ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Problem of Interpretation in Cooper Union Tuition Battle

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 8.09.23 AMCooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, founded in Manhattan in 1859, was one of the last institutions of free higher education in the United States until last year.  Facing declining enrollment, the school announced that it would start charging tuition of more than $19,000 per year.  Students, faculty members and alumni have filed a lawsuit challenging that decision and seeking to block the tuition as violating the school's charter.  (Great timeline of Cooper Union tuition related events here at NYTimes).

The legal battle revolves around the interpretation of a 150+ year-old-document outling the trust that established Cooper Union.  A copy of the handwritten charter can be viewed here.  From the WSJ:

Complicating matters is that Peter Cooper, who died in 1883, wrote the charter in lofty, less-than-precise language.

In the charter document, he said he was leaving his considerable funds and property to "regular courses of instructions, at night, free to all who shall attend the same, under the general regulations of the trustees, on the application of science to the useful occupations of life."

School officials say the intent is clear, even if the language is flowery: Mr. Cooper wanted night courses to be free, not necessarily all courses.

But the school has used the language in other ways, too. In 2006, during litigation seeking to maintain a tax exemption on a school-owned building, the administration in court documents quoted the line this way: "Cooper Union must provide 'regular courses of instruction…free to all who shall attend.' " The right was granted.

And a plaque deeming Cooper Union's Manhattan campus as a city landmark reads: "Peter Cooper…founded this institution, offering free education to all."

(emphasis added).  Hmmm.... free to all or free to all at night?

Estate attorneys believe that the court is likely to be "sympathetic to the instutition's needs." Attorney Howard Krooks told the WSJ: "If you're dealing with a trust that's 100 years old, it's generally understood [by judges] that whatever it took to run a school back then is drastically different than today[.]"

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