Newschool.coop? Envisioning a Cooperative University

By The groundview (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared at publicseminar.org

A cooperative model for The New School is a tangible alternative and a means to create a new, broad-based culture of ownership and democracy.

Like any student who believes that ideas have the power to transform our world, I came to The New School to investigate big, interconnected concepts: intersubjectivity and freedom, community and capitalism, violence and peace. When I accepted a full time job as an Executive Assistant at the University only a few months into graduate school, I considered it the necessary means for funding my education. Unbeknownst to me, the work would become an end in itself.

I learned that the problems facing New School employees are a microcosm of those plaguing our economy. We lack an organizational structure that promotes fairness and flourishing. We lack a framework for decision-making that facilitates collective deliberation and action. We are all mostly trying our best, but try as we might, we work mostly alone, without a real sense of ownership or community. As I grew more aware of this workplace ennui, my studies at NSSR deepened my critique. The concept of a co-operatized university slowly emerged in my head.

Cooperatives have a long history of almost 200 years and their premise is simple: the workers who make up a company and live under its authority are the persons best suited to direct its resources through collective governance. In the same way we believe that democratic governments should be of, by, and for the people, so too should businesses be run by employees. Democracy must take root in the workplace, and it can do so in all types of enterprises: from for-profits and non-profits, to small-businesses and multi-national corporations, to manufacturing plants and online platforms.

Along these lines, I began researching a new New School. Almost immediately, I discovered that co-operatism was by no means new here. In fact, it was fundamental to our founding. Most New Schoolers are aware, at least vaguely, of our founders’ call for free speech. In the late 1910s, a small group of faculty broke away from Columbia University when it tried to silence professors who criticized U.S. engagement in World War I. Few of us today, however, know of our founders’ equally radical call for full democratic governance by faculty. In planning their “New School” the founders sought to create a co-operative community of scholars who would control “all institutional policy, including finance, curriculum, and faculty appointments.” [1] In resigning his position at Columbia, New School founder Charles Beard cited “the control of a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education” as one of the reasons for his departure. [2] Looking back, we see a New School that was meant to be of, by, and for those who participated in its day-to-day activities.

Over the course of the 20th century, however, The New School drifted from these cooperative roots. Having added a design school in 1970, a liberal arts college in 1985, and various performing arts schools throughout the 1980s and 1990s, The New School more or less coalesced into a traditional university.

Today, our structure does not differ substantially from Columbia University or the vast majority of American universities. Charles Beard would be troubled to learn that we are governed by a lay board of trustees, most of whom do not involve themselves in the day-to-day activities of education or scholarly research and writing. In fact, per the University bylaws, no full-time employee other than the president can serve as a trustee. Thus, like almost every other university, and despite its non-profit status, The New School operates through a standard capitalist model: employees create the surplus, and the trustees appropriate it and distribute it.

A cooperative university would disrupt this dynamic. Employees who produce the surplus would distribute it as they see fit. Instead of relying on a board of trustees, employees would decide on matters democratically. Employees would determine the strategic goals of the New School. Employees would oversee budgeting and ensure we fulfill our core educational mission. A cooperative university today would build on the principle of shared governance among faculty as outlined by our founders. It would incorporate the many different employees that contribute to the joint production of the modern university.

But what are the means to make such an organization possible? How could this actually work?

One way would be to reestablish The New School as an employee-owned trust. This new legal entity would hold the assets and property of the University on behalf of its employees, who would retain the right to elect trustees through a one-person, one-vote basis. A founding document could act as a constitution to guide the trust, thus ensuring that trustees meet key provisions for good governance and sound fiscal management. Employees, however, retain ultimate control through ownership, elections and other measures.

Another approach the University could consider is an internal accounts-based model, in which employees maintain both membership shares and capital shares. Membership shares reflect employees’ equal democratic rights, again through a one-person, one-vote basis. Capital shares, on the other hand, collect dividends from leftover surplus that can be accrued at different rates among employee-owners, depending on differing lengths of service, job titles, and other factors. As in the trust model, the internal accounts structure allows employees to own the assets of the University and to elect the Board that determines the direction of these resources. In both models, employees would determine collectively how to distribute the University’s resources to achieve goals.

Accompanying either cooperative ownership model must be strong democratic governance. Every cooperative needs to consider how to manage their owner-members and how to organize them into an effective governing body. Almost every cooperative has at least three bodies that make up this coalition: the board of directors, the managers, and employees. The New School will need to think through how these bodies correlate to the diverse stakeholders within a university — administrative leaders, faculty, staff, students, alumni, etc. — and which groups are best suited to answer which questions. Regardless of how responsibilities are divided, a cooperative allows employees to exercise democratic control over almost all issues: to elect board members, to recall supervisors, even to vote directly on issues related to the survival or core mission of the enterprise.

But we can do more than just imagine these ownership structures and democratic processes. We can compare them to an already existing model. While vastly different from The New School in both history and programs, Mondragon University is a co-operatively run school of more than 5,000 students established in 1997 in the Basque region of Spain. Relying on an internal accounts-based ownership model, the University has several notable features:

  1. Managers are elected and can be recalled by workers
  2. Workers have democratically determined to limit pay ratios to 6:1
  3. The Rector and Vice Rector (the equivalent of the University President and Provost) and Divisional Deans report to and work in tandem with various governing boards composed of elected students, faculty, and staff.

While no one at Mondragon University is lavishly enriched by their work, employees do own and control the University. They appropriate the surplus they produce and determine democratically how to use it. The cooperative university is not just an interesting thought-experiment; it is a tangible alternative.

Co-operatizing The New School could have broad effects. First, employees and students could apply their organizing and activism skills to the wider world. The cooperative model has been proven to directly increase worker’s political behavior outside of the workplace. Student-workers also stand to gain substantially. For example, if students-workers meet the criteria to become employee-owners (by, say, accumulating 1,000 hours of labor) then in the same way that staff or faculty can become owners, students too can own, vote, and participate in the governance of the university. A cooperative university could also count research work completed by students as labor, thus creating another avenue through which students can be incorporated as employee-owners.

The curriculum also stands to gain from co-operatization. New School founder John Dewey emphasized learning-by-doing. Operating a cooperative university would allow students and faculty to engage with issues of resources and governance through collective action. A cooperative university folds into students’ learning experiences the communication and facilitation skills they need to organize themselves and others. Shared ownership might transform the sometimes fraught power relationships between staff, faculty and students, as all stakeholders would have the same democratic means to influence and shape the university.

Co-operatization might also open new avenues of engagement for alumni and supporters. Non-revenue-generating shares could be sold directly to supporters who want to endorse a cooperative university as a meaningful social experiment. The New School need only look to the Green Bay Packers as an example of such a model. The professional football team is owned by 360,000 of its fans, who have purchased more than 5,000,000 non-revenue-generating shares to support the team. A small number of Board seats could even be reserved for such alumni and supporters, allowing them to directly elect representatives.

There are many ways this work of co-operatization could begin. Tapping our own in-house expertise through faculty like Richard Wolff and Trebor Scholz is one way, as is forming a task-force of students, faculty, and staff charged with investigating the idea further. A partnership with Mondragon University may help, as would launching an experimental in-house cooperative division. The recent student demands to co-operatize cafeteria workers have been a critical intervention, as well as an awakening to the cooperative idea. A broader campaign to co-operatize the University must be led by a similarly passionate and committed group of students, faculty, and staff.

Co-operatization reaches its full potential when workers recognize that a new structure is not an end in itself, but rather a means to create a new, broad-based culture of ownership and democracy. And herein lie the many challenges. Employees must be willing to reinterpret their relationship to work fundamentally, possibly disrupting the compromises and arrangements they have created to keep their work-life feasible. The question of unionized versus non-unionized employees must also be sorted, as must the issue of tenure. Could only some owners be granted tenure but not others? Employees will also need to curb their expectations for what a local transformation can accomplish, no matter how radical. Rent, real estate, and healthcare costs continue to soar. While a cooperative model can deliberate solutions democratically and inclusively, the University will still need to pay its bills.

And, of course, a co-operatized New School would still exist inside a capitalist global political economy. The University would still depend on exploitative supply chains and services from capitalist enterprises. Co-operatization does not address the fact that education itself still remains a commodified good.

Challenges abound. But given the growing dissatisfaction with and skyrocketing cost of higher education, we have good reasons to try something else. A co-operatized university presents a new set of solutions to long-standing challenges, both within academia and across our economy. It can recast our university as a distinctive social experiment. It can provide wholly new learning experiences for students. It can create real economic equity for employees. As we approach the Centennial of the founding of The New School, our Founders still have something to teach us. A cooperative university is not only possible in the near future. It has been the promise of The New School all along.


Michael McHugh is the Project Manager for the Platform Co-operative Development Kit, a new initiative homed at The New School working to develop cooperatives in the digital economy. From 2014 to 2018, he was a full-time employee of The New School’s Eugene Lang College and a part-time graduate student at The New School for Social Research. This May, under the advisement of Richard D. Wolff and R. Trebor Scholz, he completed his master’s degree and graduate thesis on worker cooperatives, focusing on how The New School could transition to a cooperative structure. Prior to The New School, Michael worked in the national executive office of The Posse Foundation. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Grinnell College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with honors.


[1] Peter M. Rutkoff, and William B. Scott. New School: A History of the New School for Social Research (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 5

[2] Ibid., 10


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