Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Peter Cooper is spinning in his grave

Felix Salmon has a depressing but important article on Reuters about Cooper Union, the privately funded free college of architecture and engineering that has been a landmark in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan for a century and a half. Basically, the college was doing fine, surviving on its original bequest even though it did not charge tuition, until the past decade, when the Board of Directors became imbued with the pecuniary culture of nearby Wall Street.

Salmon's article itself is a great example of the impact of the hegemonic pecuniary culture, because he fails to capture the great irony of exactly who the Union's founder, Peter Cooper, was. He designed and built the first steam locomotive in the U.S. in 1830, the Tom Thumb for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He held patents on what became known as Jell-O, and was one of the five founders of the companies that laid the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. His son-in-law and often business partner was Abram Hewitt, historically recognized as "Father of the New York City Subway System".

As impressive as this record of industrial nation building is, there's more: Peter Cooper, in his eighties, was the 1876 presidential candidate for the Greenback Party. Perhaps Salmon knows this and deliberately withholds this information from his readers. More likely, Salmon does not know about the Greenback Party, and its history as the one real, legitimate alternative to control by oligarchs of the country's financial and monetary affairs.

The Greenback Party, in other words, is the historical political alternative to the  pecuniary culture of Wall Street.

Salmon at least provides a decent summary of Cooper's dream of a free college in New York City: 
....[Cooper] owned a lot of land in Manhattan — including the land underneath what is now the Chrysler Building — and he knew that land would, literally, produce healthy rents in perpetuity. A philanthropist, Cooper knew exactly what he wanted those rents to be spent on: he created the Cooper Union, a college with the defining characteristic that it would charge its students nothing. It was — and is — a noble cause. And in the early days, its trustees quite literally bought into that cause: they helped out with its endowment, and covered its deficits in years where it lost money. 
The past few years, the Board of Cooper Union has been selling off the massive land holdings in Manhattan Peter Cooper had bequeathed to the college. And the Board spent $175 million it really did not have, to build, as Salmon describes it, a "gratuitously glamorous and expensive New Academic Building."

Now that the Board has frittered away the college's patrimony, it has decided the time has come for Cooper Union to turn its back on the vision of its founder, and begin charging $20,000 a year in tuition.   

As Atrios, who pointed me to the Salmon article wrote, "Clueless and/or malevolent rich people are going to destroy everything nice in this country."

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