Global financial woes have descended on New York's East Village in a development that could have long-lasting implications for a key arts institution.

Students and faculty members from all three of Cooper Union's schools—art, architecture and engineering—walked out of classes and offices this afternoon, gathering at Cooper Square in New York's East Village to demonstrate against a possible move by the school's president to institute tuition fees.

For over 100 years, students have attended Cooper Union on full scholarships, supported initially by a 1902 gift from Andrew Carnegie and from continuing income from real-estate holdings. But Cooper's new president, Jamshed Bharucha, who took office in July, is now considering charging some of its full-time students due to a financial crunch, as reported earlier this week in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Under sunny skies this afternoon, artist and faculty member Sharon Hayes was conducting a video class, while nearby, colleagues from the architecture and engineering schools were working on projects and staging critiques of each other's work, all on chairs and couches borrowed from the school's Foundation Building. Junior Audrey Snyder, who co-organized the walkout with fellow student Joe Riley, told A.i.A. that the walkout was meant to demonstrate openness about goings-on at the school, in contrast to what they describe as a lack of openness by the administration. "For us as a school," Snyder said, "charging tuition really just isn't on the table, and should never be."

The fracas at Cooper echoes clashes over tuition hikes in the UK in recent months, and the walkout came just a day after markets tumbled in response to the latest news about the Greek debt crisis. Closer to home, as reported recently on National Public Radio, American student debt may total—depending on whom you ask—as much as one trillion dollars, a burden that has been lighter for Cooper alumni due to the scholarships.

The school was founded in 1859 by industrialist Peter Cooper to provide access to education for the working class, on his belief that a top-notch education should be "free as air and water." The 4-year college currently has about 900 students, and is highly selective, admitting between 5 and 10 percent of applicants. A Cooper recruiter pointed out to A.i.A. that a comparable art school, the Maryland Institute College of Art, is charging $36,170 in tuition for 2011-2012. Among Cooper's alumni are many notable figures in the arts, from Eva Hesse to Wangechi Mutu, George Segal to Tom Wesselmann, and duo Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio of architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The crisis has come to a head over the course of just a few days. This past weekend, a group of students launched a campaign to publicize the threat of tuition, partly via social-networking websites. It included an unsigned letter to alumni pointing out that in an attempt to stifle open discussion of the school's financial crisis, a presentation of President Bharucha's plan for dealing with the deficit was moved up, as of Oct. 30, from Dec. 7 to Nov. 8.

In what might seem a strange move for an institution in crisis, Cooper Union recently completed a sleek silver $150-million building, designed by architect Thom Mayne of L.A.'s Morphosis Architects. At the beginning of the 2008 fiscal year, the school reported in tax filings net assets of about $623 million; by the end of fiscal year 2009, that number had dropped to $560 million.

"Altering our scholarship policy will be only as a last resort," Bharucha told the New York Times, "but in order to create a sustainable model, it has to be one of the options on the table." According to the article, no current student would be charged; future students from lower-income and many middle-income families would continue to attend the school free.

Bharucha and other administrators addressed a meeting for students and faculty on Monday night. In attendance was artist, alumnus and adjunct instructor Adriana Farmiga, who told A.i.A. that Bharucha stressed that a task force has been convened to explore other possibilities for increasing revenue. Farmiga reported that T.C. Westcott, Cooper vice president for finance, reported a $16.5 million shortfall in the school's current annual budget. To plug this hole and accounting for inflation, Farmiga says, the school would need to increase its annual income by $28 million by 2017.

During the meeting, Bharucha repeatedly stressed his own research into Cooper's history, according to attendees. Some took this as a veiled reference to the fact that, from 1859 to 1902, when Carnegie made his gift to Cooper, the school collected tuition from more affluent students in order to support scholarships for others.

Farmiga reported a high level of suspicion in the Cooper community, citing a 2009 Wall Street Journal article ("One College Sidesteps the Crisis," June 30, 2009) "that said ‘Cooper is fine.' How is it suddenly not fine?"

A representative of an anonymous letter-writing student group concurred, telling A.i.A. via e-mail that alumni felt "as if they had been lied to about Cooper's financial stability all these years." Bharucha repeatedly invoked the need, the student said, for a "sustainable financial model, but never was the word ‘sustainable' applied to the consideration of the spirit and nature of the school."

Faculty and staff report an atmosphere of great uncertainty. Artist, alumni and member of the School of Art admissions committee Amy Westpfahl told A.i.A., "Cooper Union is the only one of its kind, a model of progressive education in this country. What makes us unique and competitive is our mission to provide free education. I'm supposed to be meeting with a crop of prospective students Friday. Am I selling them a sinking ship?"

PHOTO BY BRIAN BOUCHER