Meet the Deans: Alan Wolf

October 17, 2012

Alan Wolf in his office

Alan Wolf in his office

Alan Wolf, professor of physics at Cooper Union for over 25 years and current Acting Dean of the Albert N. Nerken School of Engineering has an oddly fortuitous relationship with the institution.  Originally a physics major at Cooper, he became an unwitting member of the “lost” class of 1978.  Later he ended up returning as an assistant professor after an unlikely set of circumstances that began with a jog in Central Park.  Now, thanks partly to a sudden need for an Acting Dean, he finds himself shepherding the engineering school through one of its most challenging periods.  As part of a new series we call “Meet the Deans” we sat down with Alan Wolf to discuss his goals during his tenure, his surprising second career, and why he may not be technically qualified for any of this.

Now 55, Alan Wolf grew up in Douglaston, New York, on the North Shore of Long Island.  An avid reader of science fiction – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was a favorite – his life has been oriented around science since the beginning.  He attended Cooper Union for two years but left in 1976 when the physics and math degree-granting departments were converted to service departments due to budget constraints. After completing a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Texas at Austin he returned to New York in the mid-1980s and has lived in Manhattan ever since.  Currently located five minutes from campus he lives with his partner Gina, two cats, Marca and Nathan, and has a 28-year-old daughter (a Cooper alum) who lives in New Jersey.

Tell me about your first experience at Cooper.

I started my undergraduate education here.  I was a physics major, and would have graduated in '78 but I left in '76 when they terminated the physics degree program.  They allowed current juniors and seniors to graduate, but freshman and sophomores - I was a sophomore - were told either to transfer from a science major to an engineering major, or to leave.

How did you feel about it?

It was an unexpected disruption in my life, but I don't recall being angry – just shocked. It was a fact of life. I went to SUNY Stony Brook and as a junior there I repeated the work that I had done as a sophomore at Cooper. In other words, the physics program at Cooper was hard core. But I have a great story about Stony brook.

Do tell.

Stony Brook very much wanted the physics majors that had been displaced from Cooper. So they sent a few of their physics faculty to Cooper to entice us. But they left out a certain critical fact when they made their presentation, which is that because Cooper had limited humanities requirements, and Stony Brook had many, that we would have to take a large number of credits to catch up.  I don’t recall the exact number, but believe it was over 30 credits.  I’m thinking, “I only have two years here, and they want me to take this huge number of non-physics courses. I don’t want to take any of them.”  So I went to the main administrative building on campus and I found a woman whose title seemed like it was relevant to my situation.  She didn't immediately understand my situation and request.  She said, "You're trying to avoid taking science classes?" And I said, "No, I want to take exclusively science classes. As a physicist, if I’m going to do any serious work, it will happen when I’m in my 20’s or 30’s, or it won’t happen at all.  I promise that when I’m old (say, 40), I will study music, art appreciation and history, but I don't want to do that now. I want to take exclusively math and science courses." She was amused and said, "I'll see what I can do." And a week later in the mail I get a new humanities requirements card that has the number zero on it.  So that taught me not to be shy about asking for things.  Therefore it may be true that I don't have a valid undergraduate degree, which may mean I don't have a valid Ph.D., which means I should possibly be removed from the faculty at Cooper Union. [Laughs]

How did you end up back at Cooper Union?

There is an amazing story about how I got my job at Cooper.  My Ph. D. advisor had encouraged me to look for post-doctoral positions and to think about ultimately getting a faculty position, but I was just too burnt out from my graduate work to consider that.  Because a friend was moving out of a rent controlled apartment on Broome St. and had offered it to me that week I thought, “I'm just going to go back to New York. I will flip burgers or work in the construction trades.” I wasn't really thinking about getting a job in physics. That's common after the exhaustion of wrapping up a dissertation. I was at the time a distance runner.  I was running about 40 miles a week. So I spent my days running from Broome St. up to Central Park. I would run around Central Park a few times and then run home.

One day I needed a bathroom on the run home from the park and I saw the American Physical Society Building in midtown. I was a student member so I go in, dripping sweat, and I ask them if I can use their bathroom. The guard looks at me and says, "not a chance.” I look behind the guard and there are all these little placards on the wall that named the divisions of the organization, and one of them is Manpower Placement Division.  So I said, “I'm here to find a job as a Physicist,” which was not true, but I thought it would get me into the building. Instead he calls upstairs and says a woman will come down and bring me a list of physics jobs in Manhattan.  She and I are standing there going through the ten-page list.

And you still hadn't gone to the bathroom?

I still hadn't gone to the bathroom. So, on the last page - I believe it was the last item on the last page - it said, “The Cooper Union,” which was my alma matter, “seeking a tenure track assistant professor in physics.” The deadline for applying was that day. She allowed me to make a phone call from the guard's desk. I contacted someone who had been one of my professors years before when I was an undergrad. He said, "We interviewed a hundred-plus people.  Today is the last day. Since you're an alum, as a courtesy we will allow you to come in, if you can get here within the next hour or so.” So I ran the remaining blocks down to Soho, showered, treated myself to a cab to Cooper, interviewed, and got the job. So it was a pretty unlikely sequence of events. 

It may surprise some to learn that you later got a law degree.  How did that come about?

For many years I would be called to jury duty when I was teaching. Back then you could actually write reasonable excuses and get a large number of deferrals. Finally they caught me over the Summer. I was on an attempted murder trial, which was very exciting.  There were death threats.  I was under police protection for one night.  My neighbors must have been wondering why a policeman was standing outside my apartment door all night. So I was watching the young woman who was the prosecutor, she couldn’t have been out of law school for very long, who was also getting death threats, and I was very impressed by what she did. She had to deal, not only with the defendant’s witnesses during cross-examination, but with her own witnesses who she had to treat as ‘hostile,’ denying what they had previously told her, because they were getting death threats too. And, then of course she would be going home at the end of the day only to prepare for the next day – reading cases, dealing with evidence, strategizing.  I thought it was a fascinating thing, to have to do this life and death task that was so complex and unpredictable. I mean, there was a theater element to it, but she also had to be completely on top of the law, and also gracefully handle problems in real time. I thought it was a fascinating change from  teaching physics or doing physics research, which called upon none of those skills. 

So Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School [part of Yeshiva University] had a program where if you were a faculty member in a non-legal area, you could do the first year of law school in 2 consecutive summers. So I did that. It didn't interfere with teaching at Cooper, and I discovered that criminal law was incredibly tedious.  But I fell in love with contract law, which sounds on its face completely boring but was to me completely fascinating. I did my second and third year work at Cardozo while I was teaching full time at Cooper. I would teach a class at Cooper and run to Cardozo to take a law class 15 minutes later.

Where did the law degree take you?

I took a year off from Cooper to serve as a law clerk to a federal judge. And what that means, basically, is you spend a year drafting the judge's opinions. The judge is busy at trials so judges, at least trial court judges, don't write their own opinions. I spent a year drafting opinions, which means that I was basically deciding cases – at least the very large fraction that are dismissed for one or another reason and don’t make it to trial. My judge of course reviewed my work, but I wrote about 50 decisions that year, and he only changed the outcome of one of them.

I also served as what is called a ‘Special Master’ to a different judge on what was, at the time, the largest litigation in U.S. history, the silicone breast implant litigation, where women argued that their breast implants were giving them connective tissues diseases like lupus.  Then I got a call from Cardozo law school asking, "How would you like to teach law?" I started teaching courses like Science in the Courtroom, which was about the admissibility of scientific evidence.  For example, it turns out Breathalyzers are complete nonsense. When you consume alcohol, there is some alcohol vapor in your expired breath, and it does somehow relate to how much alcohol is in your blood. But the relationship between the two is completely unclear, and varies from person to person and from hour to hour.  So because the law only cares how much alcohol is in your blood, there is a question as to whether or not courts should admit Breathalyzer test results as evidence.

I taught courses like this for a while and one day they asked me to teach Patent Law. As you may or may not know, any lawyer who has gone to law school and has to pass the bar exam can call themselves any kind of lawyer. A matrimonial lawyer is just a lawyer. A criminal defense lawyer is just a lawyer. But a patent lawyer has to pass both the regular bar exam and a patent bar exam, and you can't take the patent exam unless you have a science degree – which no one else on their faculty had. So they asked me to train myself as a patent lawyer, which I did, and for my last seven years at Cardozo I taught exclusively patent law courses.  I still teach patent law at Cooper because some of our graduates want to go to law school, but more importantly, we have many bright and creative students capable of creating patentable inventions, and it would be a shame if they all ended up as mid-level engineers assigning their patents to an employer for $1.  These students should be aware of the option of becoming entrepreneurs, or at least understanding intellectual property concepts.  We are starting to think about programs in our curriculum where we nurture those options.

Do you hold any patents yourself?

No. My personal interest in patent law is really in the law, not in the commercial exploitation of an invention.  Personally, I’m not that fascinated with money – else I’d be in a law firm.  But this past summer I ran a new patent course, on a small scale, that de-emphasized the law, and focused more on how an inventor actually gets a patent.  I gave my students a few days to invent something, and they spent the rest of the summer drafting a patent application for that invention.  One or two of those students may actually file those applications.  The remaining students now have the knowledge and skill to do this with anything they invent later in their careers.  I’ve made a proposal to the engineering school to make this a graduation requirement – that every single engineering student invent something, and draft a provisional patent application for it.  Maybe it will be adopted, maybe it won’t be.  But down the road it could be a valuable revenue stream for the student inventors, the faculty and staff, and for the institution.  The ‘secret’ of my approach to doing intellectual property is not to make it an afterthought but to have the student inventor carefully study the “prior art” before they begin inventing.  It never happens in universities that way, and it is why many schools make so little from their patent portfolios.

You are currently the Acting Dean and have declined to be considered as a candidate to be the actual Dean.  Why?

I love teaching.  I love working on projects.  Last year I taught a course called “Scientific Photography.”  It was an unexpected pleasure.  As a complete afterthought in designing the course I had the students do a small artistic portfolio in addition to their main technical project.  The artistic work is fantastic.  It will be shown in the Houghton Gallery in December, and we are publishing a beautiful book that includes much of this work.  I want to spend my time doing more things like this.  More time teaching, less time in meetings.

Why did you accept the job of Acting Dean?

I thought that my unique combination of personal attributes, such as being impatient, and caring deeply about the school, made me the right person to help the engineering school during our reinvention process.

How's that going?

So far so good. We have five committees that are working on reinvention in the Engineering school. We have a committee considering undergraduate tuition, a committee considering tuition from other programs, including but not limited to graduate programs. We have a faculty morale committee, a committee considering the excellence of our undergraduate curriculum, and a communications committee. We will pull the reports of these committees together for President Bharucha by November 15.  If he approves of our plans he will present them to the Board in December.

Did your unlucky experience as an undergraduate at Cooper inform your approach towards the current fiscal challenges?

Ever since I left Cooper in ‘76 the threat of our financial extinction has been a nearly constant part of my experience here.  We've known for decades that we were headed for our current situation and no one took action.  I’m both furious about that and willing to put my anger aside -- completely ignore the past and focus on the future.  We have come to the point where something dramatic has to be done.

Are there any other initiatives that you are interested in focusing on during your tenure as Acting Dean?

Intellectual Property.  I mentioned that earlier, but I never pass up an opportunity to repeat that mantra.  The other big thing right now is preparing for our engineering accreditation visit from ABET [Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology].  It will be an interesting week – the ABET visitors will be scrutinizing our school from Dec. 2 – 4 and the board will meet on Dec. 5 to evaluate our reinvention plans. 

Where do you imagine Cooper being in five years?

Thriving.  I have seen the faculty mobilize incredibly in the last couple of months. Until we started the reinvention process, we have, for the most part, been so focused on teaching our students that we failed to be reflective about who we are and who we want to be and where we fit in 21st century. We have now been forced to do a lot of self-exploration and I think it will have terrific consequences.  For example we have a new faculty website, developed gratis by a pair of students, where we can share our work with each other and the world. The faculty is very focused and very engaged. I have never seen this level of cooperation among faculty in the School of Engineering.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.