Cooper Union’s identity crisis: What would it mean for the famously free school to charge tuition?

"So let me be clear," he said. "The Rose family does amazing things for Cooper Union, for New York City, and we, all of us, we actually owe them. They do amazing things. And maybe her son's company does happen to be the very best for the job. And maybe they provided the most competitive bid."

"I'm happy that the Roses thrive, I actually am," he said. "I just want to know. If you ask for $10,000 and you expect it to be spent responsibly, I'd like to get a heads up."

But even if the alumni could be offered more transparency, there might still be more prosaic fund-raising challenges. At the Dec. 5 meeting, one person testified that the school lacked working email addresses for some 6,000 of the school's 12,000 alumni.

President Bharucha has his own plans for the future. During yesterday's speech, he described the creation of a "Revenue Task Force," to come up with ideas for generating cash.

The group will be chaired by Phil Weisberg (Electrical Engineering '89), C.E.O. of the electronic trading platform FXall. Vice chairs will be famed graphic designer and New York magazine co-founder Milton Glaser (Art '51), known, in part, for his creation of the "I ♥ NY" logo; and Bank of America's Eric Hirschhorn (Mechanical engineering '89). The group is meant to report back in March. An outside consultant will review the school's administration.

"I will make some very hard-nosed assessments," said Bharucha, "to make sure we have the leanest, meanest, most effective, most catalyzing administrative structure that enables our students and faculty to do their creative work."

Bharucha will also, he said, lead an academic review of the school's curriculum, focused on excellence and making sure "that we're teaching the kinds of things that students in 2011 should be learning to make them the most innovative and effective citizens."

Describing those review processes, Bharucha had, in his understated way, some strong words for some critics.

"Leadership is about choosing," he said. "Leadership is about evaluating a situation thoroughly and having to make a tough choice. It's easy to jump on a bandwagon. It's easy to fan flames of rage and rancor. It's much more difficult to actually assess the challenge and opportunities and come up with a plan or set of options that are not wishful, but are sound [and] based in experience and seasoned judgment."

"The current mood of the world, as you know, is argumentative and angry," Milton Glaser had said at the Dec. 5 meeting. "And these days, every institution seems to be at odds with itself and any atmosphere of common purpose seems to very difficult to find. Many of us are outraged that our beloved school might become a school that will charge tuition."

Glaser said Bharucha had personally assured him charging tuition would only be in the table if there were truly no solutions.

"For all of us, I hope we can shift our focus from what went wrong, to how we could shift our talent and energy to help this wonderful and unique place. Like most emergencies it can be a great opportunity to reconsider the entire school and its objectives and I look forward to achieving that result."

But to a degree this raises the question whether "reconsidering" the school means reconsidering its scholarship policy. Slavin has a very firm answer.

"This isn't about just keeping the lights on, or keeping anyone employed," he said. "We all know what Cooper Union means, and that's an undergraduate education that is based only on merit. For over a hundred years, it has been tuition free. There's no one alive who remembers it any differently. It's like saying, ‘Let's still have America, only it won't be a democracy anymore.'"

If the tuition is free, the school is Cooper Union; if it isn't, it isn't.

“It’s either true or it’s not,” he said.

The school's crisis has prompted alumni to innovate on their own. Cooper Union Commons is a site for sharing, including information that alumni have acquired on the school's financials. Alumni have also set up a website called "Free as Air and Water," drawing on a phrase of Peter Cooper's, to serve as an organizing hub. It's operating an online campaign called Money on the Table.

Those identified, on the Money on the Table site, "pledge our full financial support to the Cooper Union as soon as the administration states publicly and unequivocally that Cooper Union's undergraduate schools of architecture, art and engineering will remain completely tuition free."

The site claims $184,000 in donations from more than 320 people and organizations (as of this writing).

Earlier this month, Hope Gangloff, a painter and illustrator who graduated from the school in 1997, was selling shirts and prints in the lobby of the building. She said screen printing, ironing and dying the shirts took her four days.

Gangloff said she started the night with 114 shirts, which sold for $20 each, and there were around 30 left as the crowd began to leave. She said the money would be donated to the new website and would, at the very least, create awareness of the issue.

"We're an art school for Chrissakes," she said. "Let's make some T-shirts."

Standing outside Cooper's Foundation Building Tuesday following Bharucha's speech, Christine Degen (Arts '68, and Bruce's wife) argued that the school had stayed tuition-free through tough times before.

"It's been free through World War I, World War II…" Added Bruce, "The Great Depression." "The Great Depression," she seconded. "Is our country poorer now? Where are all the people who through all those generations supported this kind of unique education?"

Both Degens float the idea that perhaps Cooper Union should be hunting for a latter-day Peter Cooper, a wealthy American who sees the value in educating a core group of people in the arts, architecture, and engineering, and doing it at no cost to them. "What's his name?," asked Bruce Degen. "Bill and Melinda…"

"Gates," Christine answered.