EAST VILLAGE — Mayor Michael Bloomberg used his own memories of being a poor college grad — who worked his first summer job in his underwear because there wasn't any air conditioning — in a revealing bit of inspiration to urge Cooper Union grads to give back to their alma mater.
At a ceremony inside the Great Hall at Cooper Square, held just weeks after administrators announced the end of the school's historically free education, the billionaire mayor revealed that he wasn't always a successful businessman flush with cash, but he was always a devoted philanthropist who remembed to give back to his college.
"I didn't really have much money to give," Bloomberg told the outgoing students at Cooper Union's graduation ceremony Wednesday, recalling how a $5 donation to his alma mater in the early days after graduation grew to the $1 billion he is estimated to have contributed over his life.
"My first job was working in a cage counting securities in my underwear because it was not air-conditioned in the summer," Bloomberg added, "Over the years I continue to give and as I earned more I gave more."
Graduating students turned their backs as school president Jamshed Bharucha spoke before introducing Bloomberg for the commencement address. The billionaire mayor encouraged outgoing students to remember Cooper Union with their paychecks.
"As frustrated and as angry about the school's present situation as you are, really its future is yours to determine," said Bloomberg, who received an honorary degree from the school. "When you walk out these doors do not leave behind the passion you have shown for this institution and its past and its future."
"Stay strong, stay committed and do what Peter Cooper did — donate what you can," he added.
Cooper Union — named after founder and industrialist Peter Cooper — was established in 1859 as a school for low-income students, offering access to the higher education necessary to participate in shaping public life. Since then, the promise of free education has been as central to the school's identity as has its programs in architecture, engineering, and the arts.
But the college has hit hard financial times in recent years. While the school has relied largely on rent income from land beneath the Chrysler Building to fund its scholarships, that source has not kept pace with inflation rates, said the school's Board of Trustees chairman Mark Epstein at the end of April when he announced the school would only offer partial scholarships.
Incoming students due to start in September will only receive a partial scholarship of $20,000 per year, down from the full amount of $40,000.
A recent New York Times article singled out donations from Cooper Union's alumni as a weak area in the school’s financial streams.
President Bharucha did not directly address the school's decision to begin charging students for a Cooper Union education, but instead when commemorating outgoing staff members he mentioned the school's "recent troubles."
Students are staging an around-the-clock occupation of Bharucha's office in the two weeks leading up to the graduation ceremony, demanding his resignation. As of Wednesday, students were still occupying the office, according to Joe Riley, an art student at the school and member of the group Students for a Free Cooper Union.
At the ceremony dozens of graduating students — donning a small red square pendent to symbolize the movement — turned their backs on Bharucha as he made the president's speech at the ceremony.
Many faculty members from the school seated on the stage with Bharucha also wore the red squares.