Letters to the Editor

Cooper Union Need Not Start Charging Tuition

November 27, 2011

To the Editor:

I was deeply disappointed to learn that the Cooper Union is contemplating the elimination of its historic mission: providing a full-tuition scholarship to every admitted student ("Cooper Union, Bastion of Free Arts Education for the Deserving, Mulls Tuition," The Chronicle, November 13). Collecting no tuition, the college is disproportionately dependent on external financial conditions, and the current financial challenges facing the college are not unlike those seen during similar circumstances in the past.

When the market crashed after 9/11, the Cooper Union was in desperate straits. Yet by 2008-9, just preceding this recession, we had built the college into what was arguably the best financial state in its history: an operations budget surplus, an endowment of more than $600-million, and projected cash flow that would carry the institution for many years. The Chronicle notes that the college collected $7-million from the Chrysler Building lease last year, but neglects to mention that this will grow to $32.5-million annually in 2018 under the agreement we negotiated several years ago (more than $50-million annually when tax-equivalency payments are included). While this is not sufficient to guarantee the college's persistence in its present form in perpetuity, that assurance is a circumstance the college has never experienced and should not be the basis for justifying tuition. Throughout its history Cooper Union has needed a constant regeneration of revenues from a variety of sources to sustain itself, and that is precisely what is required today.

The Wall Street Journal article referred to in The Chronicle did not discuss Cooper Union's overall financial state. It reported on the extraordinary performance of our endowment relative to other institutions during the collapse of capital markets. The problem for a free institution is that exceptional relative performance will not suffice. The endowment must earn a reasonable return in absolute terms on an ongoing basis to support operations, and no one predicted the depth of the current economic conditions.

I was also perplexed by the quotes regarding transparency. Not only were annual audited financial statements shared, but a comprehensive financial report was made available to the faculty union leaders on a quarterly basis, following each board meeting. Moreover, the college's financials formed the basis of the ongoing contract negotiations with the faculty union and were critically examined by all parties. In fiscal year 2010, I sent a letter to the community proposing a salary freeze and indicating that officers were taking a cut in pay. I don't know how anyone could have missed the fact that we were, like everyone else at the time, experiencing financial stress.

The bottom line is that the college is in a far superior financial state than during similar external conditions in the past, and I firmly believe that it has the potential, the short-term resources and long-term assets, the creative capacity, and the intellectual capital to address the current challenge and to carry on its extraordinary mission, which has contributed so much to the nation's scientific, cultural, and social infrastructure.

George Campbell Jr.
President Emeritus
The Cooper Union
New York