Cooper Union: Secret Transcript of Board of Trustee Meeting Reveals Talk of Shut Down

CS Muncy
At night, you can see it clearly--the corner windows of the Cooper Union's seventh floor, flooded in red light. It's a signal from the students who have been occupying the president's office for two weeks. They're there because they've lost faith in university leadership that voted to start charging tuition after 111 years of free education. They're there because the board of trustees denied responsibility for a series of bad financial decisions made behind closed doors. They're there because they'd like to know what the hell is going on.

Unreported until now is the fact that trustees considered shuttering the school altogether. According to a transcript and audio recording of a September 2012 board meeting provided to the Voice and confirmed by sources close to the deliberations, the board debated closing the school, partially or completely, over the next five years.

For a school facing financial disaster, it's not surprising this discussion happened. What is shocking is the way in which it occurred, with attitudes that reveal a massive gulf between the board and the Cooper Union community--not only in communication, but in how much the trustees have devalued current faculty and students as part of the institution itself.

The Threat of Closure

Trustees have denied there was any ever real threat of closure. Two nights ago, the school hosted a forum with alumni and alumni trustees in the new academic building. When the alumni trustees were confronted with a question from alumnus Barry Drogin about the possibility of closure--specifically, language in a letter to the deans that cast doubt over whether the schools could be "sustained"--alumni trustee Peter Cafiero said a shutdown scenario was never taken seriously.

"There was never any serious support to close any of the schools," Cafiero said. "We had to consider all these options."

The transcript, however, suggests that closure of individual schools--at least in September--was a real option, not just a threat:

The transcript also shows that trustees reviewed shuttering the entire institution for five years and reopening in 2018, when ground rent on the Chrysler building, Cooper Union's primary asset, would jump. A source close to the board's decision-making felt that closing the entire institution was never a scenario that garnered much support, but at least one former trustee in the transcript appears to have thought in September that closure was "the only real way to reinvent the school."

Some trustee comments show a total disregard for the human consequences of closure and/or reinvention. Former trustee Stanley Lapidus appears to have shrugged off the idea that a faculty turnover could bust the staff union, arguing that the jobs were "cushy" and "un-economic."

"It's dealing with the existing guys that's the problem," he is quoted as saying.

Trustees realized if they closed the school, current students would be forced to transfer to other schools in a process termed "flushing." Alumni trustee Michael Borkowsky, who fought against this idea, argued that the notion was a dramatic change of thinking from similar discussions years ago. President Jamshed Bharucha reassured him that this likely would not be the case, but that "ambiguity" existed nonetheless.

Screwing Over Early Decision

Trustees were also considering drastic changes to admissions for the class of 2013 without informing the faculty, who were in the process of reviewing students for early decision. After the early decision deadlines had passed, on February 13 the executive committee of the board of trustees announced that early decision for the art school would be nixed, and that early decision applicants would be lumped in with the others.

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