The fight over the future of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, an arts and engineering college in New York City, came to a head this week as five members of its Board of Trustees abruptly resigned and its president agreed to step down at the end of the month.
The resignations mark the latest chapter in a years-long battle over tuition at the college, which historically has offered full scholarships to all undergraduates.
Cooper Union announced in 2013 that it would start charging tuition to undergraduates for the first time in over a century, citing dire financial straits brought to light two years earlier by Jamshed Bharucha, four months into his presidency there.
Faculty members, students, and alumni were outraged. A coalition of critics sued the college in hopes of reversing the new tuition policy, which took effect last fall.
In April the board offered to force Mr. Bharucha from office in a bid to settle the lawsuit and to ward off an investigation by the New York attorney general into the board’s management of the college’s finances. (That investigation remains open, the attorney general’s office said on Wednesday in a statement.)
But by then, the relationship between Mr. Bharucha and Richard Lincer, the board chair, had worsened. The Wall Street Journal reported on a confrontation between the two men during a meeting at New York’s Harvard Club. The president threatened to write a book about Cooper Union’s dismal finances, and the board chair responded by saying he would “cut [him] off at the knees.”
Mr. Lincer was not immediately made available for an interview on Wednesday. In a written statement before the news of Mr. Bharucha’s resignation had been made public, Mr. Lincer said that, despite its differences, the entire board had been “committed to the best interests of Cooper’s students and of the institution going forward.”
The resignations might ease some of the dysfunction in the Cooper Union leadership, but the college’s problems are far from solved. The new tuition policy, nominally the subject of the conflict, does not appear to be going away.
“It can’t,” said Mark Epstein, one of the trustees who quit this week. “There’s not enough money coming in to keep up with expenses.”
Much of Cooper Union’s revenue stems from New York City’s historic Chrysler Building, whose land the college owns. But the college has been spending beyond its means for years, and a recent capital campaign came up well short of its goal.
According to Mr. Epstein, Cooper Union would need an infusion into the endowment of at least $400 million to allow it to revert to a tuition-free model. The new tuition policy is “not going to go away if Jamshed goes away,” he said. “It’s a financial problem, not an administrative problem.”
“There’s an old saying in crisis communications: Sometimes the gods demand a sacrifice,” said Gene Grabowski, a partner at the crisis-management firm Kglobal, which is not involved in the Cooper Union case. “And that’s what we’re seeing here.”
Ironically, the college’s financial crisis might have been much worse had Mr. Bharucha not forced the board to reckon with it, a fact that the trustees acknowledged in a statement announcing his departure.
“The financial exigencies with which he was confronted upon his arrival were not of his making,” the statement said, “and he deserves credit for sounding the alarm about the need to take urgent action to ensure Cooper Union’s long-term financial sustainability.”
Previous administrations might have foreseen the need to charge tuition but failed to take action, said Mr. Epstein, who served as board chair before Mr. Lincer.
“They knew it would be politically difficult, nobody wanted to do it,” he said. “There was always hope that we could try to avoid it.”
Mr. Bharucha, a cognitive neuroscientist, will join Harvard University in the fall as a visiting scholar. Cooper Union will begin a formal search for his replacement.
The events of the past few months could make filling the position tough, said Lawrence S. Bacow, who served as president of Tufts University when Mr. Bharucha was provost there.
“Who’s going to want to take that job going forward?” said Mr. Bacow in an interview this spring, after the board first moved to oust his former colleague. “Who is going to want to work for a board that’s going to endorse the president’s tuition plan, the president takes two years of grief, and then the board says, Your reward for doing this is we’re going to throw you under the bus?”
The Committee to Save Cooper Union, the group that is suing the college over its tuition policy, said in a written statement that it welcomed the news of Mr. Bharucha’s departure, adding that it hoped his resignation would mark “the beginning of a new chapter” for the college.