The Cooper Union and Civic Discourse

POSTED ON: November 9, 2016

On Wednesday, November 9, President-Elect Laura Sparks sent the following to the Cooper community.

Today, after a difficult and divisive election, I feel especially grateful to be joining The Cooper Union. It is an institution, a community, and a partnership that, from the beginning, was built on core principles of equity, shared governance, and rigorous civic discourse designed to bring about fundamental and progressive change.

I am reminded today of Peter Cooper’s foresight and his powerful legacy. Not only did he found an institution intended to provide education and economic opportunity to men and women from all walks of life, he insisted that it be open to all without regard to race, religion or gender, based only on the willingness to participate. His vision for The Cooper Union was inclusive and egalitarian, rooted in the belief that civil civic discourse was essential to the functioning of our community and our democracy.

In the Great Hall, Abraham Lincoln masterfully argued against the expansion of slavery in the so-called “Right Makes Might” speech that propelled him to the presidency. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized to fight for issues of concern to women, including the right to vote, the right of equal pay, education, and child welfare. The NAACP was planned and founded here “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons.”

These crucial social questions were debated at Cooper Union. As we recall them with pride, it’s important to remember that these were difficult debates. Democracy is messy. It is sometimes painful. In its worst moments, it can provide a platform to deepen, rather than bridge, our disagreements. At its best, it integrates the ideas of many to weave us together on a path to a brighter future.

Like The Cooper Union, democracy is a living, breathing thing. We are privileged with the freedom and the opportunity to continually work to create "a more perfect union." Our country and our institution were built on the promise that we would be stronger as communities that welcome a diversity of people and ideas. Neither our country nor our institution has always gotten that right. In fact, our ongoing American history is riddled with structural inequities that we must continue to fight to change. That was the premise on which our founding as The Cooper Union was rooted and is the promise of our future.

Each of us plays a critical role in this union. Together, we can work to lead by example, to serve as a model for the kind of rigorous, passionate, and informed civic discourse that will make our community and our country stronger. Each of us will be ready for that at different times, and I encourage you to take whatever time you need to mark this moment, to reflect, to heal if necessary, and then to move forward.

Some in our community will be pleased with the election outcome. Others will feel pain, anger, and confusion. While we may not be able to control what happens outside of The Cooper Union, we can commit to making our community a safe haven where each can feel not only welcome but a full participant, and we can work together to ensure that our broader society strives for the same. This is an institution that has always been committed to solving problems in a complex world. It is a commitment that endures far beyond today.

With warmth and hope,

  • 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.