In a contentious Monday night meeting, Mark Epstein, chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper Union, faced a full auditorium of angry students, faculty and alumni, fielding questions for over an hour.
At issue was the question of responsibility for the school’s perilous financial condition and the possibility of an end to the school’s policy of granting full scholarships to all students, which has been in place since 1902.
With fellow trustee attorney Richard S. Lincer at his side, Epstein, who was vice chairman from 2007–09 and has been chairman since 2009, was unapologetic. “My feelings for Cooper are just as strong as yours,” he insisted to the hundreds in attendance. Epstein, a 1976 graduate of Cooper’s school of art, is the founder of the IZMO Family of companies, a silk screen printing business serving the advertising and fine arts fields. He is also the owner of Dara Partners and Ossa Properties, real estate ownership and management companies of commercial and residential properties.
Epstein took questions that had been submitted to an online forum, followed by questions from the floor. Asked who is responsible for the school’s financial crunch, he said, “It would be great if I could point a finger, but there is a systemic deficit, and it is no one person’s fault.”
Before the night was out, he would in fact identify a culprit. “If we have to go to the tuition model I would blame the alumni, 80% of whom do not donate to the school,” he later said. Hissing ensued. Epstein described his time soliciting alumni gifts, noting that some have failed to donate out of resentment at specific professors, even over specific exams.
Epstein bristled at charges of financial mismanagement by the board. “I find that offensive. The part we maintain has brought excellent returns, outstripping most other colleges and universities. We lost less than others.” He said the board had taken all appropriate actions, such as cutting costs: “We run a lean ship.” Epstein insisted that runaway spending is not the problem. “Our solutions are not in savings,” he said. “They’re in income.”
Epstein defended the school’s landmark new academic building at 41 Cooper Square, completed in 2009 at a cost of $166 million. “When the building was finished, the investment pool was actually larger,” he maintained.
In an attempt to calm fears over tuition, Epstein said that anyone who is truly needy would still receive a full scholarship. “[Currently], we are giving full scholarships to some students who don’t truly need them.” Alumni and faculty find such an answer unconvincing.
Adjunct instructor Yuri Masnyj, an artist who shows at Metro Pictures, said in an email to A.i.A. that the result of charging tuition “would be a fundamental change in the power dynamic between students. The beauty of the tuition-free model is that it makes all students equal in the classroom regardless of financial background.”
Epstein revealed that while the financial crunch has come as a surprise to the wider community, it is no surprise to the board, saying that they have kept the possibility of charging tuition “on the table for 20 years.”
The level of mistrust is such that on the Facebook page “Save Cooper Union,” alumni have floated the idea of pooling donations in an escrow account that would be donated to Cooper only on the condition that the board pledge never to charge tuition.
Other recent events have fueled suspicion. Cooper history professor Peter Buckley, in an interview with A.i.A., said that on Monday, Oct. 17th, the day before the inauguration of Cooper’s new president, Jamshed Bharucha, the school’s newly launched website was missing a key sentence: “The College admits undergraduates solely on merit and awards full scholarships to all enrolled students.” It was restored later that day, he says, when the webmaster was notified. “When I pointed this out to members of the administration,” Buckley added, “there was a certain sheepishness.”