Mid-Semester Message -- Fall, 2020
Dear Cooper Union,
What a whirlwind we have been through as a country and a community since my last letter on Election Day. Many of us spent several days watching the process of vote counting unfold to determine the next president of the United States and our congressional and local representatives. While there is much hard work ahead as a nation, the election as a demonstration of democracy in action, though troubling in some respects, gives me great hope in many other respects. The fact that more people voted this year than at any other time in history is incredibly significant. At the same time, the thin margin between vote counts in so many places reminds us that we pursue our lives and our work in the context of a nation divided. It is a pursuit amidst renewed calls for racial and social justice and a pandemic trajectory that is once again on the rise across the country and around the world. It’s a lot to wrestle with and a lot to act on, as so many of us are inclined to do. We continue the important work toward progress, as we remain engaged in an unparalleled education, manage against the virus and work in furtherance of equity and social justice at The Cooper Union and beyond, and we seek to do it together (see below).
A Fall Like No Other – Continuing Cooper Union’s Unparalleled Education
It’s hard to believe that we are nearing the home stretch of the fall semester. I want to thank the faculty for their tremendous work in shifting curricular and pedagogical approaches to not only meet the demands of the moment but also to identify new opportunities for learning; our staff for their flexibility and tireless efforts to keep our programs, our buildings, and our operations running smoothly; and our students for their incredible tenacity, resilience, and commitment to their Cooper education. The global pandemic has tested us in myriad ways, and our care for one another, coupled with creativity and a lot of hard work, has helped to defy the constraints of COVID-19. Evidence of our collective work in these ways can be found in everything from the virtual End of Year Shows (School of Art, School of Architecture) that went live in the summer, to the homemade circuits created in the Digital Logic Design class using the CU@Home kits, to the virtual public programs and speaker series that are addressing critical issues and are accessible to audiences anywhere, to community care initiatives like the Mindfulness series and new Zoom Into Our Kitchen Table programming by Student Affairs (details in your Student Affairs weekly emails). New cross-disciplinary developments can be found in cutting edge technological opportunities like the AACE Lab – which is bringing to students in all three schools an entire studio space of new digital fabrication tools that can be utilized remotely – and in new courses like New York City: a 5,000-year History – which explores examples of art, architecture, and engineering across many dimensions, including the co-mingling of national and international cultures that make New York City the incomparable place that it is. Together, we continue to invest in maintaining and deepening the excellence of a Cooper Union education, even through a global pandemic.
When adopting the plan for the fall semester, we knew it had to be flexible and able to respond to a resurgence. In order to contain the virus, the state has provided new guidance surrounding the upcoming holidays. Given this, we have been analyzing how best to protect students, faculty, and staff who are here at Cooper through the end of the semester. We are hopeful that with additional testing, we will be able to prevent the spread of COVID to friends and families over the Thanksgiving break and to continue to provide access to the campus after the Thanksgiving holiday through the scheduled end of the semester on December 18. Please see the important Health and Safety Committee message, shared last week, regarding the new mandatory Thanksgiving holiday testing procedures. The Committee, which will continue to update students, faculty, and staff, is tracking the trajectory of case counts in New York and any changes to expert guidance to determine the best safety measures on an ongoing basis for our community as we continue to manage against the pandemic.
Based on the public health context and related state protocols and guidance, we have determined that Spring 2021 will operate in much the same way as our fall semester has. All formal classroom and studio teaching will continue online so that students can continue their education remotely from anywhere in the world. Unless further limited by state, city, or other expert guidance, we will continue to provide physically distanced space for student studios and labs for those in New York who wish to access them, and all shops and maker spaces, including the new AACE Lab, will be ready to accommodate student work through low- and no-contact protocols. As with the fall semester, most staff will also continue to work remotely for the spring semester.
As originally scheduled, spring semester classes will begin on Tuesday, January 19, following winter recess from December 21 to January 17 and the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 18. Based on guidance we are currently getting from the state, we will also delay the start of any in-person operations until February 1. In addition, we’ve made the difficult decision to eliminate the usual spring break week in March, according to prevailing expert guidance, in order to minimize the risks of spreading and contracting the virus associated with increased travel. Instead, wellness days and scheduled days of community time – with no classes and with socially distanced opportunities to connect in-person at Cooper – are being built into the spring semester to provide important breaks for all. More details on that will be forthcoming in an email from Natalie Brooks today.
A Broad and Reflective Approach to Racial & Social Justice
This summer’s renewed calls for racial justice continue, and at Cooper, our commitment to change and to an ongoing examination of our own institution is active and steadfast. The commitment is both long-term and urgent. The work is about making continuous, steady progress and improvement reflective of our collective commitment to be and act as an equitable, inclusive, and just institution for all. Below is a look at some of the key initiatives we are pursuing:
Listening and Learning
At the root of much of this work is a concerted, ongoing effort to actively engage in and listen to conversations across the Cooper Union community. Since this summer, we have engaged communities within Cooper in more than 20 town halls convened on the topics of race, equity, and culture at Cooper. Student government also initiated conversations for each Cooper dean to share perspectives about the explorations of curricula and pedagogy underway in each school. The School of Engineering is embarking on a comprehensive curriculum review that will deliberately consider that courses and our curriculum reflect, represent, and include the contributions of all people and highlight the importance of economic, environmental, social, ethical, health and safety, and sustainability. The School of Architecture formed an Anti-Racism Task Force composed of students, alumni and faculty that have delved deeply into issues of race and created a new framework published as A Manifesto and Call to Action. In the School of Art, the faculty are committed to the actions described in the School of Art response to the student letter and have assigned specific items to its standing committees. The DAMHS committee (Equity online: disability, access, mental health, sensitivity for presentation/training/resources) is continuing to research and make recommendations into diversity and equity. The school will also hold two more Antiracism/Climate Change forums this semester, using IDS lectures as shared material to initiate discussion. Additionally, the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty are developing proposals to engage in a review of the curriculum in a number of ways.
The Cabinet’s commitment to these issues begins with self-education. That work has included engaging in individual and shared readings and with outside speaker presentations along with facilitated discussion. To that end, I convened a retreat this summer for members of Cabinet, which includes all heads of administrative departments and our academic deans. The retreat focused on educating ourselves on issues of race, equity, and decolonization, and laying the groundwork for change in schools and departments. The Cabinet continues to meet monthly on these plans, with a smaller group meeting weekly, and will undergo facilitated training with outside expertise this summer.
Much important work has taken shape this semester, some of it formal, some of it more fluid. Normally, we would see posters filling the walls promoting the organized initiatives and events, or tables set up in the building lobbies to learn more and connect with the community. Without this in our virtual environment, I want to be sure to highlight the important work that students, faculty, and staff are doing to take concrete actions to promote race equity at Cooper. If you haven’t heard about some of these opportunities and would like to become involved, I encourage you to join in any way that feels right for you. While we all come to this work from different places, we all began somewhere.
Redefining Contexts and Frameworks
Last year, Associate Dean Nada Ayad (HSS) and a group of students collaborated on a decolonization definition project, which culminated in a compelling exhibition in the Colonnade windows. To further this effort of clarifying the language that describes this critical work, Associate Dean Ayad and Associate Dean Adriana Farmiga (School of Art) collaborated on a living glossary of terms and shared definitions to help us understand the scope and language of the work we are addressing together. Associate Dean Farmiga will present and discuss the glossary during the Engineering Town Hall on Thursday, November 19. In the spring, we will host a community-wide conversation about the glossary, which we seek to keep evolving as a working document.
In addition, a series of faculty workshops have been underway this fall offered by The Center for Writing. These programs have been attended by more than 40 members of Cooper’s faculty and have focused on Essential Elements for More Effective Online Teaching, Strategies for Syllabus Design, Reading Challenging Texts in your Discipline, Decolonial Approaches to Course Design, and Classroom Dynamics. Associate Dean Ayad is also working with individual faculty members who are eager to better understand how they can adjust their curriculum and pedagogy and to reflect on the canon that has historically been taught in schools of art, architecture, and engineering.
CU Black Futures is a new pilot program led by Cooper’s Black Student Union (BSU), and supported by Alumni Affairs, to connect members with Black alumni for one-on-one mentoring and guidance as students navigate their time at Cooper. For more information, please contact Anna Covatta, Assistant Director, Alumni Affairs.
Cooper Union Grant Program
On Friday, applications were due for the second cycle of the Cooper Union Grant Program. This year, we sought projects and collaborations that further Cooper Union’s work to become an anti-racist and more equitable institution; that enhance our students’ learning experiences and our faculty’s teaching, scholarship, and practice; and explore new ideas for our future. The program was open to any employee or current student, and applicants can request funds from $500 to $10,000 for their projects. We look forward to announcing the recipients next month and keeping the community apprised of the projects.
As a continuation of the Intersectional Justice reading group that began with this summer’s first-year orientation sessions, a community-wide lecture series is underway, which debuted with a talk by the founders of The Church of Black Feminist Thought and continued with author Yaa Gyasi’s reading and discussion of her novel, Transcendent Kingdom, and this Wednesday, the lecture, “Living Liberation: Dialectical Practice and Micro-Revolutions,” which will feature the founder and co-executive director of the Asian American Justice + Innovation Lab. The Black Student Union and the Cooper Climate Coalition, along with several other Cooper students and faculty, were deeply involved in the articulation of the program as well as in contributing to the reading list and suggesting speakers.
Decolonizing curricula across all four academic programs is a lengthy, methodical process. It requires that we decenter the focus on solely Western culture and canons and rebalance curricula, pedagogical methods, faculty diversity, and the power structures inherent in classroom and studio relationships to provide a broad worldview that is representative of the perspectives of the historically oppressed and marginalized. As ultimately the Curriculum Committees of the Schools of Architecture, Art, and Engineering and the Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences will need to recommend those changes given the current structure of faculty governance, the Committees have begun this work and are committed to moving forward.
Honoring Augusta Savage
As part of a larger effort to uncover and shine a light on narratives of people of color, I am collaborating with a group of alumni, faculty, and students to honor and celebrate the life of the late Augusta Savage, a renowned African American sculptor and 1925 alumna of Cooper Union. Ms. Savage dedicated herself to the young minds of the Black Harlem community providing them with free education in the arts. We are planning an exhibition, programming, and scholarships in her honor.
This reading group, formed in the spring, was created in response to student requests for opportunities to discuss how issues of race and social justice intersect with the current climate crisis. The group highlights writers and thinkers of color in the texts. Even if you’re unable to participate in the remaining sessions this semester, I encourage you to work through the suggested reading list, communally crafted by the group, on your own.
Diversifying Faculty & Student Body
We remain focused on the core issues of diversifying our faculty and student body. Through new hires of full-time faculty in both 2019 and 2020, we continue to evolve our community of faculty in ways that are more representative of our student population. Additionally, our Admissions team continues to pursue a more holistic set of criteria for recruiting, engaging with, and evaluating applicants.
It’s been inspiring to see so much new work taking shape in the midst of a pandemic and a time of national reawakening. At the same time, self-reflection and institutional action is deep and intense work. As always, our responsibility is to check in on one another. The typical pressures of an academic semester are compounded this year by all that is happening around us. Many of our BIPOC and families and friends of color, especially, face disproportionate challenges presented by COVID-19. Make it a point to know how your peers and colleagues are faring. A phone call or text can mean so much. Those touchpoints matter, and in this remote learning environment, it requires more from us to stay connected.
I am, as always, grateful for the resilient spirit and innovative approaches of the Cooper community. We are making our mark on this time collectively through the issues and concepts we are examining, the work we are developing in response, the theories and approaches we are questioning, the discoveries and connections we are making, and all with a commitment to civil discourse and productive engagement. I know we will continue to define this time as only Cooper can.