This Group Just Sued a New York School to Demand Free Education

After more than 150 years of no tuition, Cooper Union plans to start charging its students this fall.
Cooper Union's new academic building. (Photo: Jacques Beauchamp/Getty Images)
Jun 5, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

American inventor Peter Cooper founded Manhattan-based Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art with one goal: to provide education that was “free and open to all.” The institution has since observed a 150-year tradition of no tuition. But beginning this fall, students will have to pony up more than $19,000 annually to go to the college. After a year of protests—including a two-month occupation of the school president’s office, which was documented in the film Ivory Tower—students, professors, and alumni have joined forces to file a lawsuit against Cooper Union’s board of trustees.

The Committee to Save Cooper Union went to the New York State Supreme Court last week to seek an injunction just in time to stop the college’s plan to start charging tuition this year. The petition asks for the formation of the Associates of Cooper Union, an elected council, to keep the board of trustees in check. It also demands an audit of Cooper Union’s finances, alleging that the trustees weakened the financial health of the college when they built a $165 million building that was completed in 2009.

Justin Harmon, a spokesperson for Cooper Union, told The Wall Street Journal, “The decision to charge tuition was tremendously difficult, and every member of the Cooper community feels the profound effect it has had.… We are disappointed that the Committee to Save Cooper Union would choose costly litigation over constructive conversation.”

According to Casey Gollan, a Cooper Union alumni and CSCU member, an elected group put together a financial plan last year to sustain the school while keeping its tradition of free education. President Jamshed Bharucha and the board rejected it after review. “At that point it became clear that it’s not a financial decision that the board is charging tuition. They just don’t believe in free education,” Gollan says.

CSCU started a crowdfunding campaign last month to pay for the legal fees and expects proceedings within the next three months. If the group achieves its goal of preserving free tuition at the school, any leftover funds will be donated to Cooper Union. If the college executes its plan to charge fees, CSCU promises to donate the remaining crowdsourced money to a “worthy educational cause.”

For Gollan, who graduated in 2013, it’s not just about the education of future Cooper Union students. “We’re talking about this general idea that education should be free to all,” he says. “It’s the foundation of society and democracy.”

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is collaborating with Samuel Goldwyn Films on the distribution of the documentary Ivory Tower.