Peter Ross A'78

Campaign and Bio

The “biography” that I composed for the most recent CUAA election slate in 2014 was more of a position statement. I wrote:

“I watched with increasing dismay as the Board of Trustees so badly failed to engage the Cooper community in its discussions and its decisions during that period.  Full disclosure: I believe the Board’s eventual decision to choose a tuition-based solution to the current financial problem was the only responsible decision. I believe that survival was the ultimate key. But I also believe that to have chosen that direction without a clear and public aspiration to restore the school to its traditional full-tuition scholarship model was not a responsible action. I believe that the role of the CUAA now is to act as a unifying community member to this end . . . and that’s why I would serve again on the CUAA.”

This still describes why I’d want to serve in a CUAA position.

I served as CUAA Secretary-Treasurer this past year. I was asked to act as an advisor to CUAA President John Leeper, and this means that I can provide you with a first-hand summary of what’s been happening. It seems like a good place to begin.

The CUAA’s relationship with the school administration soured badly in 2014. The President unilaterally overrode the long-standing Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in a variety of ways. The MOA is a document that describes the traditional operating relationship between school, the trustees and the CUAA. Negotiations are presently underway to repair this damage and restore a working relationship (pls see below), but the list of damaging administration actions isn’t unsubstantial and it’s taking a lot of quiet work to surmount. The administration withdrew all financial support for operations (not restored to date) and closed the existing bank account that it had used to provide the CUAA with any funding it had previously contributed (not reopened to date). It denied us on-campus meeting space (since fully restored through negotiations). It converted the Peter Torraco Alumni Space in the dormitory into an administration office (not restored; and, while surely effected in a unilateral and disrespectful manner, not a poor administrative decision in and of itself, in our judgment). It withdrew completely from cooperative event planning (which has now started to be restored) and funding (also partially restored for the CUAA Founder’s Day Awards and ceremony). It eliminated all communications support (still withheld) which is why we’ve had to built our own website and must communicate with you using an imperfect e-mail list that we’ve been obliged to assemble ourselves.

My own assessment is that there’s no easy sledding here. President Bharucha presently has limited trust in the CUAA. But we’re sincere and we’re profitably engaged in talks. We’ll continue to make progress toward restored confidence and cooperation. As the CUAA’s representatives, we’ll continue to be what John Leeper calls “the adults in the room.” We have no choice. The CUAA needs a reliable and mutually respectful channel of communication with Cooper’s President in order to serve the alumni and serve the school.

What are the causes of the schism? My own opinion is that you’ll find the most important one in the administration’s mistaken willingness to assume that any alumnus taking a position counter to its own — especially on the tuition issue — either speaks for the CUAA or finds a willing partner to that opinion in the CUAA. I believe the CUAA as an organization has unfortunately been made to hold the bag not only for our own actions and statements over the last year or two, but for those of many other groups and individuals as well. We’ve been made into a bit of a whipping boy, in short, and are being unjustly punished.

Several examples to provide you with a perspective:  The CUAA as a body never supported the current lawsuit against the Board of Trustees; in fact, a motion to support that lawsuit was defeated in a Council vote. But the CUAA is being held to account by the administration for supposedly supporting the lawsuit anyway. Why? Primarily because among those who have supported the lawsuit one can find  “alumni.” The CUAA last year provided a Founder’s Day award to a pair of alumni who voiced criticism of the administration; the award wasn’t being given for their criticism of the administration per se, but the administration concluded that the CUAA was equally a critic nonetheless. The CUAA occasionally posted links on its website page to viewpoints opposing administration viewpoints; this distribution of information caused the administration to feel that the CUAA was a subscriber to any such site-linked opinion. The CUAA as an organization has also been tarred by the administration with the individual opinions of various alumni on social media. This is a short but revealing list, and it should provide a fair sense of this particular part of the problem.

What are we in the midst of doing?  (significant details after the bullet-points) —

1.  We’ve re-opened a channel of communication to the President after a near-total breakdown. 

2.  We’ve moved the CUAA toward a 501 (c) 3 status that will enable it to accept tax-deductible donations.

3.  We’re passed a resolution supporting a return to the full-tuition scholarship on which the school was built. We’re working to take that further.

We’ve re-opened a channel of communication to the President after a near-total breakdown. CUAA President John Leeper and I have been meeting on a regular basis since November with a committee of six people — John and myself; two members of the Board of Trustees, Chairman Richard Lincer, and Trustee Rachel Warren; and President Bharucha and his Alumni Director. It took several months to get these meetings underway. We pressed for them, but ultimately much credit for their existence has to go to the pair of Trustees involved.

Our goal has been effectively the restoration of a cooperative working relationship between the CUAA and the administration. We’ve repeatedly made our good-will known, even as we’ve pressed for our traditional relationship and all that this means in its particulars. We’ve repeatedly requested good-will in return, even as we’ve steered the CUAA toward what some have begun to call “independence.” The truth is that some form of greater independence will be necessary if we can’t get the administration to restore full cooperation.

We’ve moved the CUAA toward a 501 (c) 3 status that will enable it to accept tax-deductible donations. This is a fund-raising mechanism to replace operating monies once provided by the school. We had a club-style tax exempt status once, a 501 (c) 7, and this would be a replacement. But the ability to accept tax-deductible donations from any party would allow the CUAA to go further than funding its own operations, should it want to.  (An example: It could enable the CUAA to provide student scholarships as well.)

We passed a motion 20-1 in Council to study this tax status. We’ve lined up an experienced attorney who has agreed to do the application work pro bono. And we’ve put a referendum on this year’s ballot to see what the greater alumni think of the idea. Please ask your own questions, form an opinion, and then answer the referendum question responsibly. It’s an important issue.

Many of us are proposing that the CUAA champion a return to the full-tuition scholarship on which the school was built.  I myself believe that some part of the Cooper community needs to do this now — and who better than the CUAA? I’m not suggesting that we disregard the numbers. They must continue to rule and tuition will remain until we can find the way to bridge it. But the public adoption of tuition-free as an aspiration, as a definition of who we want to be, who we should be, is smart and valuable — valuable to the school, valuable to the student body, valuable to the faculties.

The rationale? Full-tuition scholarship has always been the most noteworthy thing about Cooper. Now is the right moment to re-assert it. With student indebtedness rising across the nation, what school can be a better poster child for this alternative? Considerable popular sentiment would naturally side with the aspiration. Our efforts to recruit excellent students, teachers and administrators would benefit from its adoption. Fundraisers need a compelling and sympathetic narrative. This would provide one. It shouldn’t be incorporated into the institution’s Mission Statement because that would handicap accreditation efforts. Rather, it should become our collective institutional aspiration. It would attract national attention, focus our own efforts to establish a renewed sense of purpose, and hasten healing.

Imagine that another college suddenly adopted the aspiration of tuition-free scholarships. Wouldn’t Cooper Union feel cheated of an historic right to be the proper champion of this idea, and at an historic moment? Put it yet another way: We were forced to renege. We’re now forced to renew. There’s a referendum on the ballot this year that addresses this issue, too. Please answer it.

I would continue this work. There’s still much to be done to effect all three of these overarching goals. Much of our work so far is still largely invisible. I would be happy to serve as Secretary-Treasurer again at the pleasure of the CUAA electorate in order to continue on the same path. We have allies on the Board of Trustees and on the four faculties, and certainly within the student body, all of whom share our goals.We have real reason for hope if we’re persistent and politic and patient. I hope to continue to contribute toward these policy directions whether in the position of Secretary-Treasurer or not, however, and you should know that the other candidate for Secretary-Treasurer, Sean Cusack, is just as dedicated to the CUAA as myself. He’d make an excellent officer. (And then I wouldn’t have to be responsible for the minutes anymore!)

As a postscript, I’d like to endorse the following two people in this election:

John Leeper for Alumni Trustee

Nils Folke Anderson for CUAA President