Welcome Back: Spring 2020
Dear Cooper Union:
I’m so happy to see you all back! The return of our faculty and students always breathes new life into our buildings, and we can now, together, mark the beginnings of a new semester, a new year, and a new decade, in our own Cooper way. One of the many things that makes The Cooper Union what it is, is that we are a collection of people who continually challenge the status quo, who ask whether what is must be, who ask how we – as individuals, an institution, a community, a society – can do things better.
A century ago – at the outset of the “roaring 20s” – the country was beginning a decade of massive change. We were still recovering from World War I. Boundaries were being redrawn around the world. Our domestic political landscape was changing for many reasons, including the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, a turning point long advocated from within the very walls of the Foundation Building since The Cooper Union’s founding. New forms of production and transportation were changing our economic structures and our relationship with material things and with geography as we knew it. A boom in production led first to economic gain (for some), followed by the Great Depression. Social issues were at the heart of organizing and political efforts. Cultural norms were in flux, resulting in both significant tension and heightened creativity. We were a country grasping for our identity.
Here at Cooper, the early 1920s saw the close of the Women’s Secretarial School due to insufficient funds. Our chemical, electrical, and mechanical engineering departments were developing. The Chrysler Building – New York’s tallest building for a brief period – was being erected on land donated to The Cooper Union by the Cooper-Hewitt family, and we were just a few years away from our School of Art and Architecture being formed. Augusta Savage moved to New York City to study art at The Cooper Union, the continuation of a trajectory that ultimately led her to become one of the country’s most influential artists and one of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
The “twenties” of a century ago, like the decade we begin now, was a time of great change, sociopolitical tension, and creativity. New societal norms and new technologies were emerging, connecting us like never before, while movements and policies took shape to protect what was, dividing many. As we embark on this decade, individually and together, we are faced with similar issues and with the questions not only of what to do with the challenges and the possibilities, but also how?
At Cooper, we are intimately familiar with these questions. As an institution, we were founded on an aspiration that a new kind of school could bring the possibility of the best education to anyone who sought it. We were founded on the productive tensions inherent in invention, science, and art, on seeing new opportunities by questioning with a critical eye. Much of our DNA here at Cooper is connected to the idea of critique. It’s an important component of our pedagogy, particularly in art and architecture but also engineering. Through the lens of healthy tension and debate, with an eye toward deeper self-reflection, we can break through barriers and move conversations and new ideas forward. Doing this in a way that is productive and collaborative takes intentionality.
We are taking steps, collectively, in this direction through the work of initiatives like the Council on Shared Learning, the AACE Lab, and the de-colonization efforts. Each of these initiatives is generating new ways of thinking and doing through dialogue, engagement, and critical thought. As individuals, each of us can look for ways to do this, through conversations with friends and colleagues, through the design of experiments and projects that explore new ground and seek new meanings, by pausing to reflect on what connects our work across classrooms, labs, and studios.
As I write this, I am faced with the headlines and issues that have surrounded us in recent weeks. Climate change and the devastating fires in Australia; transparency and truth in leadership with the impeachment of an American president; concerns about representation as the pool of presidential candidates dwindles and becomes much less diverse; complex issues of international sovereignty. And yet, I am encouraged because all of this is confronted every day by new and renewed generations of activists, inventors, and teachers in myriad forms who are putting forth new ideas and demanding a more peaceful, a more thoughtful, a healthier and a more fruitful life.
There is so much for us to absorb and consider about our country and our world and the role that each of us, individually and together, can play in it. With each choice that we make, we can ask, “What is the more just path? How can we do things differently so that everyone is better off, rather than a select few? Why have we always done it this way? How can I support and contribute to the work of my colleagues, our community, this city, and beyond?”
This work is important. It can also be heavy and hard. For this work and this community to thrive, we must draw on each other’s strengths and support each other in our own self-discovery. I encourage each and every one of us to proactively look for ways to do this – to take a moment away from our own work to support someone else’s, to make the space to understand another’s point of view, and to use these opportunities to reflect on our own path and perspectives. Doing so is an act of compassion, strength, and self-education.
This is a time of new beginnings. Here’s to a fulfilling semester of discovery and to celebrating the wonder of it all.