A brief essay on the meaning of
“Equal to the Best”
The future of the institution hinges on four simple words:
“Equal to the Best”.
These are Cooper’s oft-paraphrased words. In actuality, he said:
“As soon as, in the opinion of the Board of Trustees, the funds which shall
from time to time be at their disposal will warrant such an expenditure, such
funds shall be appropriated to the establishment and maintenance of a
thorough polytechnic school; the requirements to admission to which shall be
left to the discretion of the said Board of Trustees, and shall be
specifically determined by them from time to time; and which school shall,
as far as possible, and as soon as possible,
be made equal to the best technological schools now established,
or hereafter to be established….”
Why did Cooper choose these words? He did not say “among the best”,
or “better than the best”, or even simply “the best.”
By “Equal to” Cooper clearly did not mean “Identical to.” His was such
a unique and novel idea, to give away a Free Education, and the boldness
of his statement was the prediction, or the anticipation, that a “Free”
education could achieve results that were on par with those of the
most elite, expensive institutions of the day.
The fundamental failing of the Cooper Union community today is to
misconstrue these words into the belief that the Founder would have ever
wanted his Union to become another one of these elite, expensive institutions.
There is nothing in his writings, or in the way he conducted his life,
that would suggest that he hoped one day Cooper Union would become
Harvard on the Bowery.
Cooper Union is in crisis today because over the past several decades,
we as a community have lost sight of our core values and our true mission.
Over such a long span of time, certainly there is no one evil villain
at whose feet we may lay the blame. We are all, collectively, past and
present, guilty of several mortal sins: greed, lust, vanity, and envy.
At one time in the past, Cooper’s motto could be stated as “We Are Cooper
Union. We are different from all other schools.” Whenever someone
fresh from reading their textbook on higher education administration
bemoaned some oddity in the way that Cooper Union conducted itself,
the retort was swift and incisive: “We are a free school. Our business
model does not place the students on the income side of the sheet.”
Cooper Union was lean, gritty, tough. Administration was minimal.
Faculty and staff worked hard under difficult conditions to uphold
the mission. Students may not have had the latest and greatest
facilities, but found themselves among a group of minds that was,
in fact, equal to the best.
But starting in the 1970s, and accelerating with alarming pace through
the 1990s and the first decade of this century, increasingly our motto became:
“We Are Cooper Union. We’re really sorry that we are different from
all other schools, and we have a plan to fix that.” We envied the fancy
buildings that our colleagues at other schools were building.
We lusted after more affluent students who, it was presumed, would have the
capacity to donate back to the school as alumni.
And we built the fancy buildings. And we shifted the demographics of
the student body more towards the middle-class. And our vanity knew
of no bounds. Newspaper articles proclaimed “Cooper Union is THE best!”
Our endowment, they reported, had reached new heights!
We finally had what we wanted, what the other schools had.
But it came with a price. Among the “other schools” attributes we
took on were distrust and disconnect among faculty, students,
administrators and alumni, and ever-increasing administrative and physical
plant overhead costs. And we are unmistakably on a collision course with the
end of the line. We all know what is waiting at the end of the line.
It is the completion of our transformation into one of the “other schools.”
Will “Equal to the Best” become “Just Like all the Rest?”
P.S. I have sent this essay now in support of the idea stated by my
colleagues Prof. Buckley and Prof. Cumberbatch that a truly transparent
and open process, in this time of crisis, must put EVERYTHING on the table.
This includes a frank and thoughtful reckoning of past mis-steps, the question
of whether we are in fact still fulfilling the mission envisioned by Cooper
and made practical by Hewitt, and a thorough examination of both the revenue
and the expense side of the sheet.