A Comment on the Debate

Stephen Rustow November 15, 2011

A Comment on the Debate
Professor Stephen Rustow
11 November 2011

As the passionate debate on the financial crisis at Cooper continues to evolve, it seems important to insist on a certain precision of language. We must, all of us, try in good faith to express our opinions and ideas with the greatest possible clarity and with a use of language that prizes accuracy above all. This is not easy when the issues at hand are as emotionally charged, and as laden with history, as the debate that we have engaged. But this is all the more reason to be as accurate as we can be in what we say.

In this vein, a few observations:

1 ‘As free as air and water’: The debate is not about whether education should be free; education, at Cooper Union and everywhere else, has never been free. To state the obvious, everything from the electricity to turn on the lights to the salaries of the staff, administrators and faculty, and yes, the funds to build the buildings in which teaching takes place, costs money. So let us be clear that a Cooper education is neither free nor, therefore, guaranteed as a right, and that what we are debating is who should pay for it. Or, to be more precise, we are debating whether or not a portion of the cost of a Cooper education should be borne by its students.

Historically the costs of an education at Cooper have been paid for in a variety of ways. We were reminded by Professor Buckley that the seductive but very misleading phrase “as free as air and water” was first used by Abraham Hewett at the very moment when Andrew Carnegie had agreed to double Cooper Union’s endowment and thereby effectively pay the lion’s share of the costs of a Cooper education in 1901, and for many years thereafter. And in Cooper’s 110-year history since, there have been many generous benefactors who have followed Carnegie’s lead. The costs of a Cooper education have also long been paid for by speculation on the value of real estate investments and on the prescience, or the sheer luck, of owning the plot of land under the Chrysler Building (imagine the fortunes of the school if that parcel of land had happened to be a couple of blocks north or south). More recently, the costs of a Cooper education have apparently been paid for by a variety of financial maneuvers designed to maximize profits on various kinds of assets, some of which have proved to be egregiously wrongheaded and irresponsible, in 20/20 hindsight. The costs of a Cooper education have also been paid for in part by the people who teach here, almost any of whom could command a higher salary at another, private institution, but who have chosen to make this contribution to maintaining the model at Cooper, in the spirit of what Dean Hejduk called the profound social act and the privilege of teaching here. All of these factors have contributed historically to paying the costs of a Cooper education; some of these methods may no longer be valid, indeed we may be discovering that some of them were never quite as robust as we were led to believe. But what we are debating now is the balance of these methods and whether exempting one group from contributing directly to the costs of education at Cooper can continue to be a viable model for the school.

2 ‘Principles and Rights’: Many voices in the debate have invoked principle: first principles, historical principles, inviolable principles. And it seems critically important that we try to identify the principles on which our arguments are based and the principles that risk being compromised by any actions we might consider. But next to ‘free education’ and ‘free speech’ there is, I think, another principle that has received little discussion in what’s been said to date and which seems to be vital to the essence of any school, especially this one; put most succinctly it is: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. It is a principle most often attributed to Marx and turned into a slogan in his Critique of the Gotha Program of 1875 but its origins go back more than a century earlier to the French Enlightenment, to Saint-Simon and others who were also responsible for articulating the right to education, and to free speech. Indeed the origins of this principle are arguably found in the New Testament. In its most generic reading, neither communist, utopian socialist or Christian, it seems the very foundation of the teaching methods and creative work that Cooper tries to foster as the basis for educating students: all are encouraged to contribute of their talents as they can and as much as they can; all are invited to take from this collective effort what they require to the greatest extent they are able; each will thus have an education that suits his or her own interests, abilities and convictions.

Of course this principle might also be considered in terms of paying the costs of a Cooper education. While there are assuredly students at Cooper for whom paying tuition would simply mean the end of their education, there are just as assuredly students who could pay some tuition, perhaps a tuition equivalent to that of the other schools to which they applied before gaining acceptance to Cooper. If one believes that a principle of egalitarianism and fairness constitutes the ethos of our student body and that this is the basis on which education at Cooper should proceed, then the question is: does a foundational standard of fairness and egalitarianism across the student body preclude any acknowledgement of differences in financial status and ability to assume costs? This, it seems to me, is a question very much worth debating.

3 ‘Compared to what’: Unless we are prepared to allow the possibility that Cooper will cease to exist, this entire debate is perforce framed as a choice among alternative futures. While none of us is clairvoyant, we have a responsibility to stake our claims in comparative terms and to be as honest about their probable consequences as our limited knowledge of the future allows us to be. This requires us to look at financial doomsday predictions with concerned skepticism and energetic criticism, but it also requires us to evaluate dispassionately (to the extent that we can) what the impact of an unbending appeal to historical principle may be on the school we all seek to protect, and see prosper.

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