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Tuition-backing Cooper Union trustees resign, act like sore losers [HUGE UPDATE]

UPDATE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE POST.

Last night, we learned that five trustees of the Cooper Union suddenly resigned from the board, including the board's recent chairman Mark Epstein. While all five supported Cooper Union's disastrous decision to start charging tuition, Epstein was its head architect and cheerleader. This is an unambiguous victory for anti-tuition organizers and activists, and a victory for the future of Cooper Union.

In addition to these facts, we also learned that Epstein is bitter, bitter man — and a sore loser. Here is his resignation letter:

All,

I am writing to you from under two hats. One as trustee, and one as donor.

As a Trustee, I am hereby resigning from the Board, effective immediately. During my term as Chairman we were able to put the school on a path to sustainability. It was going to be a difficult path with some hurdles to get over. We were on our way, but have now gotten so far off of that path due to the actions (or inactions) of the Board that I no longer want to participate. I know that there are some in the Cooper Community that will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort. I am not resigning due to any pressure from that group, rather that I no longer want to associate with them.

As a donor, I am withdrawing my financial support for the college. Although I respect the rights of those of the faculty, alumni, and students, to act as they see fit, I no longer want to support them.

If the schools fail in the future, it will not be due to the change in the scholarship policy (a major part of the sustainability plan) as some will claim. It will be due to the organized opposition to it.

I’ve spent a good part of the last 30 years being pretty active for the benefit of The Cooper Union. These were not easy decisions to make.

Thank you,

Mark Epstein

Chairman Emeritus

As Epstein's parting shot is written with two hats, let's examine each.

As a trustee, he starts with patting himself on the back for putting Cooper Union "on a path to sustainability," which is highly dubious, given his extensive efforts at alienating and infuriating every single constituency at the school, along with his presence on the board since 2004, which meant he "was intimately involved in most of Cooper Union’s worst decisions." The only path Epstein could reliably claim to have put Cooper Union on is one that leads straight to the NY Attorney General's office.

By going out of his way to state that "some" people "will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort," he's simply verifying that yes, this is an actual victory — of the best sort. And then he tries to cover for any negative effects of this public tantrum by declaring that if Cooper Union fails in the future, it won't be the fault of him, the wealthy trustee running away as fast as he can with all his money, but in fact those who most want CU to remain true to the vision of Peter Cooper.

As a donor, Cooper Union's coffers would be full were it that banks took irony as currency — Epstein is doing the exact thing he chastised other CU alumni for doing. I'll let Angus Johnston explain:

Mark Epstein, who today said that he is “withdrawing [his] financial support from Cooper Union” because he doesn’t support the policies of the majority of the CU trustees, said this in 2011:

“If [alumni] are that pissed off about Cooper Union and don’t want to give back, then I suggest they give back their degrees. You I mean, how do you answer a question like this: why don’t people give back to a school that gave them a free education worth now a hundred-some-odd thousand dollars? To me it’s baffling, it truly is.”

And yes, Epstein is a Cooper Union grad.

It’s baffling. It truly is.

Epstein's entire letter reads with the same kind of pouty harumphing that a child exhibits when he announces that he's going to bed not because his mother told him to, but because he wants to.

But what's particularly interesting is that this turn of events is the exact opposite of what usually happens with activist campaigns in higher ed. Traditionally, administrators can simply outwait their student opponents: most of the dedicated organizers are juniors or seniors so regardless of the ruckus they raise, within several months it'll be summer and many will be graduated, too busy scrambling to pay back their loans to stick around the campus and keep up the fight. At Cooper Union, the student movement (and its allies) essentially outlasted the administration. I'd peg that on two reasons: they 1) were able to keep up enthusiasm and participation over the long haul, maintaining momentum over summer breaks and pulling first-years into the fold; and 2) were able to bring significant outside institutional pressure to bear, in the form of their lawsuit against the trustees, a serious investigation by NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and of course the ongoing negative media coverage as a result.

The departure of five pro-tuition trustees has instantly and significantly altered the balance of power within Cooper's board. Apparently the board is meeting today, so hopefully we'll get a public statement soon. If I were a member of Free Cooper Union, I'd be dusting off the Working Group Proposal and prepping for another board vote. Though first I'd be throwing a massive party. This is a huge victory that organizers and activists have 100% earned, and it's hopefully a beacon that can light a path to a free, open, and democratic Cooper Union.


UPDATE: via email, it has been announced that Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha is stepping down!

He'll be gone effective July 1, 2015. Perhaps AG Schneiderman gave the trustees a quiet nod that this would make life easier for them? I've pasted the email here below:

Subject: Presidential Transition

From: The Cooper Union <alumni@cooper.edu>

To: All community and alumni

Date: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 7:09 PM

Dear Members of the Cooper Union Community:

I am writing to let you know that I will be leaving my post as President of The Cooper Union at the end of June, 2015. Starting in the fall, I will serve as Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the Graduate School of Education.

It has been an honor to serve as the 12th President of Cooper Union these past four years. The focus of my presidency has been to secure Cooper’s finances for generations of deserving students in the future, while preserving excellence and increasing socio-economic access.

The class completing its freshman year was the first to be admitted under the 2013 Financial Sustainability Plan, and the class just admitted will be the second. These two classes uphold Cooper’s unparalleled standard of excellence. With need-based financial aid, we have also been able to increase access to those who can least afford it, as shown by an increase in the proportion of students eligible for Federal Pell Grants.

Jessie and I want to thank all the students, faculty, alumni, donors, friends, and neighbors whom we have been privileged to meet during our stay at Cooper, and we wish you all the very best.

Jamshed Bharucha

President

On June 10, 2015, the Cooper Union Board of Trustees released the following statement:

The Board of Trustees is grateful to Jamshed Bharucha for his service as the 12th President of Cooper Union.

The financial exigencies with which he was confronted upon his arrival were not of his making and he deserves credit for sounding the alarm about the need to take urgent action to ensure Cooper Union’s long-term financial sustainability.

We wish President Bharucha all the best in his future endeavors, and have agreed to name him President Emeritus effective July 1, 2015.

The board has asked Cooper’s vice president for finance and administration, William Mea, to assume interim leadership responsibilities on July 1. In the fall, the board will form a presidential search committee that will include representation from the faculty, students and alumni.

Mea, who is currently responsible for financial planning and budgeting, the controller’s office, human resources, information technology, public safety, facilities and legal affairs, joined Cooper in September 2014.

A few thoughts on the Cooper Union occupation.

 

Cooper Union's current student occupation is as unique as the institution itself.

What started 20 (!) days ago as a sit-in protest against CU's impending tuition has now morphed into something entirely different. The very first day of the occupation, the administration threatened to arrest — and possibly expel — any students who did not leave that evening. Students called their bluff, and the big wigs blinked. Now occupiers have been calling the president's office home for more than two weeks straight, complete with delivery meals paid for by supporters, a frequent stream of guest speakers from around town, and even a chocolate cake created in the likeness of the CU's administration building.


Students in the President's office.

Saar Shemesh at {young}ist has a fascinating first-hand look into the nuts and bolts of the occupation:

On May 8 we began to hold the office space, exclaiming that it was “no longer the Office of the President, but an Office for Over 100 Presidents from the Cooper Community.” We chose to occupy the president’s office to show how we could make the space function for the institution better than had Bharucha – literally taking hold of the hub of the administration at Cooper.

I can't emphasize enough what a colossal blunder President Barucha and the Board of Trustees have made in not kicking the students out. They've abandoned one of the most strategic and symbolic spaces on CU's campus, and are seemingly at a loss as to what to do. They clearly didn't learn the lessons that the New School and NYU administrations learned from their occupations several years ago. As told by the New York Times:

Dr. Bharucha has been operating a government in exile from his home and other offices, doing what he can with e-mail and cellphones. “They have a tremendous amount of passion for Cooper,” he said diplomatically, “so this reflects a very understandable expression of their passion and frustration.” As for how long he was prepared to wait the students out, he said only, “We’re taking it one day at a time.”

And so, with a combination of administration incompetence and student confidence, we arrive at a rather unique situation. Barucha and friends have been back on their heels from the start of the occupation, and at this point they're just hoping they can wait the students out. All the students have to do at this point is give just a small push, and the administration will be down for the count.

Maybe the push is setting up a new, popularly elected Board of Trustees, and keeping the old Board from performing any function beyond disbanding itself. Maybe it's replacing all top administrative staff with elected and recallable faculty and student committees. Maybe it's establishing a student/staff/faculty General Assembly as the supreme decision-making body at Cooper, with veto power over all administration decisions.

The push could take any number of forms, but they would all stem from this fundamental understanding: students are now in charge of The Cooper Union. The President and the Board of Trustees are disliked, if not despised, by almost everyone. The President's office — the Winter Palace of any university — has been stormed and taken. Faculty and students are voting "no confidence" in Barucha in huge numbers, and student organizers should have an absolute majority of all students very soon, if they haven't already.

The central argument on which all university administrations base their legitimacy is a very simple. It boils down to:

There is no alternative. You students and professors could not run things as well as we can, certainly not if you waste all that time and energy running things democratically.

It's an argument that gets decimated on a fairly regular basis, and this time it's Cooper's turn. An administration who cast as one of its central revenue sources "expanded alumni donation" has managed to piss off and alienate just about every present, past, and future student. A President who is supposed to unify and cohere the institution pulls off the opposite, pitting arts and engineering departments against each other, and can't even be bothered to do a real Q&A with students (simply hiding behind pre-written questions on notecards). And, as a microcosm of all that's wrong with Wall Street, wealthy CU Trustees who have no real stake in the future of the school are given complete unaccountable control over hundreds of millions in Cooper's investments and property, and proceed to run it into the ground with absolutely zero consequence to themselves.

As one student occupier suggested, "maybe we don’t need a president at all." A truly democratic institution? For many universities, that's still a far-off dream. But for Cooper Union, for at least this moment, all that is needed is to reach out and take it.

Keep up-to-date on the latest by following Free Cooper Union on Twitter and Facebook.

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