The Indicator: Cooper Union, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down

  • 03 May 2013
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  • Editor's Choice The Indicator
The architecture that sunk the architecture school. ’s $111 million New Academic Building. Via Wikipedia

Beginning in 2014 The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (known more commonly as Cooper Union), the famed City college, will start charging tuition.

For more than 100 years, Cooper Union, which includes a prestigious architecture school, has been “free” (full-tuition support to all students). As such it has always stood apart, charting its own path and following its own independent mission. That Cooper Union is now dead.

For Cooper Union to have survived it would have had to remain simpleminded. And I mean this in the most flattering way.

Peter Cooper was not a complicated guy. He made his money with simple things like the steam railroad engine, glue, iron, and subsequently, land, specifically, New York City land. At the time of Cooper Union’s founding in 1859, property in New York City was cheap but a definite growth investment. You couldn’t go wrong. Simple.

This is what floated Cooper Union for most of its history. Imagine the rents all those New York City real estate holdings brought in. It was simpleminded and it worked to keep it “open and free to all” as Mr. Cooper told the first graduating class. That was his dream.

Having received only one year of formal education, Cooper wanted the working class, the unprivileged, to have access to a world-class education. He wanted to level the playing field. He was a true capitalist in that sense. But by leveling the playing field he didn’t mean run it into the ground.

If the trajectory of Cooper Union is anything to go by, capitalism works best when kept simple.

Cooper Union received its death sentence once it moved away from the founder’s premise and started getting creative with its finances. It became obsessed with the machinations of Wall Street. In the 1970s it started selling off the properties that once kept it afloat and tuition free, short-term cash infusions that have ultimately turned out to be like getting tainted blood.

The organ that finally failed was the gold-plated Thom Mayne building it put up across the street. It took out a $175 million mortgage to cover nothing but empty optimism. Turns out if you build it they will not necessarily come.

Things were no longer simple. Times had changed, blah blah blah. The need to be competitive, blah blah blah. 21st century institution, blabbity, blabbity, blah.

Its Board of Trustees, a revolving door of captains of industry and Wall Street titans, plus a few architects, supposedly the brightest and most powerful individuals—majority white men—in the world because they have made vast sums of money, started making decisions that, while they seemed to make sense in the world of finance, would baffle people who actually work for a living, people who make things. We all know where that ended up now, don’t we?

Embodying a simpler approach. The original Foundation Building. Photo by David Shankbone via Wikipedia

As Felix Salmon notes in his Reuters article, “For an institution which was founded to exist in perpetuity, this kind of board turnover is decidedly worrying.” The reason being that there is no sense of ownership or stewardship—there is no one steering the ship. Members come and go. Additionally, a weak board, as he states, “puts extra power in strong presidents.” To attract and retain strong presidents it takes extremely high salaries. In the last year of his presidency, George Campbell was paid $668,473. After he left the post in 2011 he was paid $1,307,483. Nice little parachute.

In just two years there have been 13 board resignations. Seems “The 13” didn’t want their reputations tarnished by being at the helm when the ship went down. Or they resigned in protest.

Such governance instability is not the death sentence. Having a heavily finance- and investment-driven board was the death sentence. But isn’t this is the normal demographic of boards wherever they are and whatever institution they are guiding? The team was following the logic of a brand of capitalism that Peter Cooper would not have understood, though he may have inadvertently helped to create it. This is capitalism that doesn’t produce things. It liquidates, reallocates, diversifies, re-balances, corrects.

How fitting that it is, at last, Wall Street that has done the Union in. All those sophisticated financial instruments. All those brilliant deals that were supposed to make a lot of people a lot of money AND ensure the school’s survival. People DID make a lot of money, but, alas, the school….

It will be doomed to “promoting mediocrity”, as Daniel Luzer says. It has lost its moral and ethical foundation. Without this it will be just another glitzy, sophisticated school, cranking out more and more debt-ridden graduates into the lagging job markets.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Cooper Union, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down" 03 May 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=367566>
  • House

    what does the fact the board is ‘majorly white men’ have to do with anything?

  • House

    What does the fact that the board was ‘majority white men’ have to do with anything?

    • guest

      There is an generational economic disparity between whites and minorities in metrics of total wealth and assets. I’ll let you figure out the rest.

    • Tomo

      Why not? It’s like when a news mentions a black murder suspect or a hit and run by a latino.

      • Ricardo Campos

        Both equally unnecessary. Although I get what you mean.

      • Timothy

        Except that it’s not 1950 anymore. Nowadays most news outlets are sensitive to not mentioning a person’s race unless it’s germane to the story. In this case race was mentioned specifically as a way to call the board’s competence and integrity into question. “White men” was used as a pejorative not as a simple descriptor.

      • Uncle Bill

        No, it’s not like that at all. When the police are looking for a murderer or a hit and run driver, his appearance is pertinent. When you are discussing the composition of a board, it is not pertinent.

  • Michael

    Yes this is sad news that Cooper is charging now. In a perfect world other schools would follow the model of NOT charging or reducing fees. I like the final sentence of the article: “Without this it will be just another glitzy, sophisticated school, cranking out more and more debt-ridden graduates into the lagging job markets.”

  • E.J. Engler

    a sad day indeed…this is not Peter Cooper’s vision

  • D

    I am an architecture student at The Cooper Union. The Cooper Union is only dead until we, the students and our faculty, stop caring. The fight is not over

  • concerned

    there are so many facts wrong in this and Mr. Salmon’s writings that it is hard to start to point them out.

    Mr. Maynes’ building had nothing to do with the financial situation at the school. It was paid for by specific donations (60 million) and by selling the ground lease under the old engineering building (98 million + ongoing tax payments).

    • Ben

      I’m a current Engineering student at Cooper and spend almost every day in that building. Even if it is true that the building was “paid for” by raising money from donations and the land, those were things that Cooper could have done without an absurdly expensive building. There is no reason why that building couldn’t have cost half as much or even a quarter: Choose a less fancy architect, get input and help from professors and classes at a top architecture/engineering/art school, drop the LEED Platinum goal, and just build a building that performs its job, no more no less. If we raised the same amount of money but spent much less, we may very well be in a different situation today, with $50-75 million extra in the bank and probably smaller interest payments on the loan. Given the current deficit (was 16, now around $12 million), that would give us 5+ years of liquidity and way fewer hard choices to make.

      While the building has been built, and we cannot reverse that error, it is still important to realize that our situation is not happenstance; bad decisions were made. Do we really want the same people who made unfortunately bad decisions to continue to be in charge?

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  • Lorenzo

    The Mayne building has a lot to do with the financial scandal. The debt of the school is $ 16 million a year. 10 millions every year are spent to pay for the loan taken to pay for that dreadful decadent monstrosity. That is 62% of the annual debt. Considering the school has cut it’s spending by $4 million and increased donations by $1 million, this situation would have been solved was it not for the $10 millions a year to pay for that building

  • Laszlo Kovacs

    thank you for this article. It’s about time we hear something about this on archdaily. This happened a week ago…

  • Michael

    Was the white men comment constructive? Don’t denigrate based on race or gender unless prepared to denigrate the white man who founded the school. Please focus on actions without the racial or gender suggestions.

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  • Architect

    Although I couldn’t agree more with this piece- and by extension, the broader position taken by many in the profession (not to mention the students, who put me in awe with their awareness), your concern that the board consists of a “majority white men” is completely irrelevant, shit journalism, and reeking of intellectual feebleness and immaturity. ArchDaily, please be more involved in monitoring this crap.

    • guy horton

      Race, politics, and cultural identities are hardly irrelevant to questions of decision-making/leadership styles, financial logic, and how complex institutions are understood. Your comment is further evidence that there needs to be more of a humanities curriculum in architecture programs. But with so much time focused on studio there isn’t much time for reading important books so your lack of intellectual context is understandable. Race, gender and cultural debates pertaining to business practice and the power of boards has been going on for decades. It was a statement of fact. The board is majority white and male. This goes to issues of perspective, privilege, and cultural outlook on an institution that has a culturally-diverse student body and faculty.

      As for “shit journalism”, Mr. “Architect”, you are like one of those concert-goers who throws bottles from rows back, cowering in darkness. If you are going to throw bottles you should at least have the courage to stand in the spotlight for a brief moment before you run. The bouncers will see you out now.

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  • doctor slop

    guy horton, ironically, is also a majority white man

  • joe

    i am shocked .

  • Chris

    As a white man, I’m disappointed that Cooper has sunk the financial ship. Too bad they didn’t bring in a minority woman to steer before its fate was sealed.

  • Matthias

    Put that ostentatious building on casters and wheel it out of town!

  • Nicole

    The NYTimes agrees that it is the fault of the board and that the Thom Mayne building was irresponsible bc who builds a building and THEN tries to get donors (they never did get any by the way). You always launch a capital campaign first.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/11/business/how-cooper-unions-endowment-failed-in-its-mission.html?_r=0

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