School of Art: Commencement, Senior Shows, etc.

Dear School of Art Students: 

I hope this note finds you safe and well. I know this has been a challenging few weeks, with the ongoing uncertainty unsettling for many. There is some comfort in the fact that we are not navigating this path alone, as colleges and universities across the nation and the globe are determining the next best steps for students, faculty, staff, and their communities at large.

Associate Dean Farmiga, Dean Chamberlin, President Sparks and I have received the letter with your concerns and questions and would like to thank you for taking the time to compose it. We have been working daily through the many issues that have arisen from the unexpected and unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic, including the many challenges associated with moving a studio-based education online. While we don’t have all of the answers yet, we thought it might be helpful to share with you our current thinking, much of which is grounded in the concerns and feedback we have heard from faculty, staff, and students. While quick, clear answers would be preferable to all, the background work required for making many of these decisions is a necessary part of the School of Art’s governance, accreditation, and pedagogy.

We hope the information below addresses your concerns. We endeavored to share updates within the format you outlined in your letter. We will continue to update and engage you as this work evolves. Please know that we have appreciated hearing so many ideas and potential solutions, and in a time of such uncertainty, it has been important to be reminded of the agency our students seek and have. Please continue to reach out to your faculty and my office with your questions and concerns so we can work to address them together. 


We absolutely recognize the significance of senior shows as a culmination of your time at Cooper and an entry point into the professional art community. In order to include seniors in a discussion about this, the School of Art Curriculum Committee postponed a vote on potentially waiving the senior show as a graduation requirement for this year. Look for an invitation to connect on this now that we are back from break.

Rescheduling to Fall Semester: Over the last two weeks, we have been working to create options for seniors to show in the fall, if they so choose. We will make final decisions on this with you but believe that we will be able to move the remainder of senior shows to new dates in the fall, in the previously allotted space, with the cooperation of several other schools and departments.

Please keep in mind that because New York City remains in the midst of the changing Coronavirus situation, it is not yet possible to know what a timeline will be to achieve this plan. We are mindful of the fact that students will need additional time in the studios to prepare for their shows, and we are considering your proposal of redistributing equal time as we plan.

Because of the likelihood of rescheduling senior shows to the fall, we will not need to explore the MC Gallery space at this time.

End of Year Show 2021: We are hopeful to include the members of the Class of 2020, from all three schools, in the next iteration of the End of Year Show. There is a question of appropriate storage for the work, but this is a challenge we are committed to working out. 


The most important thing for us as we plan and evolve policies right now is to provide a level of optionality and flexibility so that students can choose the path that is best for them. We have been glad to see that the suggestions we have received so far reflect this same thinking. While some of the options that have been proposed are not feasible for a variety of reasons explained below, a number are, and we are pursuing them.

In summary, the options for all students with studio/facility-based courses will be:

1) Continue with the course online. Your professors have been working hard to adapt their courses and your assignments to an online format. In studio-based courses, this is particularly challenging; however, your professors are committed to creative modifications and continuing to provide the high-quality teaching expected at Cooper Union, so that students who want to can complete their courses in the original timeframe.

2) Choose to take an ‘Incomplete’ grade on a course in order to return to Cooper to benefit from campus facilities and complete the course later. Courses that will qualify for this option are currently being evaluated and determined by school deans. In this case, deans and faculty will work with students to complete coursework once the buildings reopen, either through additional sections of the course or independent study. The timeline and process for this is still uncertain because we don’t yet know how long the Coronavirus spread will keep us out of our buildings; however, we will work through this together.

Notes: You are correct in pointing out that adjuncts are currently allowed only one independent study student per semester. I am open to adjusting that limit and will take this topic up in discussion with the School of Art committees.

Additionally, we are still working through the logistics of how to provide access to studios and shops for students who choose to continue their courses online and graduate in May but would like access to the facilities for the period of time that they missed. There are insurance and staffing implications that we are trying to work out to make this possible.

3) Withdraw from the course. The withdrawal deadline is being extended to April 8.Please keep in mind that withdrawing from a course does not result in a refund and will result in a W on your transcript. Tuition adjustments/refunds only happen at the beginning of a semester; for the spring semester, that period ended on January 28. If a withdrawal causes you to extend the time you need to complete your course of study at Cooper, please remember that, while you still may be eligible for federal financial aid, Cooper Union scholarship aid is only provided for four years. These are important factors as you consider this option. As noted above, you will have the option to complete all of your courses this semester online, as well as the option to complete studio courses sometime after the buildings reopen if you would like. 

We are committed to working with students in a number of unique situations – those who choose to continue online and graduate in May but still want to hold a senior show in the fall; those who choose to delay their studio courses through the incomplete option and make arrangements to complete the courses as independent studies in New York or another location; and those who may be unable to return to campus or New York City in the near future and must continue online and give up their opportunity for a senior show. Everyone’s circumstances are different, so a one-size-fits-all solution is impossible to achieve. We think, and we hope you agree, that these options will provide you with the ability to decide how you want your Cooper Union education to continue through these unforeseen circumstances, which unfortunately for all of us, are out of our control.

Additionally, we have a number of answers or clarifying information for other questions that have been posed:

Pass/Fail: Cooper Union is in the process of adopting Pass/Fail grading for all courses. This policy change is currently being reviewed in each of the three schools per their governance. The Pass or Fail grade will not be calculated into a student’s GPA, therefore the spring 2020 semester will have no bearing on your overall GPA, for better or for worse. We have been in touch with a number of institutions who have adopted this same policy to ensure grading equity during this time and have received word that graduate school admissions are aware of this trend and plan to respond accordingly. If graduate schools require supplemental information, we will work with you to provide it. 

Refunds: We will not be providing tuition refunds. Tuition adjustments/refunds only happen at the beginning of a semester; for the spring semester, that period ended on January 28, long before the Coronavirus impacted us. The options for you to complete your courses as outlined above are covered by your current tuition (i.e., you will not pay again to come back and use the shop). The Deans are considering how much of the studio/lab fee may be prorated for a refund for students who choose to continue taking these courses online and will not be coming back to use the shop. Please note that these lab and studio fees do not cover the full cost of providing, maintaining, and staffing these facilities and the materials used, so the refund will not be prorated based strictly on time.

Work Study: Work Study employment will not be affected. The Federal government has pledged to continue monetary support of this program, even if the work cannot be completed, and Cooper Union will too. All federal work study students have received a notice from their supervisor to this effect.

Classroom Policies: As we move into online learning, faculty are being encouraged to teach their classes asynchronously to allow for students to engage in the classroom content and complete the work on their own time. Faculty are also establishing assignment deadlines, class participation, absences and late policies, etc. in the context of this new virtual environment and in good faith that we are working through these new conditions together. The Dean’s office will encourage faculty to be flexible, and we encourage you to discuss any challenges with them.


Commencement is absolutely a well-earned rite of passage for students and their families, and The Cooper Union will ensure that this significant personal milestone is properly celebrated. The Coronavirus circumstances have necessitated that we find other ways to celebrate our graduates in the spring; however, we are planning to host an in-person ceremony in the future. Until we have more certainty about when normal operations can resume (and buildings and spaces reopen), it is not yet possible to know how this might play out in terms of timing. We do ask that you continue to share your ideas with us for both celebrations.

We encourage everyone to continue to let us know how this pandemic is affecting you. The more we know from you, the more we can work to lend support and develop meaningful solutions with you. Please also refer to’s new Information Hub, which will launch by Monday, for resources that can be informative for managing your physical and mental wellness, especially now, and for maximizing your online learning experience. We thank you for your ideas and your patience. This is new and unexpected territory for all of us, and we are working through the many issues as expeditiously as we can.

Lastly, we have heard from many students who want to help in some way – whether aiding the efforts in New York City to fight the spread of the virus by fabricating masks or materials or helping the Cooper community come together virtually during these trying times. Please continue to share your ideas and your talent in whatever ways you can. Faculty and staff are beginning to work in these arenas as well, and we will accomplish more together. Yes, our remote operations make this more difficult to coordinate. But Cooper students are resourceful and have agency – two critical qualities we all need now to gain some control in this uncertain situation.

Responses to the list of questions you shared are below. I look forward to connecting with many of you in the days and weeks ahead.

Mike Essl
Dean, School of Art 


Are staff and technicians appropriately and fairly compensated for their diminished work hours?

Staff and technicians are being paid their normal compensation during this time, even if they cannot do their work remotely.

Can we employ staff and technicians over the summer/fall with additional hours to compensate for their loss time/wages, while also giving students access and facilitation?

We are evaluating whether staff and technicians can work over the summer. This will be based on their availability and our budget. We can’t evaluate these two things until there is more clarity around when we will be able to reopen the buildings. As noted above, staff and technicians continue to be paid their normal compensation during this time.

Does this (#2) interfere with union contract agreements or restrictions on labor, if any?

Should it be necessary to extend the hours of staff or technicians beyond what is already outlined in their current appointment letters, after ascertaining that the person is available, we will provide updated appointments letters. 

If it is deemed too difficult to undertake complete student access to shops, are there alternative facilities we could reach out to supplement space issues?

As noted above, we will make the shops available to students when we are able to reopen the buildings (if our staff and technicians can be available). We are also open to students using other facilities if they have access to them in other locations, but students will have to make those arrangements on their own. We are working through the equity issues embedded in the fact that not all students in all locations will have access to other facilities and not all students will be able to come back to New York given their particular life circumstances. We want to make options available to students, and all want to make sure there is fairness in those options.

How large is the rainy day fund?

We are currently on track in building the reserves in accordance with our Plan (pp. 42-43), although the value of the reserve goes down as we use it for things like the solutions above and as our investments decline with the rest of the market. 

Is it (the rainy day fund) being used right now and can this money be used to ensure the solutions we have proposed? What constitutes a rainy day?

As noted above, we are working on and putting in place many solutions, and yes, some of these resources are being used to fund them. The other uses of the reserve are to cover the costs of operating the school (currently virtually and later in person), including paying our faculty and staff, even as the amount of money the school normally brings in is expected to decrease. For example, our operations are funded in part by fundraising and investment returns. Both are expected to fall in an economic downturn, but our expenses to run the school generally do not change. The reserve is used to cover that gap, in addition to all of the unexpected costs we are incurring to finish out the semester during the pandemic and make facilities and faculty available to students after it.

What are the faculty and staff's views on the shared problems we are facing?

We are working in close cooperation with faculty and staff. As the views and circumstances of our faculty and staff are widely varied, it would not be appropriate for me to attempt to summarize or share their thoughts for them.

Will faculty and staff be allowed to issue a statement regarding their views or are there policy restrictions due to the circumstances of crisis?

Absolutely. Faculty and staff should always feel that they can speak freely. Their opinions and thoughts are their own, and what they say is, of course, up to them. There are no policy restrictions on their voice now or at any other time.

If there are no policy restrictions regarding above question, why has the SOA faculty not come out with a statement addressing this crisis?

You will have to ask the faculty. Please remember that, although a lot has happened in the last two weeks, this is all still very new for everyone, and on top of that, our faculty was on break last week.

If non-tenured faculty or staff supports this document or our efforts is there a chance of reprimand now or in the future?


For students primarily registered in sculpture, print, photo, video, and other classes which are also reliant on school equipment: what are the administration's suggestions for completing work for these classes without access to facilities? How should we pay for outsourcing of fabrication and studio space?

See our comments above. Students will have access to the facilities once they open again.

Are there negative connotations to having an entire semester of pass/fail on transcripts that may lead to difficulties in the future when applying for grad school or other opportunities where a transcript is necessary?

We are being told that graduate schools understand the nature of this extraordinary situation and will accept pass/fail. We will also work with you to provide graduate schools with other additional evaluative information if they require it. In addition, it’s important to remember that Cooper Union is not unique in moving to the pass/fail structure; it is a decision that is being made at institutions of higher learning across the country as part of their COVID-19 response plans, and we believe graduate schools and employers understand this.

Is the administration putting this type of problem solving on professors?

We are engaging faculty in the discussions and the thinking, and they are certainly working hard to reimagine their classes in this new, online format, but their responsibilities have not increased beyond these undertakings.

Is the faculty and staff of the School of Art being included in the daily conversations the Dean is having with upper admin? If no, why not? If yes, why aren’t students also being included?

Yes. The Dean has been engaging with faculty and staff on a regular basis this week, and we are in the process of engaging with students, as well. (Remember, faculty and students were on break last week.) Next week when classes begin, we will schedule meetings for the deans, faculty, staff, and students to talk online.

Is there a way to host mass video conferences where all members of the community can log on to partake in group discussion? Does that manifest as a shared blog, a chat room, through MS teams, or another outlet? What other ways can we stay connected?

IT can help set up a Teams Channel for School of Art students. We are also working on access to Zoom. If you have other ideas/requests, please let us know what they are, and we’ll see whether they are possible.

Is there a way for the community, the building and its resources (workshops, green roofs, technology) to be directed and used in the efforts to fight the spread of the virus and offer support to our community at large, the City of New York, etc. during this time? For example: support in the form of producing particle masks and other sterile protective equipment for local hospital workers, growing food for locals, distributing resources locally?

Yes!! This is already happening. Faculty and staff have volunteered to explore whether they can provide what the state needs. The state is very specific in its needs and protocols. If you would like to participate, let us know and we can connect you with the faculty and staff who are doing this work.

  • 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.