The Loss of Cooper Union: The Fight for the Soul of Education

Jan. 24, 2014, 9:12 a.m.

Working until the sun rises has a way of making you question your life choices. At 6:30 a.m., thoughts like, “Why am I doing this?” “What am I getting out of this?” and “I sure hope this is worth it” bubble to the surface. Though I, like many people at Stanford, receive a generous financial aid package, college is expensive. It is tempting to try to calculate how much money every hour of lecture costs — and it is all too easy to justify that cost as the price of admission to a high-paying job.

But that line of thinking is gravely mistaken. Not only is it stress inducing and myopic, it also obscures the very purpose of the American university system.

Though it has roots in the great European university tradition, our system of higher education has a distinctly American flavor and is replicated nowhere else in the world. It is predicated on the belief that an education — the betterment and widening of one’s mind in all directions — should simultaneously improve one’s own life and make the world a better place to live in.

The theory behind the American ideal is that if people are encouraged to find, explore and tackle the problems they are interested in, they will be both more personally fulfilled and more successful at solving the varied problems they will inevitably encounter. That stands in stark contrast to institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, where the norm is for students to choose a subject prior to matriculation and then focus almost exclusively on that subject for the rest of their academic career.

The belief that an exploratory education can and should directly improve society is embedded in Stanford’s Founding Grant. Among other things, the Founding Grant states that the purpose of the university is to “qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life,” and in doing so, “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.”

Stanford, of course, is hardly the only institute of higher education to hold these admirable goals. Take, for instance, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Founded by engineer, inventor and businessman Peter Cooper, Cooper Union is a small institution — home to less than a thousand undergraduates — in Manhattan with schools of engineering, art, and architecture.

The story of Cooper Union closely parallels the story of Stanford. Both universities were founded in the latter half of the 19th century and endowed with money earned in the railroad business. Both colleges feature well-regarded engineering schools. Both colleges have always been open to women. Of course, both colleges aim to improve the world through the education of their students. And, at the time of their founding, both colleges were free.

Stanford began charging tuition in 1919 in order to raise faculty salaries and grow the school. Since its founding in 1858, Cooper Union has never charged tuition: every student admitted into Cooper Union has received a full-tuition scholarship.

What does this difference look like? Both of my parents attended Cooper Union, and without full-tuition scholarships, it is highly unlikely that my parents would be in the places they are today. Free meant that my mother could afford to stay in the United States on a student visa and not have to return to her native Philippines. Free ensured that my father became an architect and not a New York City harbor pilot.

Free is a mark of faith in the power of education to empower people to improve the world. It loudly proclaims a belief that the value of learning transcends cost. Free is more than a discount. What better way to signify the pricelessness of an experience than by removing the price?

Two Fridays ago, the board of trustees of Cooper Union voted to begin charging tuition in order to fill a budget gap caused by gross financial mismanagement and the economic crisis of 2008. Instead of staying true to the school’s vision, the Cooper Union leadership decided to sell off assets and then spent $150 million on a new building. This all occurred without any notice to students or alumni.

This makes me angry. Cooper Union could easily have been my home. I find the idea of education as something freely given intoxicating. I could easily have been one of the students occupying the president’s office at Cooper Union last year. But I sit here on the opposite side of the country, unable to do anything but express my outrage.

This is in part a lamentation of the end of an era in higher education in America, but it is also a reminder to my fellow students to properly value their college experience.

This country doesn’t need fewer Cooper Unions. It needs more of them.


For further reading, the author recommends John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University” and Kevin Slavin’s article, “Free is not for Nothing: The Vote to Save Cooper Union.”

Contact Sam Girvin at [email protected].

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