Laura Sparks


Laura Sparks is the 13th president of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.  The Cooper Union is a highly selective private U.S. college offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture, art, and engineering in New York City. A leader in education, philanthropy and community-focused economic development, Laura assumed the role in January 2017 as the first woman to serve as president of The Cooper Union.  At Cooper, she is focused on improving the school’s financial outlook, building collaborative efforts across the community, ensuring that the school continues to provide students with an outstanding educational experience, and positioning the school for continued excellence in the decades ahead. Under Laura’s leadership, Cooper is now pursuing a comprehensive plan to achieve full-tuition scholarships for all students, returning Cooper to its roots of providing a free education for students of extraordinarily high potential from all walks of life.  The plan’s year-one results exceeded financial goals, including an operating cash surplus that reversed years of deficits, the result of rigorous expense management, planned increases in earned revenue, and an increase in fundraising. Another key initiative in Laura’s early tenure was to reawaken the school’s historic Great Hall as an iconic forum where people contest and shape the important issues of our day. Since her arrival, The Cooper Union has welcomed the likes of civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis, iconic contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei, and renowned American writer Rebecca Solnit to the Great Hall stage.

Previously, she served as executive director of the William Penn Foundation, a $2 billion private foundation dedicated to improving the quality of Philadelphia, the fifth largest U.S. city, and the region that surrounds it. Under her guidance, 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, including half of New York City; development of world-class urban parks and trails in underserved communities; and cultivation of a vibrant cultural sector.

Laura joined the William Penn Foundation after several years’ work in community development finance. 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 markets. She later served as the director of development finance initiatives for Citi Community Development and Citi Foundation. In this role, Laura supported nonprofits working to revitalize neighborhoods and create access to affordable housing and greater economic opportunity. In all of these roles, Laura has worked collaboratively with government, nonprofit, and business sectors.

Laura has served on a variety of boards and advisory committees, including the Credit Committee and the 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. As a member of the Governor’s Advisory Board for Community Development, she has advised Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on issues pertaining to public safety, crime, urban development, revitalization, and disaster preparedness. She also previously sat on the board of Aeris, a nonprofit information service for community investors who champion economic justice in underserved markets.

Laura earned her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, her M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and her B.A. in philosophy from Wellesley College. Laura is an avid runner and loves to cook, but what she loves to do most is spend time with her husband and two children.

Related News Items

  • 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.