Suit settled, Cooper committee to focus on restoring free tuition

File photo by Zach Williams
File photo by Zach Williams

BY PETER KOO  |  On Wednesday, the board of trustees of The Cooper Union entered into a consent agreement with the Committee to Save Cooper Union and the Office of the New York State Attorney General, according to court papers in New York State Supreme Court.

The agreement ends the litigation over the new financial plan adopted by The Cooper Union’s board of trustees in 2013 and allows for the continued sliding-scale scholarship model for undergraduate students while providing for continued steps to strengthen the governance of the institution and for evaluating the possibility for a return to a full-tuition scholarship model. The accord precludes further litigation of the claims asserted in the current lawsuit.

Under the agreement, which must be approved by the court, Cooper Union will increase transparency and participation by broadening the involvement of its students, alumni, faculty and staff in the school’s governance. The composition of the board of trustees will include two current students, with voting rights. Also, between five and nine of the trustees will be elected by the alumni through the Cooper Union Alumni Association, with one serving as chairperson or a vice chairperson.

The board also will publish annual statements outlining fiscal-year dollar-value and percentage-change performance of Cooper Union’s non-real-estate investments.

In addition, the trustees will create a new committee, to be known as the Free Education Committee, to include student and alumni trustees, with an alumni trustee serving as committee chairperson. The committee will be charged with developing a strategic plan aimed at returning The Cooper Union to a full-tuition scholarship model.

The plan will be presented in January 2018, with progress reports and interim recommendations presented in January 2016 and 2017. The board of trustees will vote on the strategic plan proposed by the Free Education Committee at its regularly scheduled meeting in March 2018.

The agreement acknowledges that, in undertaking a good-faith effort to determine the viability of the full-scholarship model, it is uncertain if or when it could be achieved.

In a statement, the school administration said that Cooper “has experienced decades of substantial operating deficits caused by a consistent pattern of cost increases that have exceeded the growth of its revenues.”

To provide support and build transparency, Attorney General Eric will appoint a financial monitor, responsible for evaluating and reporting on Cooper Union’s finances. The financial monitor will make recommendations to the board regarding its proposals on the finances of Cooper Union and will prepare annual reports. In addition, the monitor will provide analysis and opinion on the feasibility of the Free Education Committee’s strategic plan.

The settlement includes an acknowledgment that, by entering into the agreement, Cooper Union is not admitting any wrongdoing.

Richard Lincer, chairperson of the school’s board of trustees, said, “This agreement will enable us to turn our focus to the future of The Cooper Union in a manner that is inclusive of and transparent to our community. We hope that this framework will enable us to develop and build support to sustain the strengths of this great institution for future generations of students.”

In a statement, the Committe to Save Cooper Union said, “We are proud to be part of a settlement finalized today between the school, the Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and C.S.C.U. that aims to return Cooper Union to its tuition-free and merit-based mission; ensure the school’s fiscal recovery; and establish better governance structures.”

The effort to reinstitute free tuition, provide a full accounting and implement greater oversight was initiated by a C.S.C.U. lawsuit filed in May 2014, which was overwhelmingly supported by alumni, students and faculty.

Schneiderman launched a confidential investigation into the school, brought about by the lawsuit, which culminated in the announcement.

Richard Emery, attorney for C.S.C.U., said, “A tragic chapter in this great school’s history has ended. For the past several years, a lack of fiscal restraint, conflicts of interest and a failure of educational vision banished Peter Cooper and his spirit from the school he founded. Cooper built a completely free, merit-based learning institution that encouraged free thinking and produced some of our nation’s greatest minds in the arts and sciences. These recent years abandoned those values in favor of financial manipulation and debt. Because of the litigation settled today, Peter Cooper is back. Justice for Peter Cooper and all those who benefited from his great experiment is now a promise that must be kept.

“Now, what Peter Cooper needs is all those who share his vision for free education to come to the aid of his school with their time, talent and donations,” Emery said. “We have the tools to succeed but we need the support to finish the work.”

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