Cooper Union alumni, faculty and students have filed a lawsuit against the school over its plan to charge tuition to incoming students beginning this fall. The East Village college of art, engineering and architecture had been tuition-free since its founding in 1859, granting every student a full scholarship. Due to dire financial straits, the school has said that it cannot sustain that commitment and plans to charge each student $19,500 yearly, which it says is half tuition.

In a petition filed with the New York State Supreme Court, the Committee to Save Cooper Union argues that the school's board has breached its fiduciary duties. The suit comes after ongoing protests since 2011 against the prospect of tuition.

"We are hopeful," said Andrew Wilson, of New York firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, representing the petitioners, "that the court will recognize the importance of Peter Cooper's vision for free tuition, the importance of a body to provide oversight with the trustees—which is  consistent with the charter—and the necessity of increased transparency over this vital New York institution."

"Without regard for the manifest risks, the Trustees built an extravagant new academic building that the school could not afford," the petition says. The Thom Mayne-designed building, completed in 2009 and housing the engineering school along with space for the other colleges, came with a $167-million price tag.

"The Trustees compounded the impact of this mistake by squandering the endowment through investments in risky hedge funds, questionable real estate transactions, and improvident increase in debt," says the petition. It asks the court to issue a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction on charging tuition and to remove trustees who voted to charge tuition. It also requests an independent investigation into the school's finances, which, it says, the board has misrepresented to the press and the public.

Parties to the petition include alumnus Adrian Jovanovic along with faculty including Mike Essl and Toby Cumberbatch, as well as Isabella Pezzulo, a student who was accepted but has declined due to tuition, and incoming freshman Claire Kleinman.

The school took on debt to finance the new building, the petition states, based on "patently unrealistic or false" promises of fiscal responsibility, including an impractical fundraising plan and an unfeasible pledge to cut expenses. While taking on this debt, the suit points out, the college was also paying its president over $1 million in salary, "which made him one of the most highly compensated college presidents in the country, outranking the presidents of many elite universities such as Brown and Stanford."

The suit also alleges "improper self-dealing."

"Then-trustee William Sandholm's company directly benefitted from the construction," the petition alleges, pointing out that Rose Associates, where Sandholm is COO, profited when Jonathan Rose of Rose Associates secured a $2-million contract to oversee the New Academic Building construction. Jonathan Rose's mother also served on the school's board at the time, the petition states.

"The decision to charge tuition was tremendously difficult and every member of the Cooper community feels the profound effect it has had, but our first responsibility is to the students, faculty and to the future of Cooper Union," said Justin Harmon, in the school's press office. He declined to comment on the petition's specific allegations, but added, "We are disappointed that the Committee to Save Cooper Union would choose costly litigation over constructive conversation."