Cooper Union may seek new president in face of state investigation

New York Attorney general is investigating financial conflicts of interest

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a New York City-based school that controversially discontinued its commitment to free tuition last year, may oust its current president as part of a broader deal with the state attorney general's office, the New York Times reports. 

Details of the investigation

Cooper Union was founded in 1859 with a mission to be "open and free to all." For most of its history, the school relied on its significant endowment to provide an education to its students tuition-free.

But last year, Cooper Union began charging tuition. President Jamshed Bharucha said at the time that the change was necessary to remain financially viable.

The New York State Attorney General began investigating the school's decision to charge tuition last year, in addition to other financial decisions over the past decade. Ten years ago, the school borrowed $175 million to construct a new building and renegotiated terms of a real estate agreement—some say unfavorably.

According to allegations, board members at Cooper Union may have had conflicts of interest related to the rental agreement. According to the Times, the board has voted to offer to not renew Bharucha's contract next year as part of a broader deal with the attorney general over the school's governance.

New leadership

The financial deals predate Bharucha's tenure, who joined the school in 2011.

But anonymous board members told the Times that his support for the school's tuition—among other areas of friction with the board—meant a leadership change may be needed.

Richard Emery, a lawyer who is representing a group of faculty, alumni, and students who are opposed to charging tuition, agrees that a change in leadership is likely required. Shoring up the school's finances "is going to take a dramatic change in the way Cooper Union is run, therefore Bharucha has to go," he says.

Bharucha's departure probably would not halt the government investigation.

According to the Times, the attorney general is pushing for a series of governance reforms and a period of monitoring for the board. In addition, the attorney general's office is also mediating a dispute between Cooper Union and a group of alumni who feel the decision to charge tuition violated the terms of the trust that established the school.

How to deal with a destructive trustee

Barbara Mather, a lawyer for the trustees, says the board's decision was legal.

Bharucha told the Times that the decision to begin charging tuition was made out of financial necessity. He says that when he became president, he quickly discovered the school's operating deficit was double what had been thought, so he made some changes to improve revenue. Undoing those changes would be "catastrophic," he says (Harris, New York Times, 4/10; Stewart, "Common Sense," New York Times, 4/9).

The takeaway: Cooper Union is considering hiring a new president as it seeks to move beyond controversies related to its decision to begin charging tuition and other financial arrangements.

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