Scandal Erupts as New York Attorney General Investigates Cooper Union for Shady Financial Dealings

A lawsuit alleges the school is screwing the students by charging tuition.

The Cooper Union.

Embattled New York school of art, architecture and engineering the Cooper Union has come under investigation by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, according to the Wall Street Journal.

After 150 years granting full scholarships to all students, the school announced in 2011 that it might have to begin to charge some students tuition. When it announced in 2013 that it would do so, the move was immediately condemned by alumni and students, who occupied the office of President Jamshed Bharucha for over two months in 2013 and filed a lawsuit to stop the tuition plan in May 2014 (see Cooper Union Alumni Sue School Over Tuition Scheme).

“Part of the investigation entails the school’s management of one of its most valuable assets, the land underneath the Chrysler Building, said people familiar with the probe,” says the Journal. “The prized piece of real estate was a gift from the family of school founder Peter Cooper in 1902.”

“We have worked relentlessly to put the Cooper Union back on firm financial footing after decades of losses and budget woes,” said a spokesperson for the school. “The changes have been successful, challenging and exciting—and we, of course, will cooperate with the attorney general.”

A press representative at Schneiderman’s office declined to elaborate, saying only, “We read that in the Journal too.”

Among Cooper’s alumni are many notable figures in the arts, from Eva Hesse to Wangechi Mutu, George Segal to Tom Wesselmann, and duo Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio of architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The school erected a $167-million Thom Mayne building on its East Village campus in 2009 without first securing a naming donor.

“The Trustees compounded the impact of this mistake by squandering the endowment through investments in risky hedge funds, questionable real estate transactions, and improvident increase in debt,” claims the 2014 suit filed by students and alumni. In that suit, the plaintiffs asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction on charging tuition and to remove trustees who voted to charge tuition. It also requested an independent investigation into the school’s finances, which, it says, the board has misrepresented to the press and the public.

While taking on debt, the suit points out, the college was also paying its president over $1 million in salary, “which made him one of the most highly compensated college presidents in the country, outranking the presidents of many elite universities such as Brown and Stanford.”

The suit moreover alleges “improper self-dealing.”

“Then-trustee William Sandholm’s company directly benefited from the construction,” the petition alleges, pointing out that Rose Associates, where Sandholm serves as COO, profited when Jonathan Rose of Rose Associates secured a $2-million contract to oversee the Mayne building’s construction. Rose’s mother also served on the school’s board at the time, the petition points out.

The outcome of that suit is pending.

There has been no shortage of finger-pointing and acrimony. The former chairman of the board, Mark Epstein, blamed alumni at various public meetings during his tenure, pointing out that they donate to the school at a rate of only one in five.

Alumni have pointed out in rebuttal that the school indicated no sense of urgency about its finances, even boasting to the press in 2009 that the school was in the black after the crash due to its wise investment policies.

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