bharucha, saying they appreciated his willingness to attend the meeting. They said they did not hold him accountable for the Cooper Union’s current financial straits.
Bharucha told DNAinfo that the college has not offered much transparency in the past, but that he is committed to ending that.
“I believe it’s critically important as an educational institution that we tell the truth and that we communicate often,” said Bharucha, the Cooper Union’s 12th president, who served as senior vice president at Tufts University prior to joining the school.
Bharucha said he warned faculty, the alumni association and the student council about ongoing financial problems since the summer, and that he “moved as fast as possible” to make the news of the possible tuition addition public once it became a serious option.
“I came here believing that we always would be free for all students, and I recognize how dearly held this extraordinary value has been for this institution. It’s not something that one opens up lightly,” Bharucha explained.
“But we literally have two to three years in which to transform the financial model. The situation is urgent.”
He said the school plans to create a task force made up of students, faculty and alumni to address the deficit moving forward, and they will come to a conclusion together.
“I think we should allow the task force to collect all ideas and analyze them,” Bharucha said, when asked if charging tuition is an inevitability based on the school’s dire fiscal situation.
“And if we can do it without changing our scholarship policy at all, I would be the happiest person on earth.”