Inside the Cooper Union Occupation’s First Hours
Since last Wednesday, students at Cooper Union, a private free university in New York City, have staged an occupation of the president’s office in protest of the announcement that the school will begin charging tuition. As the occupation now goes into its second week, let me recall my eight-hour visit during its first full day: Thursday, May 9.
That morning, students took to President Jamshed Bharucha’s office demanding that he resign over his proposal to introduce tuition, a policy that would break the school’s 155-year tradition of free education. Later that day, all nine of Cooper’s full-time art faculty and some 200 students signed a statement of no confidence against Bharucha.
The administration repeatedly warned the occupiers — by then more than 100 engineering, architecture and art students — that they could face disciplinary actions, which could include being denied their degrees. The administration then proceeded to block the water fountains on the seventh floor with plywood and screwed the bathroom doors shut. It sent armed guards into the building. (The administration later said it wasn’t aware the guards would be armed.)
Yet the siege quickly broke. Administrators had told students that they would be given an ultimatum to leave in the early afternoon, but, later, they moved the deadline to 6:30 P.M. The students stayed put, and around 7:30 P.M. Vice President TC Westcott came into the president’s office and discussed options with the students. She said that the security guards and police were standing down and that Bharucha wanted to speak with them. Many students were distrustful, and someone asked her to explain why the administration locked students out of the bathrooms.
“The logic was that we wanted you to leave,” Westcott replied. She said that the administration was still considering its next moves.
For a few hours, students strategized over pizza in a post-ultimatum haze. Mike D’Ambrose, a master’s engineering student, explained the rationale of the campaign.
“It’s a one-way street once you start charging tuition,” he said, citing the City College of New York, which abandoned its commitment to free education in 1976 and never looked back. Bharucha made headlines when he announced a new plan for the university that called for sliding scale tuition based on need, meaning that some students would pay as high as $19,000 while others would still receive full scholarship.
Saar Shemesh, a transfer student studying art, feels that tuition would change the character of the historic institution: “It would mess up the dynamic that we’ve created here.” To Shemesh, it’s crucial that students are “not indebted to their parents, and not indebted to the government.” She transferred to Cooper from Brooklyn College, and she said that whereas socio-economic lines divide many campuses, Cooper Union stands out as an exception.
Around 9:30 P.M., Saskia Bos, the dean of the Cooper Union School of Art, and Sam Messer, the associate dean of the Yale School of Art, arrived at the occupation. Broadcast over the Free Cooper Union live-stream, Messer asked the students, “But how will this end? President Bharucha is not going to step down in the next week.” Victoria Sobel, an art student in her senior year who has helped organize the occupation, replied, “Why are you so sure? We were told two hours ago that we would be forced out, and we’re still here.”
The students appeared divided whether to speak with President Bharucha, an opportunity Bos was offering to arrange. Casey Gollan, an art school senior, rejected the offer — to applause from the room — explaining that Cooper students could arrange to meet with the president at any time as part of university policy. Still, last week when Gollan tried to arrange one of these meetings, Bharucha didn’t show up. “It’s called university governance,” Gollan said. “And we’ve seen how it doesn’t work.”