A Financial History of Cooper Union
“To Correct a Prevailing Impression”
Richard F. Humphreys, an atomic physicist, arrived from the Illinois Institute of Technology to become President of Cooper Union in 1961, amidst the pride and euphoria surrounding the new (now former) enginering bulding at 51 Astor Place. He "spearheaded the expansion of the school's academic programs",[i] including the creation of master's and Ph.D. programs in science and engineering, but soon discovered that Cooper Union's financial model was in trouble.
Forced to close the Cooper-Hewitt Museum just two years into a presidency committed to academic expansion, he plunged into a study of Cooper Union's financial history. In 1964 he published his sobering conclusions in the magazine At Cooper, in an article called "To Correct A Prevailing Impression."[ii]
The title of his article was drawn from the First Annual Report of the Board of Trustees[iii] in 1860, authored by Peter Cooper and the five other inaugural trustees. The trustees sought to “correct a prevailing impression, arising from the fact the Union is the foundation of a single individual.”[iv] They appealed for donations to build on Peter Cooper’s own gift:
“If… the enlightened and the benevolent should find in the operations and aims of this corporation any departments which address themselves to their sympathies, the trustees would be glad to receive… any donations which may be made either for specific objects or the general purposes of the Union.”[v]
Peter Cooper worried that his name attached to the new institution might be deterring others from participating:
“Mr. Cooper desires the trustees to state, once and for all, that his own name was given to the corporation, not by his desire, but by the Legislature, against his expressed wish.”[vi]
The “prevailing impression” was that external philanthropy was not needed, because the founder had provided a secure endowment. In Humphrey’s words:
“Peter Cooper started the Union with only a building and a miniscule endowment and the confident hope that others would give it financial strength.” “The appeal [in 1860], made in however gentle and stately phrases, went largely unheard for forty years – four decades of struggle and frustration relieved only in part by the anxious help of the Cooper and Hewitt families.”[vii]
The founder expressed his frustration repeatedly. He solicited named endowments for professorships in the polytechnic, but didn’t get any takers. In The Second Annual Report of the Board of Trustees in 1861, for example, speaking of the art program, he and his fellow trustees wrote:
“Notwithstanding the appeal made by Trustees last year… and the great crowd who attended the annual reception, but one donation was made to the art treasures of the School during the last year.”[viii]
Peter Cooper and his inaugural trustees sought in vain to correct a prevailing impression that Peter Cooper' gift surely would sustain the insitution. A little more than a century later, President Humphreys sought in vain to correct a prevailing impression that the Chrysler Building surely would sustain the institution.
[i] "Dr. Richard Humphreys Dies: President of Cooper Union, 57", The New York Times, August 9, 1968.
[ii] Richard F. Humphreys, “To Correct a Prevailing Impression…”, At Cooper Union, 1964 (Fall).
[iii] Peter Cooper et al, The First Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1860.
[iv] Smithsonian Institution Archives. http://siarchives.si.edu/history/cooper-hewitt-national-design-museum.
[v] op. cit., Peter Cooper et al, 1860.
[vii] op. cit., Humphreys.
[viii] Peter Cooper et al, The Second Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1861.