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VIDEO: Voices from the Cooper Union Occupation in New York City

Web ExclusiveDecember 05, 2012
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Twelve students have barricaded themselves inside a campus building of New York City’s Cooper Union demanding the school affirm its commitment to free education. Cooper Union recently approved graduate student tuition for the first time in its 110-year history, and students fear the undergraduate program may be next. The students received additional support from faculty members, while the administration has avoided direct communication with them. On Tuesday, Democracy Now!’s Martyna Starosta and Nemo Allen visited Cooper Union to interview student supporters, alumni, faculty and Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha, who walked away after being asked, “Will Cooper Union remain tuition free?”

RACHEL APPEL: Twelve students, just a day ago, barricaded themselves in the top floor of the Foundation Building. They have wood and steel barricades. They have locked themselves in essentially indefinitely.

JAMSHED BHARUCHA: I think it is entirely appropriate for students to express themselves freely, which is what they’re doing. They’re passionate about what they believe in. And I think that it’s wonderful that we have such an engaged student body. Thank you.

MARTYNA STAROSTA: Will Cooper Union remain tuition-free?

UNIDENTIFIED: I’m sorry. You guys aren’t allowed in the building.

MARTYNA STAROSTA: Will Cooper Union remain tuition-free?

RACHEL APPEL: My name is Rachel Appel. I’m a current student in the School of Art here at Cooper Union. It’s now been 24 hours that they’ve been locked in the room. They’ve issued three demands. The first demand is that the college reaffirm their commitment to free education. The second demand is that the board of trustees restructure their governance to incorporate real transparency and accountability, which we feel does not exist. And the final demand is to ask the president to step down, because we found him to be out of touch with the ideals of the institution.

SAAR SHEMESH: My name is Saar Shemesh. I’m a recent transfer student to the School of Art. At the establishment of our school in 1859, Peter Cooper left a very, very large endowment which, through investment and alumni and private—private companies and collectors, has sustained Cooper Union and the free tuition model until now. Free tuition is something that I completely rely on. The crux of this education is that it remains free. And if it’s not free, then it’s not Cooper Union. It’s just like every other college. It’s just like RISD, MICA, Parsons, any other elite art school. Cooper Union is different, and it’s imperative that more schools take the model that Cooper was founded on. I find it just ridiculous that the president thinks that reinstating tuition will solve our problems.

NIKI LOGIS: My name is Niki Logis. I teach sculpture at the Cooper Union. I have been at the Cooper Union for 43 years. I am devoted to the Cooper Union because it is the only tuition-free undergraduate college in the United States that is prepared to take provincial American teenagers, and a sprinkling of others, and turn them into mature artists who are capable of critical thinking and original art making. You cannot have a contingent of students attending any aspect of an institute that had the name Cooper Union on it be the same if those people are paying tuition. The nature of your abstract and theoretical speculations would be different. The nature of where you recruited your students from would be different.

DEVONN FRANCIS: I’m Devonn Francis. If I wasn’t a student at Cooper Union, I probably would not be in school right now. I would not be able to afford a college education. Everyone loves the fact that we have been founded on such an important mission of what a free school means. And it’s not necessarily just monetary, but it’s also ethical. It’s also the idea of you being free mentally.

NIKI LOGIS: Most of the faculty members do support the action of the students. There are many who are reluctant to speak, for the same political pressures as always exist in any power game: “I don’t want to lose my job.”

HENRY CHAPMAN: My name is Henry Chapman. I’m an alumnus of the School of Art 2010. I started a petition last year called “Save Cooper Union Without Tuition.” I think the big thing that happened in the press conference this afternoon, for the first time you had faculty stand up and get behind the message of the students.

FACULTY MEMBER: On this day, December 4th, 2012, the undersigned faculty of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art unreservedly supports its mission statement. The Cooper for the Advancement of Science and Art prepares talented students to make enlightened contributions to society. The college admits undergraduates solely on merit and awards full scholarships to all enrolled students.

HENRY CHAPMAN: And, well, I think it’s very important that the president respond to what’s going on. You know, he can’t just pretend that this is not happening. And I think in the next few days there’s going to be a meeting with the trustees. And then, in January, there’s another more decisive meeting with the trustees. It would be really wonderful if what’s happening out here and the conversation that’s starting here could somehow affect what’s happening in the boardroom.

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