Students Walk Out at Cooper Union

cooper1 Students Walk Out at Cooper Union

Banners fly outside Cooper Union's Great Hall. The protest later moved to Union Square. (Photo by Whitney Kimball)

A day after Cooper Union announced that it will begin charging graduate students tuition in September, 2013, a crowd of a few hundred students gathered today outside the school’s iconic East Village home, the Great Hall, as part of a walkout. It was the school’s second walkout since November. The protest had been preplanned in solidarity with today’s nationwide student protests against student debt, which has just reached a staggering trillion dollars, but carried new significance after yesterday’s announcement from the school’s president, Jamshed Bharucha.

Students carried signs that read, “Keep capitalism out of my classroom” and “Onward to 2 Trillion,” while chanting slogans like “Education is a human right” and “Free as air and water.” Around noon, a crowd pulled long, pink streamers down from the building’s second- and third-story windows over the circle of protestors. Others looked on from couches and benches, smoked cigarettes around refreshment tables, sliced oranges and munched on carrots, hummus and chips.

According to a crowd of undergrads, the community was particularly upset by the administration’s decision to publicize the news only minutes after the announcement was made in an all-school email. “The ‘hybrid model’ they’re proposing, where some students pay to offset the rest,” said undergrad Casey A. Gollan, “would destroy the school’s one-of-a-kind dynamic.”

This is just the latest in a long series of tuition protests worldwide– some of which even resulted in police clashes last fall. Repeatedly, students at the protest raised the point that college tuition has increased 600 percent since 1980. Cooper Union’s freshmen are annually awarded a four-year scholarship, and tuition is valued at $37,500 a year for each of the school’s 1,000 undergraduates. Nearby NYU continues to raise tuition (now around $40,000), and continues to expand; the university recently opened a campus in Abu Dhabi.

Independently, alumni and friends have crowd-sourced $314,304 through freecooperunion.com, where donors pledge to pay a sum should the school agree to accept it with the condition that the school remains free. A group of alumni and friends (“Friends of Cooper Union”) has been working independently on its own plan, which will be discussed tomorrow night in a community summit and panel, starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Great Hall.

As students marched across the street, carrying the banners in a long chain into the recently-built academic building, undergraduate Audrey Snyder was posting a Facebook update from a bench in the square. On the subject of in-class discussions about tuition, she told us that students don’t feel it’s their job or place to come up with financial alternatives for the school. Alternative models of education, however, may be on the table. “I’m in line with Bruce High Quality Foundation’s idea that maybe accreditation isn’t so important,” she said. “If the school’s going down already, why not throw that out the window?” (The Bruce High Quality Foundation University is not based on an accredited model, and it does not grant degrees or certificates.)

When we asked a small group of protestors how many would not be able to attend college, had they not been accepted to Cooper Union, many hands shot up. “I am a Fulbright scholar, but yes,” offered one German graduate student. “You have adjunct faculty [in the states] who are getting paid next to nothing, and it makes you wonder where the money from the government is going.”

“I’ve known a lot of students who were brilliant, and were nowhere near to having any other option,” said a graphic design professor Alexander Tochilovsky. “Those students tend to be particularly hardworking, because they know what an opportunity this is. To see this happen to an institution which has [managed to remain tuition-free] for 150 years, through the Great Depression and two World Wars—now, in 2012, is a very damning statement about education.”

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