Laura Sparks


Laura Sparks is the president of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and a recognized leader in higher education, finance, community economic development, and philanthropy.  

Sparks assumed her role at The Cooper Union on January 4, 2017. She is the 13th president of the institution and the first woman to hold the position. With her leadership, Cooper is pursuing an ambitious and comprehensive plan to offer full-tuition scholarships for all undergraduate students, returning Cooper to its roots of providing a free education for students from all walks of life. Financial results have exceeded goal in each of the first three years, reversing decades of deficits, which has allowed for a three-year freeze on tuition, increased scholarship levels, and new investments in academic and student life. In the last four years, the institution has launched the AACE Lab, a new digital fabrication lab providing students and faculty across The Cooper Union’s art, architecture, and engineering programs with access to many tools typically only available in large-scale industrial environments; hired 18 new tenure-track faculty members across the institution; launched cutting edge partnerships with the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Center for Computational Astrophysics of the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute, the Public Art Fund, and others; and introduced new internal cross-disciplinary partnerships, as well as new minors in computer science, bioengineering, and the humanities and social sciences. Sparks has also led a reawakening of the school’s historic Great Hall as an iconic forum where people contest and shape the important issues of our day, providing New Yorkers and online audiences around the world with creative and thought-provoking programming that is free and open to the public.

Sparks served as vice chair from March 2022 – March 2024 of the Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities (CICU) in New York, representing the public policy interests of the chief executives of more than 100 independent colleges and universities, and is chair of its Audit & Compensation Committee. Sparks is a trustee of Temple University and previous chair of the Association of Independent Technological Universities (AITU), an organization of the leading private technological universities and colleges that plays a vital role in securing the future of American competitiveness in the global marketplace. She was recently nominated by the Acting Secretary of the Air Force to serve in the Air and Space Force Civic Leaders Program, which will advise the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Chief of Space Operations, and Air and Space Forces senior leaders.

Previously, Sparks served as executive director of the William Penn Foundation, a $2 billion private foundation dedicated to improving the quality of Philadelphia, the sixth largest U.S. city, and the region that surrounds it. Under her leadership, the foundation launched and refined its strategic priorities, focusing its $115 million annual grant budget on improvements in urban education for economically disadvantaged children, including advocacy for fair and equitable funding in public education; protection of the water resources serving 15 million people across four states; development of world-class urban parks and trails in underserved communities; and cultivation of a vibrant cultural sector.

Prior to that, she had worked for several years in community development finance and in large, global financial services companies. As senior vice president for financial services at Opportunity Finance Network—a national nonprofit serving local Community Development Financial Institutions across the country—she helped create responsible financial solutions for individuals vulnerable to predatory lenders and oversaw a $45 million loan portfolio to increase investment in underserved urban and rural communities. She later served as the director of development finance initiatives for Citi Community Development and Citi Foundation. In this role, Sparks worked with business leaders and nonprofits to revitalize neighborhoods and create access to affordable housing and greater economic opportunity. She also previously held positions in public and private finance at UBS Securities and at Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Prior board service has included the Governor’s Advisory Board for Community Development, which advised Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on issues pertaining to public safety, crime, urban development, revitalization, and disaster preparedness. Sparks also served on the Credit Committee and Capital Formation Committee for Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions focused on improving the lives of low-income people and the urban areas where they live. She also sat on the board of Aeris, a nonprofit information service for community investors who champion economic justice in underserved markets.

Sparks earned a B.A. in philosophy from Wellesley College, J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

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  • 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.