On Monday, December 10, the students who locked themselves into The Peter Cooper Suite reemerged and ended their occupation of the 8th floor room of the Cooper Union Foundation Building.
The 11 Cooper Students returned from their lock-in one week after beginning their demonstration and promptly gave a press conference to officially end this stage of their tuition battle. According to Cooper Student Victoria Sobel “We were met by our faculty and the dean.” “We were ushered supportively.”
Over the course of the week the students received many different signs of support. Sometimes in the form of local businesses sending the students bagels. Other times just in the form of mothers showing up. They also were given sandwiches, letters, and blankets. There was a general feeling of appreciation from the surrounding community where they just wanted to take care of the demonstrators and make sure they were okay over the course of their week-long occupation. The action really helped to strengthen a growing movement for quality education at affordable costs amongst local schools like NYU, CUNY (which used to be free), and The New School. From the international community the students received letters of support and solidarity from all over the world including Mexico and the Netherlands.
Within the Cooper Union community itself this action helped to accomplish an even more remarkable task. It convinced both the students and faculties of the three schools (art, architecture, and engineering) to forget about the arbitrary rules which had previously divided them, and instead unite under the common cause of “no tuition.”
One thing the demonstrators pledged to do dealt with their participation at Board meetings. They have asked, in the past, for representation in the meetings. At one point there may have been such representation but no longer is this the case. As such, in the days after the 8th-floor occupation, even if they are not given a representative seat they have vowed to make their presence known at meetings.
The history of the implementation of a possible tuition is interesting as well. It doesn’t start with the current President, Jamshed Bharucha, but actually predates him to President George Campbell; under whom the newer more contemporary looking building across the street from the Foundation Building was created.
Victoria Sobel, a Cooper Student (and one of those locked-in), commented: “I’m generally somehow more sympathetic to him though I know him to also be the Board’s President not the School’s President; and that meaning that the Board intentionally picked him to be instrumental in this long-term re-branding of the school.
So while he was President this new building [points to contemporary building] came into being. Definitely there were a lot of cuts being made but they weren’t as drastic and they weren’t done in the same manner that Bharucha’s Administration has done. But it’s obviously part of something that was building, kind of fomenting.
So the thing [ex-President Campbell said] after he resigned was that ‘it’s a shame that that’s happening…’ and people from the Administration, the faculty [as well], were very critical of him saying that because in a sense he had poised all of those things to happen, and then he was gone.”
Following the press conference, and musical entertainment, I found a few of the occupying students to interview about their experiences, and the impact they felt it had.
Victoria Sobel gave her thoughts as well (quoted briefly above).
Lastly Audrey and Joe gave their thoughts. Audrey was a ground organizer while Joe spent the week in The Peter Cooper Suite.
Audrey explained how “Instead of negotiating with the Administration, the Board of Trustees and the President, the statement that they released today points out that the students are way more powerful as a collective body; that we can actually make all the changes that we wanted; that we were counting on the Administration originally and now we’ve just decided that we have to act for ourselves…and create the structures that we’ve been asking for. Create the transparency and accountability we’ve been asking for. So that means that a group of students who want to see that isn’t upstairs anymore but everyone’s down here. We’re organizing, we know what the next steps are, and we’re gonna continue to do that. Even though winter break is happening next week we made holiday cards so no one forgets that this is going on and we’re starting the first week back in January. Engineering Student Council and a group called Cooper Union Unity is coming around and we’re having an event with all three schools [art, architecture, and engineering schools of Cooper Union]…”
“I have one thing to say about the student involvement in other schools: that is a huge marker in what we’re doing and it’s imperative that people realize that…it’s not just about the people that are here right now, it’s about the people that are coming to Cooper in the future and it’s also about building a model, a sustainable model that can be carried out at CUNY schools, the New School; all these students are really interested in this institution just because it could be expanded outward. And what we’re doing here, and the way we’re organizing, it’s really relevant to other schools, other students and other movements so we just wanted to open that up and say that if anyone’s interested that can contact us and we can all do it together.”
Joe then explained how “Before this happened a lot of students and faculty though that there was a difference between them as to what they could or couldn’t do in work fighting against tuition at Cooper but now that we’ve drawn this attention to it and now that we’ve built a really solid community around it that playing field has been leveled.”
Audrey followed-up with “I think a thing that’s coming out of this is the students are empowering the faculty in a way that empowers them to say that this isn’t an either or situation where like tuition gets charged or the school closes. Basically another conversation altogether which is how can we save our school and put it back into a really solid financial model; but also leave tuition completely out of the question, and I think the important thing to come away from this with is we are standing behind “no tuition” and we think that’s something that makes our school incredibly strong and able to galvanize people far and wide as well as within the school. Engineers, artists, architects, and all the faculty, and I think that’s [something] people are really getting right now and are really standing behind.”
A quick statistic is in order at this point. One way The Cooper Union can afford to give out as many free educations as it does is because of the fact that The Cooper Union acts as the landlord to the land upon which the Chrysler Building stands. This land brings in $7.5 million to the Cooper Union budget. Come 2017 though that number will change, upwards, to $32.5 million. See here.
Overall there is no question this action was a success. Did the students see their demands met? No. Is that really the point though? Not at all. This week-long action was the first stage in the narrative of a longer struggle to change the policies of the Administration of Cooper Union.
As with any other struggle the first step is always to realize a common grievance and unite behind it. “No Tuition” was the grievance and the bravery of these 11 students; and the support they received from students and faculty alike (from all 3 schools of The Cooper Union) exhibits the successful unification of a school previously divided by “unwritten rules,” now united by a dedication to tradition and the principles upon which Peter Cooper founded The Cooper Union.
We will see what comes of this in the months ahead; but for now, we have been witness to a turning point in not only the struggle for “No Tuition” at Cooper Union, but also in the struggle to create a larger student movement in New York and hopefully the important steps to ultimately joining the global student movement.
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