When I was 18 years old, I moved to the East Village for college. From my dorm room, I had view of the Empire State Building, but it was the other shiny pencil shaped tower in the skyline for which I was grateful. The Chrysler building funded my education.

I was a civil engineering student at The Cooper Union. The school owned the lands under the Chrysler Building and received rent and the equivalent of property taxes from this piece of real estate, which in turn helped fund full tuition scholarships to Cooper students. From the steps of 51 Astor Place, then the home of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering, I would look across the street to the other building I adored. Engraved on the outer ledges of Cooper Union’s Foundation building, a beautiful dedication: “To Science and Art.”

Who was this person who made such a gift?

In the opening pages of Edward Mack’s biography Peter Cooper: Citizen of New York, he describes the public’s response to Cooper’s death in 1883. During the six hours Cooper’s casket was available for viewing at the All Soul’s Church on 20th Street and Fourth Avenue, twelve thousand New Yorkers came and paid their respects. “The sentiment from every editorial pen and from every pulpit the following Sunday was that New York had lost its most beloved and possibly its greatest citizen,” Mack wrote.

With no formal education of his own, Cooper acquired wealth through innovation; his list of inventions includes Jell-O, a steam locomotive, and the Iron I-beam. Cooper played a key role in laying the transatlantic cable, was active in the abolitionist movement and an advocate for the rights of Native Americans. He was the Greenback Party’s presidential candidate in 1876. However, perhaps his greatest legacy was the founding of an educational institution, free of charge, for the working classes, one that since opening its doors in 1859 has not discriminated by race, gender, class or creed: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Since its beginnings, Cooper Union provided the city of New York with a center for innovation and forum for political discourse. In 1949, Mack wrote, “there was nothing like Cooper Union in New York in 1859, nor is there really anything like it today.”

Cooper Union remains unique in its policy of granting full tuition scholarships to study art, architecture or engineering to every student who merits admission. This legacy is, however, currently at risk. Dr. Jamshed Bharucha, who took the reigns as president of Cooper Union in July 2011, publicly revealed a dim view of the college’s finances last October. With an annual deficit of roughly $16 million a year and an unrestricted endowment of $45 million, the school’s available funds could be depleted within two to three years. This came as a shock to many, as a 2009 Wall Street Journal article lauded Cooper Union for being able to construct its shiny new U.S. Green Building LEED certified New Academic Building at 41 Cooper Square, while other colleges have halted their campus expansions during the current economic crisis. Unfortunately, Cooper Union’s capital campaign to fund the construction of this new building did not achieve its goal. A $175 million loan was taken out from Metropolitan Life and mortgaged against the Chrysler building. Cooper Union’s investment portfolio was not immune to the recent economic downturn, either.

Charging tuition, Bharucha told the community, was one of the options “on the table.” If the institution implements tuition, however, many feel it will no longer be Cooper Union. Charging tuition to revive the school might be the thing that destroys it.

Current students, who would not be affected by any changes to tuition policy, have staged walkouts and protests against this potential fundamental change in their school. On April 16, 2012, Alan Lundgard, an art student issued a press release linking to a mock website and a false letter from Bharucha, which said that to preserve tuition-free education, Cooper Union would lease its new building to NYU-Polytechnic, and that Bharucha would move from the President’s residence to student housing to cut costs. The point of the hoax, Lundgard told the Gothamist, who picked up the story only to later correct it, was to ask which was more expendable, Cooper Union’s long tradition “dedicated to the value of tuition-free, merit-based education, or a three year old trophy building that is partially responsible for the Institution’s current fiscal turmoil?”

On April 24, 2012, an official announcement was released by President Bharucha with a “Framework of Action” for the college’s future, which includes fee-based graduate programs, online courses and continuing education classes, “while preserving, at least for now, full scholarships in our three core undergraduate programs.“ In response to the news, Cooper Union students joined the Student-Strike on April 25, coinciding with the day student debt nationally crossed the one trillion dollar mark. One young alumnus climbed to the top of Peter Cooper’s Statue in Peter Cooper Park holding a sign “No Tuition is our Mission.” He and another student were arrested during this protest.

Friends of Cooper Union (FOCU), a grassroots coalition comprised of alumni, staff, faculty, students and other stakeholders, is committed to preserving Cooper Union’s “historic mission of free education and the excellence born of that mission.” Over the past several months FOCU has been organizing summits and participatory sessions to give a voice to Cooper Union Community. On April 26, 2012, FOCU hosted a Community summit, and distributed “The Way Forward,” a document outlining a set of community generated recommendations that imagine alternatives to a tuition-based model and affirm the values of Cooper Union.

Over the next few months, as discussions on the fate of this historic New York City institution continue, this series will highlight these recommendations, report on new developments, and also offer a deeper look at Cooper Union’s history and the legacy of Peter Cooper. It will explore how Cooper Union’s struggle to preserve its history sheds light on a larger national discussion about education and equity, and how, as Lundgard said “Cooper Union’s model is worth emulating and protecting, not scrapping.”

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