In an age of robber barons, the 19th-century New York industrialist and real-estate magnate Peter Cooper had a rare streak of Robin Hood. An ardent enemy of slavery and an advocate for Native Americans, he was also firmly of the mind that education should be available for free. The Cooper Union, which he founded in 1850s, circumvented the obsolescent master/apprentice model to create a space where students could learn about the emerging world of technology at no cost and regardless of class, race and sex.
When the Cooper Union became a four-year college in 1902—offering programs only in architecture, engineering and fine arts—it established a tuition-free policy for all students that lasted for more than a century. Though a fiscal crisis forced the college to start charging in 2014, it has a plan in place to restore the former policy within the next decade. The pandemic crisis has endangered that progress, but fundraising efforts are afoot to put it back on track. The Cooper Union is hosting a star-studded virtual benefit event at 7:30pm tonight, August 12, as part of that project.
Ben Folds | Photograph: Kevin Garcia
Over the past 160 years, the institution's stately Great Hall, lodged in the imposing brownstone Foundation Building at Cooper Square in the East Village, has played host to many famous orators, including Abraham Lincoln—whose 1860 "right makes might" speech there is credited by historians as a turning point in his electoral campaign—as well as Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall and Betty Friedan. In tonight's benefit, some of their words will be shared by a distinguished group of actors that includes Alfre Woodard, Alan Cumming, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tracey Ullman, Arian Moayed, Margaret Cho, Kathleen Chalfant, Jody Long, Tokala Clifford, Kimberly Guerrero and Michael Kelly.
Augmenting the speeches are musical performances by Ben Folds, David Wain and Bobby Cannavale, the Broadcast, Amy Engelhardt, Jen Malenke, Kimberly Marable, Doña Oxford and Aléna Watters.
In the spirit of the Cooper Union’s philanthropic mission, you can watch the concert on the institution's YouTube channel for free. If you want to support Cooper Union, though, visit its website. Suggested donations start at $50 but any amount is welcome.
Kathleen Chalfant | Photograph: Russ Rowland
Most popular on Time Out
- Brooklyn overtakes Manhattan for most neighborhoods in the top 50 priciest
- New York cult favorite Levain Bakery is coming to grocery stores
- The eight rooftops now open with the best views of NYC
- You can now rent a “backyard” on the waterfront at Pier 17
- A massive gorilla sculpture is coming to Hudson Yards