Judge asked to stop Cooper Union tuition charge

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Art McFarland reports on Cooper Union's decision to charge tuition for the first time in history and the ensuing backlash, including a lawsuit. (WABC)

Students and faculty at one of the nation's few free colleges asked a judge Friday to block the school from charging undergraduate tuition.

Lawyers for the students and professors were facing off against attorneys for Cooper Union's trustees at a hearing as the school prepares to start collecting tuition for this fall's term. Bills already have been sent.

"The most fundamental change in the history of Cooper Union is being undertaken," said Richard Emery, a lawyer for the students and faculty members.

Counting about 1,000 undergraduates, the 155-year-old school is renowned for its architecture, arts and engineering programs and its own history. Abraham Lincoln gave his famous "right makes might" anti-slavery speech there in 1860, the NAACP held its first public meeting there in 1909, and it provided a platform for leaders of the labor movement.

Undergraduates paid tuition before 1902, but the school became free after a gift from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Trustees voted last year to start charging tuition again - up to $20,000, depending on students' ability to pay - beginning with students entering this fall. The trustees cited multimillion-dollar deficits.

"Although the decision to reduce scholarship aid was very difficult given Cooper Union's tradition of providing full-tuition scholarships, under the founding documents, it was the board's decision to make," their lawyers wrote in court papers last month. Graduate students began paying tuition a couple of years ago.

But some students and professors say the financial crunch stems from mismanagement and could be solved in other ways. Cooper Union has a major, unusual source of cash: it owns the land beneath the Chrysler Building.

The two sides dispute whether the school's charter requires free tuition.

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