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Knowing I attended CMU, a coworker just had to tell me about this story:

A Carnegie Mellon University student’s march across campus, half naked and handing out condoms while dressed in mock papal finery from the waist up, “crossed over the line,” Bishop David Zubik said on Tuesday. … someone sent the diocese photographs of the young woman, whose pubic hair was shaved in the shape of a cross.

The photos were taken when the College of Fine Arts hosted its fourth annual spring carnival parade, the Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby, on April 18.

Someone snapped a picture.

Art students at CMU dabbled in nudity while I was there, but Spring Carnival parade was run by the social societies – mostly frats and sororities. On my first semester at campus, in the lobby of the ugly student union building, was a TV with a grainy student film repeating over and over. At one point, a boy chases a girl (through Schenley Park, I suppose) as each shed articles of clothing. Yeah, I watched that one a lot.

Sometime later four art students, two boys and two girls, posed frontally nude, again in Schenley Park, then posted the pictures all over campus – with black magic marker over their genitals and faces – to advertise an art showing. One of my friends snagged a copy and cleaned off the marker. One girl looked boldly naked, I thought, while the other seemed to be having second thoughts. Too late.

In a later year, the school paper reprinted Playboy’s pictures of Teri Hope, a Carnegie Tech alumna who was playmate of the month in 1958. The pictures were fairly tame compared to many magazines you could buy at the school store, but feminist students were predictably outraged.

One of the reasons I chose to attend Carnegie-Mellon was the brochure in which they asked students about the place. They were brutally honest, but still it seemed preferable, and less expensive, than the manicured little campuses I saw presented elsewhere.

I’ve often wondered where I would have gone if I knew then what I know now. One choice I didn’t even know about was the Boston Architectural Center, where you worked in the field by day and studied at night. Now it is the Boston Architectural College, but everyone called it the BAC. I’ve known a few people that were attending – one was commuting in from New Hampshire (sheesh). I’d like to think I could have handled that sort of schedule, but it is daunting to consider now.

Another choice was Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, in NYC. Cooper was a free school, but I was frankly intimidated by their rigorous application requirements, which seemed to assume that applicants had a burgeoning portfolio. I had good test scores but nothing like a portfolio.

As Felix Salmon writes for Reuters in, The tragedy of Cooper Union, Cooper may start charging for tuition, and losing its unique status. The story reminds me a lot of the independent Barnes Foundation being made into just another museum after its board was coopted by rich Philadelphia art patrons.

…Cooper Union has always been an extremely special educational institution, the kind of place where a little went a very long way. The faculty was not well paid; the facilities were bare-bones. But the students were fantastic, because Cooper could pick the very best of the very best.

While the Cooper Union ethos never left the students or the faculty, however, it did seem to desert a significant chunk of the Board of Trustees and the administration. Starting as long ago as the early 1970s, the board started selling off the land bequeathed by Cooper, not to invest the proceeds in higher-yielding assets, but rather just to cover accumulated deficits. Cooper hated debt and deficits, but that hatred was not shared by later administrators, who would allow debts to accumulate — bad enough — until the only solution was to sell off the college’s patrimony, thereby reducing the resources available for future generations of students. If you visit Astor Place today, the intersection once dominated by the handsome Cooper Union building, the main thing you notice are two gleaming new glass-curtain-walled luxury buildings, one residential and one commercial, both constructed on land bought from Cooper Union.

Then, when you turn the corner and look at what hulks across the street from the main Cooper Union building, you can see where a huge amount of the money went: into a gratuitously glamorous and expensive New Academic Building, built at vast expense, with the aid of a $175 million mortgage which Cooper Union has no ability to repay.


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