Cabinet Response to the Student Letter of June 8, 2020
We would like to thank the 451 signatories of the Collective Student Response to Fostering an Actively Anti-Racist Institution for the efforts you made in articulating both the challenges we face as an institution and a proposed set of actions that we can take. We would also like to thank those of you who reached out separately to share your thoughts. We understand from those who have reached out that some voices may not have been fully heard through this document, and we look forward to hearing from as many people as possible. You’ll see that reflected in the approach we outline below.
We appreciate the desire for ongoing dialogue and an overall framework for further work and action towards becoming an anti-racist institution. For many reasons, including social, economic, political, and academic power structures; long-held cultures, practices, and belief systems; and the histories that drove these, the work is hard, complex, and uncomfortable for some. We accept that and commit to taking it on, for it is only in cutting through this complexity and taking on the discomfort that we can achieve fundamental, lasting change. We understand both that the challenges are grounded in centuries of history that will take time to address and that the need for change is urgent; we are committed to both short- and long-term action.
Finally, we recognize that sustainable and long-lasting change requires ongoing support, coordination, collaboration, resources, and leadership. We are committed to providing all of these things and to working closely with the Board of Trustees to ensure that the school’s strategic plan, institutional goals, financial oversight, and overall governance is consistent with, and reflective of, our shared commitment to advancing the mission and values of the school. We know we must do this work together, and we look forward to the opportunity to create a better, stronger and more inclusive institution.
Below, we outline a list of short-term actions and a framework for further work.
A framework for Ongoing Dialogue, Education, and Action
As a Cabinet, we are committed to eradicating racism at The Cooper Union and beyond. We know this requires specific and lasting change to the way we do things as individuals, as an institution, as a city, and as a country, and the framework outlined below is designed to realize this change. It’s clear to us that this work will advance our institutional goals to:
- Create an institution of excellence
- Prepare students to question and lead in a complex world
- Develop leading-edge models for higher education that consider the ethical, cultural, and environmental contexts and consequences of technical and creative disciplines
- Lead by example to promote civil discourse and engagement on important civic issues
- Advance the fields of Architecture, Art, and Engineering and foster intersections of study and practice among them
We will pursue this work through a holistic framework, including the following areas:
Defining the Work – From the conversations we’ve had with students, faculty, staff, and each other, it’s clear that not everyone is working from the same set of definitions. It will be important to define the scope of the work we will take on together. The work that Assistant Dean Nada Ayad and several students did over the course of the year to uncover, clarify, and define the term decolonization, culminating in a compelling exhibition in the Colonnade windows, is a powerful example of the importance of this kind of definitional work. We are developing a glossary of terms and will make that available at the end of the summer as one tool to help guide us in this work.
Educating Ourselves – This work begins with self-reflection, self-accountability, and building a deeper understanding of ourselves, of others’ lived experiences, and of the issues. We know that this educational process must come both from within The Cooper Union and with outside expertise. This will include individual and shared readings, education and training, outside speakers, and facilitated discussion. It also requires reflection on the foundational aspects of our prior education that have formed our thinking to date (e.g., our prior readings, our prior teachers, our critical methods, and the cultures that have informed our understandings to date).
Listening – A critical part of this education process is to listen. We appreciate all of the time, effort, energy, and creativity that went into the letter that was sent to us. Our hope is to continue an inclusive set of conversations across The Cooper Union to make sure that all voices are heard and all students have an opportunity speak their truth. We know that different formats work for different people. To this end, we are developing a number of approaches to continue to provide multiple vehicles for students to express their opinions and have begun to outline some of them below.
Accepting Responsibility for Past Bad Acts and Insufficient Action – We know that there are current students, alumni, faculty, and staff who have been hurt by the words and actions of other faculty, staff, and students. We also know that our institutional contracts, governances, policies and practices have been used as a barrier to making positive change and for removing people from our community who inflict harm on others. We want to both publicly acknowledge and apologize for the pain this has created. As described below, we are committed to examining and changing the structures that enable harmful behavior.
Celebrating Our Strengths – In all that we do, we will recognize, honor, and celebrate the valuable contributions of BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ people. Our successes as an institution, a city, and a country are derived from these contributions, and it’s critical that we center them in our public programs, exhibitions, and daily work.
Reexamination of Our Structures and Our Hiring – We are committed to structures that allow for ongoing, non-hierarchical, and collaborative dialogue. We also know that, to make change that is both timely and lasting, we must assess the legal and governance structures within which we operate. These structures, by definition, influence hiring outcomes, and we must explore how they may be dampening the diversity of our faculty and staff.
Developing a Plan of Action and Setting Priorities – As an institution that seeks to keep scholarships high and costs low, our staffing structures and discretionary spending are limited. This means that time and resources have to be allocated carefully, and we must focus our priorities. If we spread ourselves too thin by trying to do too much at once, we risk not doing any of it well. This is not a reason for inaction; rather, it is a reason for focused action.
Listening: As noted above, we are developing multiple vehicles for students to express their opinions. The approaches include the following, and the information gathered through these mechanisms will be used to inform changes. Student Affairs will arrange these communications channels:
• In addition to the meetings the deans are hosting within each school, we will also create forums for students to meet with us as a full group. These meetings will begin this summer. Student Affairs will soon release information about dates and times.
• Online channels for students to provide direct thoughts and feedback on the work of the administration, including online feedback forms and online opportunities to comment on institutional priorities and plans. You can expect the first feedback form in July and opportunities to meet this summer.
• Building on the existing campus climate surveys, which we have run for the past two years. This year we will launch our Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey and the Diverse Learning Environments Survey. Both will be customized for The Cooper Union. We are working with the Institutional Review Board on the timing of when we can release these, but our hope is to release them in the fall, and our plan is to make the results available to the community.
• Regular (virtual and eventually in person) opportunities for the community to come together and talk. As noted below, we are working to migrate to block scheduling to make this easier.
• Surveys and focus group discussions of recently graduated alumni. While we are committed to creating a culture of constructive critique at all levels, we also know from listening to many that, particularly in a small school, it can be challenging to provide constructive criticism while still a student. Our recent graduates can provide near-immediate feedback on their experiences and, in doing so, help us to identify what is working well and what needs to be improved, without any concern about the potential ramifications with respect to grades or classroom/studio experiences. Student Affairs and Alumni Affairs will hold the first forum in September, informed by the feedback we are getting from current students over the summer.
• Meetings with Trustees to share feedback, concerns, and ideas. At least twice a year, Ad Chairs and Trustees meet so that Trustees can hear directly from students. For future meetings, we will expand the agenda and attendees to address issues of race and equity. These meetings are typically scheduled once students’ schedules are set for the semester. Student Affairs will work with the Black Student Union, Cooper Climate Coalition, Q&A (Queer and Allies), oSTEM (Out in Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), the Ad Chairs and other individuals, student groups and organizations to identify a date and a student-driven agenda.
Anti-Racism Education: We will implement a sustained program of workshops and educational sessions for faculty, staff, students, and Trustees on cultivating anti-racist environments, including but not limited to topics of bias and discrimination, decolonization, intersectionality, and anti-racist pedagogy. We will spend the summer planning and engaging outside expertise, with the aim of launching the program in the fall semester. Much of this work is already underway, as we began the planning efforts earlier in the academic year. We will evaluate the efforts at the end of the first year and make refinements for subsequent years. For incoming students, we will begin this program during orientation this summer.
Community Safety: Allied Universal provides the security in our buildings and for private events when security is necessary. The Cooper Union does not have any contractual relationships with the NYPD for private security at events or otherwise. We have initiated discussions with our local NYPD precinct to understand why the mobile units are located outside of Cooper, how the locations are chosen, what their purpose is, and whether they can be moved away from Cooper. We will urge that the units be moved unless we learn that there is a reason not to that is in the benefit of students, faculty, and staff of The Cooper Union. In either case, we will report back to the community on our progress and what we learn. “Instinct” has been canceled and is no longer renting space at The Cooper Union, and going forward, we will develop a set of guiding principles for filming and space rentals consistent with our institutional values and goals. The NYPD has not rented the Great Hall since 2018, and understanding the safety risks and discomfort that police presence creates for many in our community, we will not proceed with rentals by the NYPD in the future. We are also working with our local precinct to better understand their presence in our buildings and to help them understand the safety risks and fear it creates for members of our community. Based on these discussions, we will make a decision about how to move forward. At a minimum, going forward, all members of the NYPD will be required to sign in as other guests are required to do, and we will require that they be accompanied by a member of our security or other staff when in the building.
Decolonization: We are committed to the decolonization of curricula across all four academic programs. This includes but is not limited to an evaluation of the canon we are teaching, pedagogical methods, faculty hiring, and the power structures inherent in classroom and studio relationships. Ultimately, it will be up to the Curriculum Committees of the Schools of Architecture, Art, and Engineering and the Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences to recommend changes to the curriculum given the current structure of faculty governance. We understand that this is a significant undertaking, and that it is long overdue. It represents an opportunity to significantly advance the quality of our academic program and to truly lead. We will spend the summer evaluating various approaches for undertaking this work, including seeking faculty feedback, and will announce a plan in the fall, including a timeline, for how we will work with the faculty to decolonize the curriculum.
Administrative, Academic Governance, Contractual, and Committee Structures: We will re-evaluate whether we are appropriately structured to genuinely and authentically achieve an academic program, a workplace, a culture, and a community that is joyful, rigorous, and equitable. We are also committed to developing an inventory of the governance and contractual structures and our policies and procedures that have the potential to accelerate or impede positive change. We will work with the Board of Trustees in conducting their required oversight of each school’s governance to ensure consistent practices throughout the organization. We trust that existing contracts, structures, and policies were designed in good faith for good reasons. We also know that, as times change, contracts, structures, and policies should all be re-evaluated to determine whether they continue to serve faculty, staff, students, and institutions well. We believe that a regular review of these structures is good practice and think that improvements would make greater change possible. Creating this inventory and a plan of action will take some time, but we are committed to it. In addition, we will seek to learn from the recent experiences of other academic and cultural institutions as we think about the most effective ways to evaluate Trustee, faculty, and staff affiliations.
Outreach: We proactively raise funds for the Saturday Program and Cooper’s other outreach programs every year and will continue to do so, including seeking funding for additional scholarships for tuition-charging programs. We engage with many NYC public schools and are eager to expand the list further, with a focus on communities of color, with respect to our art and STEM outreach programs, as well as for college admission. This year, we will initiate a process for the Summer and Academic Year program faculty, staff, and students to engage in a review of the current model and practices of our outreach programs to assess how the programs can actively promote an anti-racist experience and culture. This will involve a comprehensive review of program elements, goals, and pedagogies. We will also seek more opportunities to promote and celebrate the outreach programs, including the Retraining Program for Immigrant Engineers and other programs that provide education and training for underserved students.
Other Near-Term Initiatives:
Supporting Agents of Change: While we accept responsibility for and look forward to making important change in these areas, we also know that there are many in our community who already have many ideas for how to move our collective work forward, toward becoming an anti-racist institution, community, and city. We will dedicate this year’s Internal Grant Program to proposals from faculty, staff, and students that advance anti-racist practices and culture change at The Cooper Union and in New York more broadly. Guidelines and the application process will be posted in August; proposals will be due in October, and awards will be made by December.
Shared Summer Readings: As part of this summer’s new student orientation, Dean Chamberlin and Assistant Dean Ayad, with input from the Black Student Union and the Cooper Climate Coalition, will collaborate in offering shared readings and discussion groups on Race, Equity, and Intersectional Justice. These readings will also be made available to our broader community of faculty, staff, students and Trustees for community-wide discussion groups.
Community Space and Gatherings: We have prioritized the development of community space – formal and informal, physical and virtual. Just before we left Cooper Square for COVID-19, we had established several new community spaces in 41 Cooper Square and were actively working with students and staff to establish new community spaces in the Foundation Building. This work will continue. In addition, as part of the launch of the Fall 2020 semester, we will be launching new virtual community spaces. The Office of Enrollment and all of the Deans have committed to prioritizing the development of block scheduling to help make space for regular formal and informal community gatherings and to make it easier for students to take classes across schools. We know that this will deepen students’ educational program and build greater understanding across our schools and communities. Our goal is to have at least the beginnings of this in place by the Spring semester.
Great Hall: The Great Hall is an iconic venue which symbolizes the ideals of free speech, progressive movements, and civic discourse. Over the past few years, Great Hall programming has allowed us to promote important issues on a national level. Our work was interrupted by COVID-19, but we intended to develop virtual programming which will continue our important mission/efforts to “reactivate” this historic landmark. We are excited by the ideas proposed for the Great Hall, including and especially the commitment to centering Black voices, and welcome additional student involvement. Several students have already been involved, and Student Affairs and Public Programs will collaborate to engage more students in the programming process. Beginning this academic year, we will dedicate a stream of Great Hall events (virtual and, eventually, in person) to completely student-led programming. We are committed to making at least nine student-led events possible (at least one each month of the academic year). You will hear more from Student Affairs and Public Programs about how to get involved. We are committed to featuring more BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ voices and to collaborating with organizations that have more diverse audiences. As noted above, we will also establish a set of guiding principles for rental events, consistent with the institution’s values and goals.
Exhibitions Committee: The Exhibitions Committee will be asked to review the plan for exhibitions to ensure that it lives up to our commitment to celebrate the work and accomplishments of BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ people.
Council on Shared Learning: We continue to await the report from the Council on Shared Learning and look forward to reviewing and addressing the recommendations contained therein.
Communications Channels: We will continue to look for ways to use our communications channels to amplify issues impacting BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ lives. The Communications team will also establish a student communications advisory group. Information about how to participate will come from Student Affairs.
Educational Resources: We continue to make anti-racism educational resources available on our website. If you have resource or ideas for programming, speakers, or events you would like to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Support: While The Cooper Union is not in a position to directly donate funds to other organizations, we regularly make our facilities and staff available to organizations working in the public interest and will continue to do so. We have also posted resources, including a number of organizations doing important anti-racism work on our website so that people in our community can learn more about these organizations and support them.
Each of the academic programs have already communicated via email and/or in school meetings about the issues raised in the letter and actions they are taking. Along with Student Affairs, they will continue this work, including regular town halls/school assemblies, related to the program-specific requests in the coming weeks and months. This includes the issues related to grades, academic standards, and add/drop.
There are a number of things we’d like to clarify and resources we’d like to illuminate in response to other issues and requests raised in the letter:
Board of Trustee meeting minutes are posted after each quarterly meeting and include reports from each of the Board’s committees. You can find them here. The Board has two Student Trustees who serve as full voting members of the Board. This is a highly unusual practice at colleges and universities, and something we are very proud of. The nomination/election process is typically reported in The Pioneer. Student Affairs and Ad Chairs also make the information available in advance of the student voting process. We encourage everyone who is interested in serving to reach out to Dean Chamberlin for more information.
Faculty and Administrative Committee Meetings all have student representatives, as both an act of transparency and engagement. The Deans had all previously committed to post Faculty and Administrative Committee meeting minutes, but the administrative work was never completed. We will retroactively post all of the 2019-20 meeting minutes by the end of July, and going forward, minutes for these meetings will be posted within one week of approval so that students who are interested can view the topics of discussion.
Complaint Process – The process for filing a complaint about the actions of a faculty or staff member can be found here. We will also make clear the grievance and dismissal process and post to this same site.
Mental Health and Wellness – We currently have two licensed social workers on staff at Cooper. Our student care coordinator is full-time and our student counselor is part-time. We continue to offer short-term therapy directly to students through a team of roughly 20 clinicians. A student’s clinician will work with the student to determine whether short-term therapy is beneficial or the student's situation warrants longer-term, on-going care. Students who need on-going longer-term care are assisted in finding providers who are in their insurance plan. We have connected with our clinical team and all providers on our website are accepting new patients. We have BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ clinicians, and we will continue to recruit a more diverse clinical team including more BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ mental health providers. We are working with providers to see whether they are comfortable self-identifying as BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ so that we can make this information available on our website. We will make sure that the information about our student health insurance plan is clearer and easier to access. We support and will continue to support reforms in how communities, especially NYC, support people needing immediate mental health crisis support. Whenever possible we use other vehicles such as NYC Well and local mobile crisis response teams. We know that NYPD is often not the optimal route for supporting mental health crisis needs, but there are times, in the current structure, where that becomes our only option for immediate response for true emergency situations.
Other Health Resources – We have an abundant supply of condoms and will work with the Facilities team to place them in helpful locations. We continue to look for a program that makes free tampons and pads available.
Great Hall Availability for Community Purposes – We have a practice of offering the Great Hall to community groups for a reduced price (passing on only the costs of things like insurance and security) and will continue to make and promote the space we have available for events and gatherings in the public interest.
Student organization budgets – Understanding the financial burden reimbursement processes may put on students, Student Affairs will work with the Business Office to develop procedures that make it easier for students to receive approved funding upfront rather than after the fact through a reimbursement.
Use of Materials – We agree that it is critical to better understand the use and consumption of materials in the academic programs and at an institutional level, as well as the disposal and management of waste and recycling. When we are back on campus, we will develop a plan for assessing the environmental impacts and addressing them.
As noted above, this is a significant and profoundly important undertaking. To do it well, we will need to focus, and part of our work over the summer will be to prioritize and develop plans that support high-quality implementation of this work, which we expect to occur in a sustained, ongoing way over many years. After our planning work this summer, we will provide our community with an implementation timeline and mechanisms for assessing our collective progress in the spirit of holding each other accountable for making lasting, substantive change.