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This week, Cooper Union student organizers preparing for an Occupy Wall Street protest against student debt were energized and infuriated by their school’s decision to introduce tuition in the graduate program. In a move announced in the New York Times on Tuesday, Cooper Union will begin charging tuition to students in the graduate program; previously, all students at Cooper Union received full scholarships to attend the prestigious school for art and architecture as part of the university’s historic mission and mandate. Undergraduate education will remain free “for now,” according to the college’s president.

On Wednesday afternoon, students gathered in Cooper Square, a plaza just south of Astor Place, and enclosed by the college’s two buildings: the arched brownstone Foundation Building, and the rippling, gouged metallic facade of 41 Cooper Square. Before marching to Union Square to join a larger demonstration there, Cooper students condemned the actions of the school board.

Eduardo Alfonso, an undergraduate studying architecture at Cooper, watched the protest from steps on the park’s north side. He said that in the small school, the contentious decision has been subject to considerable discussion and speculation. “There’s a question,” he said, “if the compromise with the graduate program is priming for future changes.”

Aaron Fowler, an undergraduate in Cooper Union’s art school, said that the decision had been first announced in the New York Times, not to the student body directly. “It really changes the dynamic of the school,” said Fowler, citing Cooper Union’s 110-year mission to provide free education. Fowler said that this mission, now being called in to question, provides an “even playing field” for prospective students to compete on merit, not money.

One demonstrator took his protest to a new level — quite literally. Jesse Kreuzer, a Cooper Union alumnus, climbed the towering statue of Peter Cooper, the school’s founder. As passers-by looked up curiously, Kreuzer danced to his iPod and waved his large sign: “NO TUITION IT’S OUR MISSION.”

NYU Local spoke with Kreuzer by phone from the plaza some 30 feet below. “This is a stunt for media attention,” Kreuzer admitted, “but they don’t seem to be paying much attention.” Kreuzer agrees that Cooper’s tuition-free model is central to its identify. “It’s what makes this school what it is. It’s what makes it so beautiful.”

Kreuzer, like many of his peers, takes pride in Cooper’s unique tuition-free model. “Few institutions of higher learning that are free. The Board is talking about charging tuition which goes against the 100-year mission,” he said. “If that were to happen, it would represent the death of an ideal.”

At the time, Kreuzer said that the police “don’t seem to care,” and considered climbing down to march to the larger rally in Union Square. Within a few hours, however, NYPD had taped off the area around the statue and were working to coax the 23-year-old alumnus down. He got his press coverage: New York Times’ East Village Local blog reported that at 6:44, the activist was retrieved from the top of the statue in an NYPD cherry picker and placed under arrest.

Image courtesy Tim Schreier