Cooper Union students, who have been occupying the offices of the school’s president for more than two months, have announced that they’re moving out. Free Cooper Union started when the Board of Trustees announced that they would begin charging tuition next year–a departure from 111 years of free tuition for admitted students.
The student protesters were stalwarts, maintaining a constant presence of dozens of students through the end of the school year and beyond. What got them out?
As the (former) Occupiers, administration, and trustees of Cooper Union announced on the school’s website, the administration and the students negotiated a deal that will allow politics to continue in a less disruptive way. The Occupiers get amnesty for anything they might have done in the struggle, providing they agree to obey school rules in the future. They also won the creation of a new Working Group which will be charged with finding ways to restore a tuition-free education. The agreement stipulates student and faculty membership in the Working Group, and that if outside financial expertise is needed, it will be provided from acknowledged experts on finance at elite universities (none of which are tuition free).
This may be the best deal the students could get; after all, their occupation couldn’t go on forever, and they were well-aware that the administration had the capacity to end it summarily by calling in the police. But it’s hard to think that this working group will reverse the trustees’ decision to charge tuition. Really, creating this kind of special commission/working group/ad hoc committee, is a common tactic for taking the steam out of protests. (This is, by the way, what Lindsey Lupo’s fine book is all about.)
Cooper Union’s tuition-free model apparently collapsed during the Great Recession when rent from its primary asset, the Chrysler Building, faltered. Outside experts deplored the school’s failure to develop a diversified portfolio over the years, or to build a more sustainable model for funding its program. A Working Group can rehash all of this.
But earnest, intelligent, and hard-working students in the new Working Group will be sitting at the table with far more sophisticated financial players, people who will tell them how much they regret having to charge tuition, and how committed they are to making sure that needy students will get sufficient financial aid to be able to attend Cooper Union. They might even be telling the truth. Students will have to manage their classes, their own finances, and their post-college aspirations. The next generation of Cooper Union students will enter the school with individual plans for managing the new tuition and debt. It will be extremely difficult to reopen the tuition issue in a serious way. Students will have been heard, then herded into an institutional politics that’s unlikely to generate anything they imagined they wanted.
This is the kind of thing that most people think of when they use the word, COOPTATION.
Full disclosure: many years ago, on a less important issue and with a much less developed protest, I was part of a group that signed off on such a deal. We got to make a presentation to the Board of Trustees, and I sat on a special committee that discussed space for a year. I wish the Cooper Union students a better fate.