4 Questions for Malcolm King EE’97

POSTED ON: April 16, 2021

Malcom King

Malcom King. Photo by Joao Enxuto/The Cooper Union

Malcolm King EE’97 has served on Cooper’s Board of Trustees since 2013, officially stepping into his new role as chair this past December. He previously served as chair of the Audit Committee and also serves as a member of the Free Education Committee (FEC), which was responsible for developing the Board-approved plan to return Cooper to full-tuition scholarships. He is a co-chair of Cooper Union on Wall Street (CUWS) and is currently head of Cybersecurity Risk & Control at Wells Fargo. The following conversation is excerpted from an interview with Malcolm King for the Albert Nerken School of Engineering as well as a recent virtual fireside chat between Malcolm King and several fellow alumni from the Class of 1997.

What does being an alumnus bring to your service as board chair?

My relationship with the institution has changed over the past several years, and I’d say really in a good way and in a deeper way. For the decade after I graduated, I was very grateful to Cooper for what it meant to me, what it meant to us as students. But that changed with what we refer to as our own financial crisis, when we were not able to offer full-tuition scholarships anymore. As a board, we were compelled to revise the mission statement because the old mission statement had referred to the full-tuition scholarships. So, we had to do some soul searching to think about what Cooper meant to us. What does it mean to the world? Why is it worthwhile? That forced us outside of the mindset of just being alums of Cooper. What we discovered through reading history, getting feedback from the community, and reading Peter Cooper’s own words about his aspirations for the institution, was a better understanding of Peter Cooper’s vision and intent.

Besides offering access to students, to people who couldn’t otherwise afford a college education, the idea was to foster a sense of civic responsibility, a sense of morality, and a desire to do good in the world. That’s what he wanted the school to really teach us, besides what the curriculum provided.

I also came to better understand the role of the Great Hall in Peter Cooper’s vision. We think of the Great Hall in the historical context—many famous people spoke there and in many cases they delivered historically significant speeches. That wasn’t by chance. Peter Cooper intended for the institution to be a platform for civic discourse to advance good in society by addressing the critical problems of the time.

Cooper has actually meant more to me as I’ve become less focused on my personal history with the institution. Now, I see Cooper as not only a gift to us as alumni, but as a self-perpetuating gift to society whose breadth and impact is unrivaled, in my view.

What do diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you?

The Cooper Union was founded with the objective of being inclusive, as Peter Cooper wanted to provide the opportunity to enjoy a formal education regardless of economic status, race, or gender. Staying true to his vision compels us to stay engaged and be aware of how we are supporting inclusion. Most people guess that I was raised with strong awareness of social justice and the history of civil rights because of my name, and they are correct. Sometimes, I clarify for people that I am named after Malcolm X, not Malcolm Forbes, just so they’re sure.

There are two core principles that I have embraced from Malcolm X’s life and speeches. The first is the importance of highlighting injustice where it exists, to call attention to the problems, and to acknowledge the people who experience it. The second is the principle of self-empowerment and looking within to take action to advance oneself. Malcolm X often spoke about the positive habits individuals needed to adopt to overcome injustice, often with a heavy focus on education. In other cases, he advocated for cooperation within the community to move things forward.

We can continue to promote equity as a society by ensuring that people have a fair chance to succeed. People’s opportunities may often appear to be equal, but there are many unseen factors that put some at a disadvantage relative to others. For inclusion, I believe that the most effective approach is to promote awareness and exposure. Unconscious bias is a significant contributor to exclusionary behavior or tendencies, but educating people on the existence of those biases may help reduce them. Also, it has definitely been shown that exposure to examples that are contrary to stereotypes promotes more inclusive behavior.

Where do we stand in the plan to reinstate full-tuition scholarships?

When I was asked to join the Free Education Committee, which worked on the plan to get back to free, I didn’t think it was possible. I just thought, “OK, well, it’s mandated. I’ll be on the committee, and I’ll die trying, but it’s not going to work.” I’m thrilled to have been proven wrong and also to have learned some things about institutional finance and organizational strategy along the way. We’re not there yet, but we are on track for getting back to free. Now there are some steep slopes ahead of us. But considering what we’ve done over the past few years, considering how we’ve weathered the current economic situation, I think that we are well-poised to succeed.

When we developed the plan, we assumed that over a 10-year period there would be some type of economic trouble that would impact our finances. We knew that the plan was ambitious and that there would be ups and downs. That’s why it was so important that we had such positive results in the first two years, enabling us to steadily navigate this tumultuous past year. While we expect there to be a negative impact on the plan this year, it won’t be as big as we initially projected and we expect to remain on track, thanks to careful management of the school’s finances. The next few years present a big challenge ahead in that we’ll need a significant fundraising increase in what we call current-use funds to stay on track. Our financial monitor noted the same in their most recent annual report. What I will say is that our current credibility as an institution has helped and will continue to help with fundraising.

How can we increase alumni participation to support our drive to get back to full-tuition scholarships?

It’s the same approach that I take with any general donor—to understand what their passions are, what types of causes they feel strongly about, and then to connect those things to aspects of Cooper, where possible. Does Cooper advance something that you care about whether you went to Cooper or not? What is it about Cooper that would make someone want to support it regardless of their history with the school? I really think we can step back objectively and see many reasons to be drawn to Cooper’s mission and vision. I’d like people to say, “I believe in the institution and I want to support it. And oh, yeah, I happen to be an alum.” So, we’d like the desire to support Cooper to stand on the merits of the institution, as opposed to a sense of obligation, which is a bit of a change in narrative.

As far as students are concerned, we’re trying to be much more intentional in exposing them to the history of the institution and Peter Cooper’s vision. We hadn’t done that consistently in the past and I personally didn’t have that awareness when I was a student. We’ve also been better about engaging alumni to interact with the students to build a sense of community across generations. I had no idea about Cooper’s finances 20 years ago, but students now are very aware of what it takes to sustain the school. We’ve had some great senior class gifts over the past several years, so the awareness and enthusiasm is definitely there.

I personally focus on the themes of the noble origin, the rich history, and the promising future rather than the idea of “giving back.” Cooper Union should have broad appeal to society, and we should lead by example in supporting the institution we know and love.

  • 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.