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An Open Letter to Chairman Lincer

Dear Alumni and Friends,

We wanted to share alum and former faculty member Benjamin Degen’s open letter to “Chairman Lincer and the countless administrators, lawyers and consultants who have been paid millions of dollars to help craft his most recent misleading statement.”

Dear Chairman Lincer et al.,

I received your letter dated July 18th. I found its contents to be misleading, ridiculous and offensive. The pro-tuition propaganda perpetuated in this letter is an insult not only to the intelligence of the Cooper Union community, but also to the legacy of Peter Cooper and the great institution that bears his name. Your letter’s only truth is in the clarity with which it expresses your administration’s complete lack of understanding concerning Cooper Union’s mission, Cooper Union’s history and Cooper Union’s uniqueness and institutional importance.

It should now be abundantly clear to the members of the Cooper Union community, who you address in this letter, that you do not represent our interests. The Cooper Union community has expressed our interests repeatedly in community run initiatives, which for the most part, this administration has opposed. The Committee to Save Cooper Union is only the most recent in a series of community driven efforts to preserve Cooper Union’s unique mission. It is an effort by the community to protect our institution from a hostile takeover by an administration with a radical tuition-based expansion agenda. The Cooper Union community has spoken on many occasions with a strong voice- through letters, petitions, and protests to oppose your tuition/reinvention plan. They speak with a strong voice now through the Committee to Save Cooper Union. Most recently the community has raised over $160,000 from over 1000 people to support this legal action. The Cooper Union community is clearly responding to your cynical bastardization of Cooper Union’s mission.

I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the specific misrepresentations in your letter:


“Nowhere in the charter of The Cooper Union or other founding documents does it require that The Cooper Union provide free tuition for all as the petitioners contend.”

Is it your assertion that it was never Peter Cooper’s intention to found a free school? This would, of course, ignore the many mentions of free education made by Peter Cooper himself- not only in the founding documents, but also in his other various writings. Mr. Cooper made his intentions for the institution perfectly clear when he laid the cornerstone for the Cooper Union on September 7, 1853. In his address commemorating the occasion he explained: “I design to provide for a continued course of night and day lectures and discussions on the most useful and practical sciences, to be open and free to all...”

The existence of Cooper Union as a free school is further solidified by subsequent documents and statements by Peter Cooper’s partners in the establishment of Cooper Union. This can be seen clearly in the speech given by Abram S. Hewitt on the 40th Annual Exercises of the Cooper Union in 1899 where he states: “...Peter Cooper declared that what was most needed was a school that should be absolutely free, so he founded and endowed Cooper Union.”

The assertion that Cooper Union was not intended to be a free school not only goes against documentary evidence; it also attempts to refute physical fact: Cooper Union has historically been a free school. Many in the very Cooper Union community that you address have attended this free school and can attest to its actual existence.

Mr. Lincer, you are standing in the face of the Cooper Union community, in the face of the Cooper Union alumni and, indeed, in the face of history to make the statement that Cooper Union has been free not by design, but by accident? You would have us believe that thousands have received a free education; that Cooper Union has become a center for excellence and free thought; that Cooper Union is a unique meritocratic institution in all the world, not because of the greatness of it’s founder’s ideas, but rather because of an accidental misreading of the school’s founding documents?

This is the only inference one can draw from your cynical and lawyerly statement accusing the Committee to Save Cooper Union of “fallacious” claims that Cooper Union was founded with the intention of being a free school.


“The allegations in the lawsuit would lead some people to believe Cooper’s financial challenges are relatively new. This is not the case. Cooper’s financial challenges go back almost 50 years. For 19 of the past 20 years, its expenses substantially outpaced its revenue.”

It is true that Cooper Union has run on a tight margin for years. This is why the administration has to be cost conscious. Aware that Cooper Union is in a financially delicate position, why would the administration choose to spend money so recklessly? $350,000 was spent on President Bharucha’s inauguration party. The school has also paid for lavish decorations for his personal residence, a private presidential security detail and private tuition consultants costing the school millions… not to mention the elephant in the room: The New Academic Building. The administration decided to build the extravagant NAB for over $165 million dollars in the face of protests from the faculty and alumni who considered it wasteful and unnecessary. President Bharucha’s salary is among the top tier of executives in higher education. His compensation package is comparable to presidents who preside over institutions that are considerably larger and wealthier than Cooper Union. By comparison, President Iselin (who you quote as being concerned with Cooper Union’s financial condition) was paid about 30% of President Bharucha’s current salary to do the very same job.

The decision to charge tuition is not the result of financial prudence. It is not the result of an administration concerned with the fiscal health of an institution. Tuition is the means that the current administration plans to use to fund a radical expansion agenda for Cooper Union; an agenda more concerned with big real estate and big salaries than with the fundamental mission of the school: free and excellent education. If the administration were truly concerned with preserving Cooper Union’s mission they would be open and transparent in their discussions with the Cooper Community. They would, at the very least, have given the Cooper Union Community and The Working Group a chance to help the school out of its financial bind before opting for the tuition option.


“The deans of the three schools agree that the class entering this fall, the Class of 2018, continues our tradition of excellence in every dimension. And, in the transition to our new financial model, we have not only preserved access for students from low-income backgrounds but improved it.”

“The Deans of the three schools agree to…” do their best to keep their schools running in the face of an administration which has repeatedly threatened anyone who will not go along with the administration’s tuition “reinvention” plan. Cooper Union’s faculty were explicitly threatened that the entire School of Art would be closed if they did not agree with the new tuition/reinvention.

In the face of overwhelming opposition to their “reinvention” plan the administration has acted vindictively and punitively not only against groups and individuals who oppose tuition, but even against people who defend the rights of the Cooper Union community to engage in an open discussion about the school’s governance and direction.

Cooper Union’s Vice-President for Finance and Administration TC Westcott was let go after brokering a peaceful resolution to the student occupation of the President’s office. Her intercession avoided bringing in the Police and threatening an escalation in the situation.

President Bharucha dismissed Dean of Student Services Linda Lemiesz after her 23 years of distinguished service to Cooper Union. Though apolitical on the question of tuition, Dean Lemiesz was a strong advocate for student’s rights at Cooper Union.

Mr. Lincer, the insinuation in your statement that the faculty of Cooper Union is behind the administration’s radical tuition/reinvention plan is patently false. The Cooper Union faculty does not support your plans. The administration has not had open discussions with the faculty, nor is the faculty allowed to speak without fear of retribution. As a proud ex-faculty member I resent that you would speak for the faculty as a body in any way. You do not speak to them. You do not speak for them.

As for the suggestion that student applications have not been negatively affected by the instatement of tuition? Ridiculous. The number of applicants is down. Students are less attracted to a school that has no clear direction, vision or mission. The administration has put a new price tag on the school, but they have failed to define or communicate what is their “new and improved” product?

“Nobody stands more firmly committed to the ideals of Peter Cooper than this current Board of Trustees”

The Board of Trustees will not commit to standing behind Cooper Union’s fundamental mission of free education. Board members have been asked repeatedly if they would return the school to tuition-free if the school’s fiscal situation can be stabilized. The board will not commit to this.

To be perfectly clear: This administration which contends that tuition is necessary as a last resort due to current fiscal circumstances will not commit to ceasing tuition in the future if the immediate fiscal circumstances are rectified.

There should be no confusion here. This administration is not committed to Cooper Union’s founding values. They are not committed to them now; they will not be committed to them in the future. As expressed in your most recent letter, the administration’s position has hit a new low: you appear to argue that Cooper Union was never actually intended to be a free school in the first place.

The claim that “Nobody stands more firmly committed to the ideals of Peter Cooper than this current Board of Trustees” is offensive. FREE EDUCATION is the ideal of Peter Cooper. You, Mr. Lincer, by your own self-admission, are not committed to this value. I will assume that this part of your letter was not written by you personally, but rather written by a lawyer or consultant who may not have been familiar with your own past statements, or Peter Cooper’s past statements on this subject.

I send this rebuttal to your letter Mr. Lincer with no personal animus, but rather with a sense of personal duty to the institution of The Cooper Union. I appeal to you here as a fellow member of the Cooper Union community. I am addressing you with the respect due an intelligent and principled individual. I appeal to your intelligence: I trust that your reason will help you to realize the true and historic nature of this institution. I appeal to your principles: to do the right and the good and to stop your dishonest campaign against Cooper Union and the many who work hard to defend and sustain it’s unique original mission. I appeal to you to stop this radical tuition agenda and to stand with the Cooper Union Community.

The Cooper Union community will not cease in our defense of Peter Cooper’s fundamental ideals. The Committee to Save Cooper Union asks for the continuing support of the Cooper Union community to help us in our legal action to protect The Cooper Union.

Sincerely, Benjamin Degen A’98

Please contribute to the legal fund to help us continue fighting to Save Cooper Union.

Sincerely yours,

The Committee to Save Cooper Union