How Is It Possible That the Trustees at Cooper Union Have Not Resigned in Shame?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I was leafing through the paper version of the New York Times while eating a pizza the other day, when I came on this story about Cooper Union, the prestigious and excellent New York college of art, architecture, and engineering. The picture struck me:


(Caption: “The building the school built after it borrowed $175 million.”) Man, I thought. That’s one ugly building. It reminded me of this image[1] from book one of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order (page 358), a proposal for an addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:


I’ve helpfully annotated the proposed objectionable structure, of which Alexander remarks:

The Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum has recently been quoted as giving a glowing justification for his decision to build a monstrosity in London… The building shape intentionally violates most of the characteristics of living structure (I assume it is intentional, in an effort to be artistic, since the diversion from these structural features is too extreme to have happened by accident).

If we ask ourselves whether the addition of this structure to the museum and to the street helps our sense of wholeness, I believe the answer is almost obvious, that it does not. Of course, one can apply the other versions ot this criterion too. Does the street become a better picture of the deepest self? Does it (in any interpretation) bring a passer-by closer to his own true self? Does it feel alive?

No, no, and no. One is tempted to say: Never support a board that votes for a structure like this[2]. And so it has proved with Cooper Union![3]

Here’s the backstory from the Times on that ugly building (“the New Academic Building” (41 Cooper Square). The physical architecture may be horrid, but the financial architecture is worse:

Cooper Union’s board took a series of financial steps that, with benefit of hindsight, seem misguided. The school borrowed $175 million for 30 years at a rate of 5.75 percent and then spent most of the proceeds on a lavish new building while continuing to run operating deficits. It also agreed to a prohibitively expensive prepayment penalty, making it financially impossible to extricate itself from the terms of the loan, according to people with knowledge of the agreement who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One of the issues in the current investigation is whether Cooper Union disclosed this potential penalty when it sought court approval for the loan.

And you just know private equity is involved, right? Cooper Union owns the Chrysler Building, and:

Much of the remainder [of the endowment] is invested in hedge funds, private equity partnerships and other so-called alternative investments, in part to try to reduce the risk associated with an endowment so concentrated in a single New York office building.

So, in a shocker:

[S]uch investments are typically burdened with high fees, and their returns in recent years have been disappointing. Cooper Union’s endowment increased 6.1 percent for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, and a meager 1.65 percent if the Chrysler Building is excluded.

I won’t say “breach of fiduciary responsibiity,” let alone “fraud,” but feel free to think them. In any case, as a putative result of these self-inflicted financial wounds, the Board decided in 2013, for the first time, to eliminate full scholarships for all students, in defiance of founder Peter Cooper’s original intent of “a perpetual course of  free lectures and instruction.” A two-month occupation of the President’s office by students and faculty followed (often linked to at NC), in addition to an alumni and student lawsuit, under the rubric of Save Cooper Union. The Petition is juicy:

The defense of financial necessity [for charging tuition] reveals a breach of fiduciary duty because it is evidence of the extent to which the Board has undermined the financial health of The Cooper Union. Without regard for the manifest risks, the Trustees built an extravagant new academic building that the school could not afford.  The Trustees compounded the impact of this mistake by squandering the endowment through investments in risky hedge funds, questionable real estate transactions, and improvident increase in debt.  The Petitioners maintain that the Board of Trustees has permitted the school to engage in numerous financial transactions that bear no reasonable relationship to the educational purposes of The Cooper Union, have failed to properly  supervise the administration of the school with respect to financial and academic issues, and has engaged in improper self-dealing.

And then there’s this:

Then-Trustee William Sandholm’s company directly benefitted from the construction. Rose Associates, of which Mr. Sandholm is Chief Operating Officer, profited directly when Jonathan Rose of Rose Associates secured a $2 million contract to oversee the New Academic Building construction despite the obvious conflict of interest.  Mr. Sandholm was also the Chief Executive Officer of Astor Place Holding Co., which was in charge of The Cooper Union’s real estate holdings.

Well well. Open corruption! The suit is ongoing.

Commendably — although, since this is “New York real estate,” who knows what the real motivation is — Eric Schneiderman has stepped in. The Wall Street Journal:

New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating financial decisions at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art that led to the school’s move to charge undergraduate tuition for the first time in its history, according to board members. … Part of the investigation entails the school’s management of one of its most valuable assets, the land underneath the Chrysler Building, said people familiar with the probe. … The probe includes a look at several decisions by Cooper Union’s past and present trustees, according to people familiar with the investigation. Among them: a $175 million loan, using the Chrysler building as collateral, to help finance more than $100 million in new Greenwich Village facilities, the people said.

Mr. Schneiderman’s office is also reviewing the terms of the school’s lease agreement at the Midtown skyscraper with real-estate company Tishman Speyer, a bonus that the board approved for former President George Campbell Jr. and potential inaccuracies about the board’s financial decisions on the school’s official website, the people said.

Pass the popcorn. Let’s just hope Schneiderman doesn’t wuss out on this one, eh?


Cooper established the principal of free tuition explicitly to enable working class students to attend:

The Cooper Union website reflects the importance of supporting working class education in its recounting of the school’s origins: “Cooper was a laborer’s son who achieved greatness despite a lack of formal education. He believed that education should be ‘as free as water and air’ and so created The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, one of the first colleges to offer a free education to working-class children and to women.”

It’s an act of civic vandalism — not to mention class warfare — for the conflicted and corrupt Trustees to liquidate Cooper’s goal; they should one and all resign.

In fact, Cooper Union shows the way forward for the entire country; why can’t college tuition be “as free as water and air” to all? The country can certainly afford it, if they can in Germany.

However, until that happy day, we can at least take some comfort that the students, faculty, and alumni of Cooper Union are in there punching, and the malefactors of great wealth on the Cooper Board of Trustees are feeling some pain.

Oh, and the Trustees just threw the ringleader President, Jamshed Barucha, under the bus in an effort to save themselves. Too funny!


[1] I don’t have a working scanner, so I had to photograph the page with my iPad and then clean up the image. Hence the quality.

[2] This is not a post about whether the 41 Cooper succeeds or fails as physical as opposed to financial architecture for those who must use it, though there are indications that it fails. The issues have to do with circulation, specifically the elevators and the “grand staircase.” The New York Times:

The building’s flaws, though, lie not in a failure of vision but in questions about its execution. The most serious of these have to do with circulation. I expect there will be complaints, for example, about the main elevators, which only go up to the fifth and eighth floors. The system is based on a design by Le Corbusier, who used it in his 1952 Unité d’Habitation housing block in Marseilles. … Most students will have to walk an extra flight up or down to get to their classes.

Another subtle but important problem is the depth of the treads on the grand staircase. The stairs in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are 14 inches deep, which is what makes them such a nice place to sit, rest, chat with a stranger. Mr. Mayne’s stairs are a standard 11 inches, like a conventional fire stairwell. They are hard to sit on, and they gave me vertigo when I began my descent from the third floor.

So, we’ve got a staircase that gives people vertigo, and an elevator design that makes students at a commuter school take an extra flight of stairs to get to class. And neither of those are a “failure of vision.” Alrighty then. Harvard Design Magazine:

Even at flat rest, the circulation is outfitted to contain action, not spectatorship. This detail reminds one that, in its triumph, the building’s circulation can also be cruel. Precisely because it demands fitness from its users, the steep stairs in combination with the skip-stop elevator system will preclude full participation by the disabled, the elderly, the weak, and the infirm. Technical universal accessibility standards will be met with a service elevator that does stop at each level, but the stairs are the means of kinetically connecting with the full impact and import of the design. Unlike the gentle sloped walks of, say, Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, which allow full peripatetic engagement with the common periphery of an empty void, the New Academic Building’s activation of its atrium will be fully appreciated only by the agile.

Wowsers. $175 million for a building that “the weak” can’t use. Is there a better demonstration of the neo-liberal mindset in action? All that said, I’d love to hear from any Manhattan readers familiar with the space. Perhaps I’ve been overly harsh.

[3] Felix Salmon wrote a six-part series on Cooper Union finances and its corrupt administration here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Steve H.

      That is one ugly building…

      “Does the street become a better picture of the deepest self? Does it (in any interpretation) bring a passer-by closer to his own true self? Does it feel alive?”

      One word answer: “Prolapse.”

      1. vidimi

        it’s a horrible design. it looks like a giant, pixellated tank from the future occupying the block. then again, that is probably its intended effect.

        1. theinhibitor

          It’s comical that, in the Wikipedia article, it mentions under “Architectural Significance” :
          ‘Nicolai Ouroussoff, architectural critic of The New York Times, praised the building as being an “example of how to create powerful architecture that is not afraid to engage its urban surroundings” and “a bold architectural statement of genuine civic value.”‘

          Genuine civic value. Best line I’ve heard today. I think ill start using that to describe my toilet.

          1. EmilianoZ

            It’s a fine building. It’s a breath of fresh air in the old NY. You have to remember that as the Eiffel Tower was going up it was decried by classicists as a monstrosity. It had to be defended by modernists. As Proust said, the true creator also has to “create” the audience that will appreciate his work. And now, of course, the Eiffel Tower defines Paris.

            They should make tourists pay to go inside the CU building just as you have to pay to go up the Eiffel Tower. And the NYC council should also pay because some tourists will come to see the building even if they’re too cheap to go inside.

            A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien
            Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin
            Tu en as assez de vivre dans l’antiquité grecque et romaine

            G. Apollinaire

            1. vidimi

              mmm, i think that’s not a good analogy. yes, the eiffel tower was very controversial, as a lot of high profile buildings are, but it’s very harmonious. similarly london’s shard. it has loads of detractors but it works brilliantly on the southbank, especially with the testicle that is city hall tucked under it.

              better parisian examples might be the centre pompidou or the opéra bastille. both are controversial but their harmony with their setting is more in doubt. i’ve actually grown more used to the latter, even though it is generally regarded as one of the worst music halls and ugliest buildings in paris; but still dislike the pompidou even though it has more universal appeal. i do love the lloyd’s building in the city of london, though. go figure.

        2. casino implosion

          Pixellated tank lol. I think it looks like one of the cooling towers on LV-426. (The ones that get damaged when the drop ship goes in hard after the stowaway kills the pilots, causing the reactor to go critical.)

        3. Pepsi

          Postmodernism is nasty on purpose.

          It says, “we have the money and so we have the power. Fuck you, fuck your eyes, fuck your car (our building will melt it), fuck your storm water system, fuck it all, you can’t touch us, we own the politicians, we own the cops, we own this very fucking street , fuck you.”

    2. Yves Smith

      No, it’s not a link, but I don’t see the image uploaded in the backstage :-(. Otherwise I would fix it. We don’t do linked images here, we always upload them to our server.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      It’s certainly displaying for me. Could be a cache thing; I’ll empty them.

      Adding, boy, is that super-weird. It displayed for me — and others! — but it wasn’t backstage. (And I upload, then grab the code, and write offline.) That can’t be, but it is. So I uploaded it again.

  1. James Levy

    The building bears an uncanny resemblance to the pod carried by the Jupiter 8 on “Lost in Space”.

    As for shame, or taking responsibility, that’s for the little guy and the sucker these days. Anyone rich and influential enough to sit on the Board of such a prestigious institution knows the key to success in America is to deny everything and walk away from fuck-ups acting like they never happened or, at worst, were somebody else’s fault. A colleague (ethics prof) used to assign a book titled “Mistakes were made (but not by me)”; he thought that title summed up modern America pretty well.

  2. Pepsi

    How many members of the board are set to receive a massive payout when the bank gets the Chrysler Building?

    1. Dirk77

      Yes. But then their defense is that everyone else at the yacht club is doing the same thing. And yes, that’s an ugly building. I guess the release of too many delusional/rationalizational enabling molecules in the brain stresses the body over time, degrading ones other mental functions.

  3. Fool

    I would love for Yves to look into this. As Felix Salmon pointed out, the way the loan was even structured is just odd and seemingly so unfit for CU’s financial woes. While the Chairman of CU pointed out that it was not for the building, but to pay down the school’s deficit and operating budget, wouldn’t an adjustable credit facility be a more appropriate band-and for such short-term budgetary issues? Also, how can you make a loan against the Chrysler Building(!) without having already anticipated how you would pay it back? Just strange…

  4. praedor

    Horrid building. It is precisely what comes to mind if you read HP Lovecraft when he describes monstrous structures built by elder gods with “wrong” angles, heavy walls, etc.

    Are they trying to summon Cthulhu?

  5. Peter VE

    Edifice complex is busy destroying many venerable institutions: RPI is also being eaten by a very expensive building.
    Museums across the world are succumbing to Gehry envy, trying to duplicate the “Bilboa effect”, with the typical result being a unmet grandiose capital campaign, massive increase from the original budget, major publicity for the grand opening, followed shortly thereafter by the executive director leaving to pursue other opportunities with a large severance bonus in pocket.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Alexander doesn’t like Gehry one bit. I think the weird, bulbous, deformed shapes (like Cooper 41) are objective correlatives of the egos of the squillionaires who fund and/or approve these things. They recognize themselves, and sign off.

  6. Roquentin

    This post does a good job of illustrating how the “financial need” to charge students tuition, something unprecedented in Cooper Union’s history, was fabricated out of thing air. Well, more accurately a large loan taken out and squandered on a new building. It’s also important to note that the “financial need” has nothing to do with costs actually associated with getting an education (paying professors, etc), but flows through a pipeline into the coffers of whatever bank or firm wrote the loan.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I have friends who are wondering where our ballooning (state) university costs are coming from; it could be the administrative layer, which, because I have priors, I am inclined to believe, but the accounts — hold onto your hats here, folks — are obfuscated. We also notice (in addition to the adjuncts who would be working as fry cooks, if in fact people were “rational” decision makers) lots of donor-optimized construction projects, like gyms and unions, supposedly to market to students — but perhaps to load the university up with debt? And backscratch with the construction firms? A good neo-liberal can’t possibly support things like teaching and scholarship, because not markets, and hence the more aggressive among their number would actively seek to destroy them….

      1. Roquentin

        Not only that, it’s in the interest of the people holding the other end of those student loans to write as many and for as large a principal as possible. I’m sure they have a hand in it to from a marcro perspective. The higher the cost of education, the bigger their end of the loan gets. Not unlike the housing market of a decade ago, this ultimately leads to worthless loans being written which will never be paid back.

    2. Fool

      Huh? Then what actually is paying off “education costs”? More generally, why can’t the board just be simply asked to provide an expense/investment report?

  7. EmilianoZ

    The fate of the Barnes Collection is another interesting example of a great legacy ultimately betrayed. Maybe it shows that a legacy intended to benefit the general public cannot long survive the legator. The will of Albert C. Barnes (another friend of the working man) was preserved only as long as people closely connected with him were at the helm of the collection. When they died, things started to unraveled pretty quickly. The lawyers went through the will, which Barnes thought he had drafted carefully, and the stewardship of the collection went to a poor cash-starved black college. It didn’t take much money to buy them out. And so the collection was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an outcome Barnes had sought to avoid. You can say it’s not that bad. The collection is still whole. It has just moved.

    The fate of the Cooper Union will probably be grimmer.

    No public legacy can be idiot-proof. It will only be as good as the people managing it.

  8. ekstase

    Well, this area was once the capital of bohemia, now priced out. The area around Cooper had an unusual feeling of open, unused space around it. It was a space where you could stand for a while and sip your coffee, and you need those in New York. It is true that time alters our perceptions of architecture, but this building does not suggest welcomeness. Cooper Union’s free tuition provided an invaluable learning experience to so many people. What are we doing?

  9. Greenguy

    The building is just up the street from where part of my family was born and lived for decades. An ugly monstrosity plopped down like a spaceship into the East Village; it makes me sad every time I walk down 3rd Avenue.

  10. weegee

    You are absolutely correct that Cooper Union’s financial oversight is atrocious, that the institution should still be free, and that the directors have abdicated their responsibilities and the mission of the school entirely.

    That said, I like the physical structure itself.

Comments are closed.