During a scheduled Day of Action, 11 Cooper Union students and one New School Free Press reporter barricaded themselves at approximately noon on Monday in the Foundation Building of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The protest was organized to object potential plans by the university’s president Jamshed Bharucha and the Board of Trustees to begin charging tuition in the coming fall semester.
In a three-pronged statement, the Students for a Free Cooper Union said they will occupy the space until the administration publicly reaffirms Cooper Union’s commitment to free education, the Board of Trustees implements changes to create a more open and democratic structure and Bharucha steps down.
At the end of April, Bharucha announced that the university would begin charging graduate students but keep the no-tuition policy for undergraduates, pointing to deficit as reason behind the decision.
Cooper Union junior Kristi Cavataro, a member of SFCU and one of the dozen students in the barricade said the students decided to lock themselves in the Peter Cooper suite on the top floor of the building as a result of the university’s failure to solve its poor financial situation.
“We’ve got plenty of food; we’re not planning on leaving until these demands are met,” she said. “Until we’re forcibly removed, we are not leaving.”
Protester and Cooper Union senior Jasmine Stein said an unstable financial status caused the university to ask professors to create revenue-generating plans, which has strained many student-faculty relationships.
“They have sort of been coerced into doing this,” Stein said. “They don’t really have much of a choice, and we’re protesting against these programs. I think a lot of [the professors], or most of them, sympathize with us, but they can’t officially be united with us.”
However, some students, including Cooper Union senior Andrew Crudge, said they disagree with the issues the protesters have raised.
“They think the administration isn’t transparent,” said Crudge, who also serves as the co-president of the the school’s Joint Student Council. “They don’t think the administration has their best interests in mind. I think the administration is working hard to come up with solutions that are appropriate.”
Cooper Union spokeswoman Claire McCarthy agreed. She said the university has been communicating with students to keep the institution financially sustainable while preserving its academic excellence.
Noting that no official decision has been made in regard to tuition, McCarthy said the protesters represent a small group of students, as most of them are from the School of Art.
“They do not necessarily represent the entire thousand-member student body or the faculty,” she said.
McCarthy added that the university has been in contact with the group of protesters.
At 6 p.m. Monday night, a summit was held at Cooper Union with speakers from various groups that included Friends of Cooper Union, Strike Debt and Occupy Student Debt.
“The goal of this event is to bring the issue that’s happening at Cooper into the bigger sphere of student debt and the rising cost of tuition,” said Rachel Appel, a Cooper Union senior and partial manager of summit. “It’s not just a problem that’s happening for us — it’s a problem that’s plaguing the country.”
Students skyped in from the eighth floor of the building during the second part of the summit and said the group hopes for an administration that can work with students instead of blindsiding them with plans.
Though they did not discuss their future plans at the summit, Cooper Union sophomore Sebastian Quijada said the protesters planned to stay in the room for the remainder of Monday night, at time of press.
Cooper Union professor Peter Buckley, who spoke at the summit, said it is important that people are coming together to have discussions about issues that concern higher education.
“Lots of people have these feelings but have little way to express opposition,” Buckley said. “[The conversation] is valuable in itself, no matter what happens.”
The protest also drew attention from members outside the Cooper Union community.
CAS junior Molly Fabbri, who saw the protest on her way to class, said she is not sure if protesters will be able to get outside support.
“I am a sympathetic party, but as someone who pays $60,000 a year for my education, the students who expected that their school would remain free even in the current economic environment seem naive,” Fabbri said.
In 2009, members of Take Back NYU occupied the Kimmel Center for University Life, lasting 40 hours and involving more than 70 students. The coalition demanded that the university be more transparent in various issues that included having an open account of the university’s budget and investments and building a finance committee consisting of students.
GSAS alumnus Peter Wirzbicki who participated in the occupation said both protests at NYU and Cooper Union are fundamentally about tuition that is rising faster than student’s ability to pay.
“I notice that the Cooper Union students have demanded a more democratic means of communication and decision-making within the university,” Wirzbicki said. “When people speak of the corporatization of higher education, what they mean is that universities are increasingly becoming top-down, profit-driven and anti-democratic places.”
But Steinhardt professor of Educational Sociology and Higher Education Floyd Hammack said the Cooper Union protest is not parallel to the Kimmel occupation from three years ago, as NYU never had free tuition.
“CU has experienced a financial crisis in the last year or so — actually it has been building for a number of years — and can no longer be put off,” Hammack said. “Colleges have real cost that must be paid, and if their income does not exceed their expenses, then cuts have to be made.”
CAS professor Andrew Ross said even though campus occupations are important expressions of student sentiment, administrations do not always respond well to them.
“The need to keep Cooper tuition-free is highly symbolic, and not just for the students at that institution,” Ross said. “The fact that Cooper is free makes it a national treasure — this is how higher education should be. Take Back NYU was about a range of issues, but especially the lack of fiscal transparency at NYU. We have seen no response from the administration on that front.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 4 print edition. Additional reporting by Emily Bell, Kristina Bogos, Nicole Brown, Kevin Burns, Veronica Carchedi, Tony Chau, Jonathon Dornbush and Amy Zhang. Jaewon Kang is managing editor. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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