Cooper Union Students Sit-in to Maintian Free Tuition, 2012-13


Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha resign, the administration end plans to charge tuition, and that Cooper Union “publicly affirm the college’s commitment to free education” and “democratic decision-making structures."

Time period

25 April, 2012 to 15 July, 2013


United States

Location City/State/Province

New York City

Location Description

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
Jump to case narrative


Free Cooper Union

External allies

Committee to Save Cooper Union, Friends of Cooper Union

Involvement of social elites

Board of Trustee members Michael Borkowsky and Jeff Gural


Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha and Board Chair Mark Epstein

Nonviolent responses of opponent

The Cooper Union administration created their own petition calling for an end to the sit-in

Repressive Violence

There was no physical harm done or overtly threatened. The Cooper Union administration brought in armed guards and the NYPD during the sit-in's first two days. They blocked students from getting food and water and boarded up the bathrooms.


Economic Justice



Group characterization

local community members
Cooper Union students
Cooper Union faculty/staff
and Cooper Union alumni

Groups in 1st Segment

Free Cooper Union

Segment Length

10 weeks

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

2 out of 6 points


0.5 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

5.5 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

The Board created more transparency and allowed one student representative on the Board. At the sit-ins end, students earned space on the working group to develop alternatives to the tuition increase, however, the full Board rejected the working group's proposal.

Database Narrative

Since its founding in 1859, Cooper Union had operated as a tuition-free art, architecture, and engineering school. However, after years of financial troubles, the College announced on 24 April 2012 that it would begin charging graduate students tuition beginning in the fall of 2014. Large numbers of students, faculty, and alumni strongly opposed this announcement; many blamed the shortfall on poor management of the endowment, expensive building construction, and over-reliance on poorly performing hedge fund investments. The College made no mention of whether they would also charge undergraduate students tuition.

The next day, 25 April, a graduate student climbed on top of the statue of Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper in protest of this announcement with sign saying “No Tuition It’s Our Mission.” He remained there and by the time that police removed and arrested him 90 minutes later, 100 students had surrounded the statute in support of the protest.
 Meanwhile the Board was developing plans to establish tuition for undergraduates. However, this was secret until faculty members leaked a Board memo to student organizers. Following this leak, 11 students began a sit-in in the 8th floor of the Cooper Union Foundation Building on 3 December 2012. They barricaded themselves in and dropped a banner reading, "Free Education To All." The students demanded that Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha resign and that Cooper Union “publicly affirm the college’s commitment to free education” and “democratic decision-making structures.” Their blockade did not allow anyone to enter or exit, meaning the occupiers could not receive supplies. 
Many students and faculty outside the occupation supported the students. Fifty faculty signed a letter of support of free tuition and 25 students held a sit-in overnight on the lower level of the Foundation Building in support the first night. Students continued to gather on the first floor where they hosted workshops styled after those put on during the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and staged a mock funeral for “the death of higher education.” On the morning of 5 December 2012, 30 students gathered outside the Board of Trustees’ meeting and attempted to enter the room. Only a few could enter. On 10 December, after one week blockaded in, the students ended the sit-in. 
On 23 April 2013, the Board of Trustees officially announced that the college “would cut the full-tuition scholarship in half beginning with the entering undergraduate class in 2014,” only continuing full-tuition scholarships for “students with demonstrated need.” In addition, they announced the creation of a tuition-based graduate program. Following the public announcement, a large group of students walked out of the building in protest.
 On 8 May 2013, 50 students began a sit-in in the President’s Office and made similar demands to those made during the sit-in the previous December. They asked the administration to “publicly affirm the college’s commitment to free education, that the Board of Trustees implement structural changes with the goal of creating open flows of information and democratic decision-making structures; and that President Bharucha step down.” 
This action also drew significant support from the college community. Later that day, 200 students and all 9 full-time School of Art faculty voiced their support for the sit-in by initiating a formal ‘vote of no confidence’ in Bharucha. The next day, the Friends of Cooper Union, a group of local community members, faculty, alumni, and students created an online petition to support a ‘vote of no confidence’ in both Bharucha and Board Chair Epstein.
 For the first two days, the administration acted aggressively toward the demonstrators to prevent others from joining and to try to force those inside to leave. The administration threatened the students occupying the office with arrest and expulsion, briefly brought in armed guards, boarded up water fountains and bathrooms, and closed fire doors. On the second day, the administration brought in New York City police officers. In response, over 100 students entered, linked arms, and sat down in Bharucha’s office. After that, the blockade broke, allowing supplies to enter and for students to eat, go to class, and shower. Furthermore, people unwilling to participate in the sit-in itself could show their support by stopping by the sit-in and participating in events. Over the course of the sit-in, the students invited students, faculty, alumni, and community members to join them for public discussions, art exhibitions, and to sign the no-confidence statement calling for President Bharucha to step down.
 In response to the sit-in, the administration offered students a meeting with President Bharucha, who was working from home while students occupied his office. At their meeting on 13 May 2013, he agreed to set up a meeting between 15 students and the board of trustees, give students representation on the board of trustees, and make all board meeting notes public. Meanwhile, the Cooper Union administration created their own online petition calling on the students to “vacate the office immediately.” 
A leaked transcript of the September 2012 board of trustees meeting created more anger among students when the Village Voice published it on 23 May 2013. The transcript revealed the extensive discussion of temporarily closing the school as well as comments from board members criticizing the Friends of Cooper Union. It included statements from trustees accusing those advocating for continued free tuition as not having the college’s best interests in mind. Following this leak, students in the occupation conducted a public role-play reading of the transcript. However, it became clear that some Board members were in support of the students. Michael Borkowsky and Jeff Gural, two trustees, met multiple times with students in Bharucha’s office. As with nearly all their events, students broadcasted these meetings live online to make them public.
 Through ongoing negotiations with Borkowsky, Gural, and other members of the administration, the students arrived at a resolution with the administration. On 15 July 2013, students agreed to leave the office after 65 days in exchange for amnesty for all involved, a board liaison to the group, and the formation of a new working group tasked with developing alternative ways of addressing the budget shortfall without charging tuition. The working group was led by Gural and Borkowsky, and included three trustees, three administrators, three students, three alumni, and four full-time faculty.

Over the following months, the working group developed a proposal to avoid charging tuition that they recommended to the Board in December. Moreover, Gural offered to donate to Cooper Union in order to keep the school free for one year to create more time to find a resolution. At their January meeting, the Board formally decided to charge tuition beginning with the class of 2018.


(1) Occupy Wall Street, 2012 Québec student strikes


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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Stephen O'Hanlon 02/03/2015