I formed a very resolute determination that if I could ever get the means I would build an institution and throw its doors open at night so that the boys and girls of this city who had no better opportunity than I do enjoy means of information, would be enabled to improve and better their condition, fitting them for all the various and useful purposes of life.

1. Sculptural Support

Over the course of several days, Jon Cuba clandestinely created a “sculpture” on the fourth floor of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Cuba worked in a 4,000-square-foot wood shop that one wouldn’t expect to find in the Foundation Building, the land marked edifice that has been the heart of campus ever since the college of art, architecture, and engineering was founded. Amidst drill presses and table saws, students shuffled about in welding gear and coveralls. Machines whined and rock music blared from sawdust-covered speakers. Looming over the racks of wood was an enormous wall-mounted bison head. From the rounded Italianate windows, students could peer down at the crowds in Astor Place, a busy intersection in Lower Manhattan and gateway to the East Village.

Cuba was welding a heavy grid of rebar into an eight-foot-tall form. In many settings this large and heavy sculpture would have been eyebrow-raising but the shop technicians were accustomed to art students constructing big idiosyncratic works. Cooper Union was renowned for its generous studio spaces. Each art student was allocated a gallery for a final senior-year show and over the years students had built plywood Potemkin villages, hauled in grand pianos, and set up pools full of oil. But Cuba wasn’t working on his senior show; he was working. Earlier that year the school’s trustees had announced a controversial decision that to the core of Cooper Union’s institutional identity. From the start the college had offered free classes and for more than a century had proudly maintained a tradition of providing a free undergraduate education to all its students. Now the school was planning to start charging tuition.

Cuba’s rebar-grid sculpture would be used to brace the door of a space that a group of students planned to occupy again the tuition plan; it would be deployed to the occupiers from officers and school officials. The fourth-floor wood shop wasn’t the only scene of intense preparation; as Cuba welded rebar, other student activists were gathered in a vacant classroom a few floors above. There they out 20-inch letters from a roll of white fabric and pinned them onto an old theatre curtain to create a massive banner.

Students secured the doors, dropped the banner over the school’s facade, and issued a set of demands to the administration.

Eleven students entered the Peter Cooper Suite, a large space located just behind the clock that crowns the Foundation Building. They secured the doors dropped the banner over the school’s facade and issued a set of demands to the administration. The occupation would last for just one week to be followed five months later by a much longer occupation of the president’s office. The actions culminated more than a year of activism on the part of the school community — students, faculty, alumni — against the tuition plan. In a media release issued from behind barricaded doors, the students, who were part of a larger group organised under the name Free Cooper Union, announced they had “reclaimed the space” in pursuit of higher goals.

We believe that all tuition-based revenue-generating programs are a departure from Cooper Union’s mission and will corrupt the college’s role as an ethical model for higher education. To secure this invaluable opportunity for future generations, we have taken the only recourse available to us. 

2. To Science and Art

The Cooper Union was established by the inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper who wished to endow a new charitable institution “where a course of instruction would be open and free to all.” This extraordinary gift to New York City was an outgrowth of Cooper’s personal and humanitarian ethos. A family too poor to pay for schooling, he served as an apprentice in various trades before purchasing a glue factory in Manhattan. This early success would launch a long and remarkable as an entrepreneur-inventor during which Cooper had a hand in numerous enterprises ranging from iron manufacture to railroads to real estate to assorted products including powdered gelatin that was the precursor to Jell-O. By the mid-19th century, Cooper was one of the richest men in New York, and also one of its most generous and civic-spirited philanthropists. He believed passionately in free education as the means by which the children of the poor could fulfil their promise.