Letter to the Community Feb. 24, 2017
To The Cooper Union Community:
This past December, I was elected as the chair of The Cooper Union Board of Trustees. With just 70-plus days in this new role, I wanted to tell you a little about myself, share several updates and assure you that regular Board communications to the full Cooper Union community will become the standard moving forward.
I was first elected to the Board in 2012 and although not an alumna, Cooper Union has always been a part of my life. My father, Willard L. Warren EE’50, remains as involved and committed to the school today as when he graduated years ago. From his stories of the academic rigor to our many visits to Green Camp, the school holds a special place in our family. Through my involvement on the Board, my respect for the quality of the students and the faculty who teach them has grown immeasurably. I am proud to serve as chair of this remarkable institution to honor my father and also to honor the legacy that Peter Cooper established more than a century ago.
As most of you know, after several tumultuous years, we now operate under a shared governance structure which presents equal parts challenge, opportunity and optimism. We are facing significant but surmountable financial challenges that demand fiscal responsibility and a shared commitment to Cooper Union’s long-term financial health. I believe that we – the Board and the Cooper community – have emerged stronger than before and this is our moment to work together to reaffirm Cooper Union’s historic significance as a revered academic, cultural and civic institution. We are all stewards of Peter Cooper’s legacy and I am enthusiastic and excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.
New President Laura Sparks
I must begin with a warm welcome to our new president, Laura Sparks. President Sparks officially assumed her role on January 4th, following a very active transition period during the fall. Then and since her arrival, she has spent time with students, faculty and staff; academic, administrative and alumni leaders; as well as faculty representatives to the Board, Board committees and the team planning for the upcoming Middle States accreditation. She has received briefings on and is now fully engaged in a full range of personnel, operational and administrative matters. She and I meet regularly and her approach is one of warmth and transparency with an ability to get to the heart of the matter deftly and quickly. To that point, she’s established a series of opportunities for ongoing conversation with students, faculty and staff and will be doing the same for alumni – I encourage people from all areas of the college to take her up on these. I am enormously impressed with President Sparks and I have heard the same from many of you who have already met her.
On behalf of the Board, I’d also like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Bill Mea whose leadership as acting president of The Cooper Union came at a time when the institution needed it most. Bill has been an ideal partner, both for the Board and with the campus community, and we have great confidence that his working partnership with President Sparks and with the Board will continue to strengthen this extraordinary institution.
Board Leadership & Engagement
As I mentioned at the outset, I am committed to increasing Board engagement with the community and improving transparency around the Board’s functions and responsibilities. To amplify this, we are returning Board meetings to on-campus locations; organizing pre-meeting events with various Cooper Union constituents; continuing our quarterly meetings with student representatives; and planning for a series of regular communications, including publishing a quarterly Q&A based on questions we receive from The Cooper Union community. In addition, the Board and the administration are back in a meaningful and productive relationship with the CUAA and I thank fellow trustee and CUAA President Nils Folke Anderson for his leadership and guidance in getting this crucial relationship back to common, solid ground. Finally, trustees are being encouraged to attend more events on campus and to engage with our incredibly talented students.
In addition to my new role, Eric Hirschhorn ME’89 and Kevin Slavin A’95 now serve as vice chairs of the Board; we reappointed Joseph Dobronyi, Thomas Driscoll ME’77, and Jeremy Wertheimer EE’82; and we elected two new trustees Kevin Burke EE’72, retired president and chairman of ConEdison Inc., and Brian Steinwurtzel, managing director of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, the global commercial real estate advisory firm. Welcome to Kevin and Brian, and congratulations to all. (You can find Board bios here.)
Retiring from the Board in December were Edgar Mokuvos ’78, Robert Bernhard and Richard Lincer – our thanks for their many years of service. I am particularly grateful to Rich Lincer for his tireless service as a trustee for 12 years and as chairman for the past three years during an extraordinarily challenging period. Like me, Rich is the child of an alumnus and his leadership and generous support of the school serves as an inspiration to all of us. Thank you, Rich!
Special January Board Meeting
On January 31st, the Board convened for a special meeting in which President Sparks presented the framework for a strategic planning process which we will embark upon with the Cooper community this year and which will tie together the work of the Free Education Committee (FEC) and the Middle States accreditation process. At that meeting, we also reviewed the FY16 audited financial statements and discussed the FEC’s Progress Report (see below).
Free Education Committee
As many of you know, the FEC, a committee of the Board, has been working since last year to develop a plan to return Cooper Union to a sustainable, full-tuition scholarship model that maintains our strong reputation for academic quality and enrollment levels within the Art, Architecture and Engineering programs.
In mid-January, the committee submitted its Progress Report in which it (a) summarized its extensive fact-finding efforts; (b) reported that $9.1 million of expenses could be reduced over the next two years without jeopardizing academic excellence; and (c) articulated key metrics which will be used for assessing the institution’s long-term financial health and for evaluating the impact of the various initiatives which are being considered to help Cooper Union return to a 100% full scholarship model sooner than 2039 (as indicated by our current financial projections). I should note that the FEC has received invaluable guidance from Kroll Associates, the Financial Monitor appointed by the NYS Attorney General’s office in July 2016, and Kroll’s Annual Report, dated February 15, 2017, can viewed here.
I can unequivocally state that the Board is committed to supporting the FEC in its efforts. To that end, the Board has directed President Sparks and her team to implement the various cost-cutting measures that have already been identified and approved by the Board. And while we understand that budget cuts alone will not return Cooper Union to a 100% scholarship model, it is a critical first step. Indeed, as the FEC noted, financial difficulties which were decades in the making will not be quickly solved. Accordingly, other initiatives for revenue growth and debt reduction must be explored and, of course, increased fundraising will be an essential component of our future success. I hope you will join in efforts to support the school.
In the coming year, the FEC will work closely with President Sparks, other committees of the Board, and members of the campus community to develop its final recommendations due in January 2018.
I’ll end with a nod of gratitude to all members of our community who came together to celebrate Founder’s Day and commemorate the important legacy of this institution during our inaugural Cooper Together week. More than 400 students, alumni, faculty and staff gathered in New York, Houston, Boca Raton, San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington DC, Seattle, Chicago and Detroit to commemorate what is uniquely Cooper Union. I had the opportunity to participate in several events that week and enjoyed meeting so many of you and hearing about your Cooper experiences. That kind of enthusiasm buoys all of us for the future, making hope contagious, as we work to again break new ground as a leading institution of higher education.
I look forward to collaborating with my fellow trustees, with President Sparks, with our esteemed faculty and our incredibly dedicated staff to continue the important work of The Cooper Union.