By Pranav Joneja (ME ’18)
Over the past few years, tensions have been growing between the Cooper community and the Board of Trustees, with some perceiving the Board as a faceless, inscrutable body. In this new article series, The Pioneer interviews trustees to learn more about the people behind the decisions changing our school. Over the last three weeks, The Pioneer sat down one-on-one with alumnus and trustee, Malcolm King (EE ’97).
The Cooper Pioneer: What do you remember of your first day – or first year – as a student at Cooper?
Malcolm King: I do remember I spent way too much time in the pool room and in Frankie’s Kitchen in what was the Hewitt building, where the NAB now stands. I played on the basketball team during my first year. I guess, in much the same way as it is for you today, it was definitely intense but enjoyable. The friends I made during that first year are still people I call my friends today.
TCP: What was the East Village like at that time?
MK: St. Mark’s Place was not nearly as gentrified as it is now. I remember hanging out at the residence hall – the same one that exists today – and I remember there being a methadone maintenance clinic for recovering addicts on St. Mark’s Place, if I recall correctly, where the Chipotle is located now. It was rumored that you could see people smoking crack out on the street. I don’t know if I saw it myself, but it’s not too hard to imagine. We weren’t coddled inside gates of a college campus.
TCP: What was your career path coming out of Cooper?
MK: At the time, in the late 90s, information technology was really booming, especially for people like me in an electrical engineering program. Around the time of my graduation, a lot of the people I knew went into technology, being pulled by Silicon Valley or the banks in New York City. I myself joined the information security division at Federal Express (FedEx) right out of college, which eventually led more or less to where I am now as Executive Director of enterprise computing at Morgan Stanley.
TCP: Let’s bring the conversation to the situation at Cooper today. What are your thoughts on President Bharucha’s State of the Union letter?
MK: The President’s letter comments on many of the topics that are of interest to the Board. The State of the Union is also informed by the same data that the Board uses to make decisions. Moreover, I think his letter makes an implicit point about financial sustainability that I think is really crucial. If you look at the graphs in the State of the Union document, there are two graphs in particular that examine two possible futures of Cooper Union. Both graphs show an increase in revenue in 2019, corresponding to the increased rent we will be receiving for the land under the Chrysler building that year. However, the two graphs differ in that the first one shows the situation over the next 20 years with the financial sustainability plan (which includes tuition and other revenue generating programs) while the other shows the situation without the plan. Here’s what’s important to note for the latter situation, where expenditures are greater than revenue for so long: the lines on the graph can’t extend for 20 years. There simply won’t be a school in that case after even 4 years.
In that sense, you can say that the name – “Financial Sustainability Plan” is a euphemism. It’s really the “Plan To Save the School.” Here’s the thing: in my understanding, the true picture at the time this plan was being affirmed was so grim that if we widely publicized that we were doing this because we had three years of money left – If we said we’re doing this as a desperate last ditch effort to save the school – then you might not be here (the author of this article is a tuition-paying freshman). Your parents would have said, “I’m not quite sure about this”. When you look at the graph, you have to read between the lines of communication citing financial sustainability.
TCP: You make a good point about the level of uncertainty surrounding that decision. What other areas do you see falling in this category?
MK: There are some things you don’t know until they fully take form. The quality of the incoming class is one of them. We were simply not sure; we were basically crossing fingers and biting fingernails. We had no way of knowing. And we had to acknowledge that because there were many people in the boardroom, and on the fringes, who were saying tuition will destroy the quality of the student body, and thus destroy the school. We didn’t think that was the case, but we couldn’t be sure.
TCP: Do you think there are any merits to that argument – that tuition would ruin the school?
MK: After weighing every side… I don’t think so. The full-tuition scholarship being offered over all of these years was definitely the major factor contributing to the quality of the student body, and by extension, maintaining Cooper Union’s elite status. Since the price point was so attractive, we had high demand coupled with low supply, and so we got the best talent.
In early 2014, when we were deciding whether the Working Group Plan was a viable alternative to charging tuition, we had consultants, presidents of other universities as well as other people on the board involved with academia, telling us that the view that “meritocracy goes away once you charge tuition” is not widely held. I think graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton would all disagree with that sentiment, too.
Looking at Cooper from my perspective, I am well aware that the full-tuition scholarship played a huge role in maintaining the school’s elite reputation. I will be quite frank, though, and say that reputation was in spite of a lot of complacency within the school: curriculums were not up to date and facilities were not up to the standard. Those are both critically important factors, and for a very long time, they stayed stagnant. I feel that even though we didn’t have the most up to date equipment and facilities, it was still a rigorous curriculum and there was still valuable science, technology, engineering and mathematics knowledge that was imparted – and students were willing to put up with it because it was free. I think now that we’re charging tuition we can’t be as complacent about attracting high quality student and maintaining an elite profile.
TCP: One sentiment that many students share is that when Cooper was free, we only focused on things that absolutely matter because the budget was strictly constrained. We were forced to make difficult trade-offs, and so we always chose the most essential things, and nothing superfluous. Now, amid attempts to ‘grow ourselves out of the crisis’ with tuition and new revenue-generating programs, our budget is limited only by the extent of our fundraising ability – and that means we are losing focus on those imperatives in favor of chasing secondary goals. What do you think about this? In the context of what you said, wouldn’t that actually make us more complacent?
MK: So students want to keep the school lean – we definitely have that in mind. It is always going to be something to watch out for in any organization – any institution, any corporation, any non-profit. What we are absolutely focused on is accessibility for high-caliber students that are deserving but don’t have the means. One of the key things we are keeping in mind is that we want the school to exist, first and foremost, but we also want the school to be elite and to be accessible. To be accessible, we have to be wise and not extravagant about our spending. That’s going to come down to a judgment call that will rely on the administration as well as oversight by the Board. When I talk to other members of the Board, I think there is nearly unanimous agreement among the alumni trustees that we will need to keep an eye on that.
To that end, there have been things that have been questioned in recent Board meetings.
TCP: Can you share specific details of those questions?
MK: Yes, absolutely. Here’s one recent example: The financial sustainability plan does factor in annual increases of tuition to keep up with inflation. In dollar terms, that means the plan accounts for the amount of tuition charged to go up by about 3% annually, but in real economic terminology, it is supposed to match the natural increases in the price of everything else in the economy – that’s inflation. And the committee on finances approved this at the time.
However, the when the Board discussed the latest financial reports, we learned that we are actually ahead of plan this year because of we have revenue in excess of what we expected and greater reduction of expenses, too. Basically, for this year, we are ahead of where we thought we’d be according to the original financial sustainability plan. Is that a surplus? No – but it’s less of a deficit, and that’s good news.
Here’s where I raised a question about accessibility: If we’re ahead of the target for this year, do we really need to raise tuition? Why don’t we just take this as a win and keep the rate flat? We deliberated on this for a while and in the end, the Board as a whole decided: “Look, this is only one year. It’s nice that we’re ahead of plan, but it’s possible that we are behind next year. There could be variations. We will consider the possibility of keeping tuition flat once we have a better track record, when we know that we are ahead of plan consistently.”
TCP: Last week, there was an announcement of an added fee charged to students registering for more than 19.5 credits. According to Bill Mea, Vice President of Finance and Administration, the Board approved this decision before it was reversed. Can you comment on the Board’s approval process for that decision?
MK: The finance committee looked into that decision and brought it to the whole Board for approval. This was part of the same vote about increasing tuition by 3% to keep up with inflation. While I’m not part of that committee, I did read through the minutes of their meeting, and what stuck out to me most was the point I made earlier. So when I raised that question, the discussion on the Board remained largely on that point about inflation.
TCP: Do you think there is any place for students to have a voice in those judgment calls? Currently, many students complain of a lack of transparency in the Board and administration’s decision-making process with regards to new programs and new tuition fees. What can the community at large – students, faculty, alumni – do to have a say? What can be said of previous attempts to increase transparency?
MK (via e-mail): I think it would be reasonable for the student and CUAA members to compile a list of instances where their constituents felt that transparency has been lacking. This could be presented to and addressed by the communications committee of the Board. I think the feedback could result in measures that would help the students and larger community learn more; right now, I’m not sure what measures to take because I’m not clear on where the gaps are.
I think one good example of the Board being aware of and addressing the desire for transparency was in early 2014, where the Board met to discuss the Working Group proposal. This was the week after the board affirmed the tuition decision, and the community was invited to discuss how the Board analyzed the proposal. The chairman and other trustees (and perhaps the consultants that evaluated the proposal) addressed questions from CUAA members. I didn’t attend, unfortunately, because I missed the email announcing the event.
TCP: The Wall Street Journal published an article announcing the New York Attorney General’s investigation into financial decisions at Cooper Union. When did you first learn of that investigation? Where do you stand with regards to that article?
MK: I was made aware of the inquiry about four weeks ago. My knowledge of it was protected by attorney-client privileges between the Board’s lawyers and the trustees, including myself, and so I was not at liberty to comment on it publicly. The information published by the press, however, doesn’t convey the situation in the most clear or accurate fashion.
Now that it’s out in the open, I will say this: I became aware that the Attorney General was looking to act as a mediator between the Board and the Committee to Save Cooper Union (CSCU) to broker a deal that would result in the lawsuit being settled. The Attorney General’s office conveyed to us that, among other things, the CSCU insisted on the board not renewing the president’s contract. Another condition is an agreement to be a state review of the school’s finances every five years to evaluate whether Cooper Union could return to a full-tuition scholarship model. The decision to move ahead with this deal is contingent on concessions on both sides of the agreement being accepted.
In response to the article in the Wall Street Journal: I vehemently disagree that avoiding an investigation was any type of motivation for the Board members; the Board is not afraid of an investigation. The way it’s being portrayed in the press is that the Board sold out the President in order to save itself. This is simply not true. If one were to drill deeper, the question that arises is ‘Who in the Board needs to be saved? And from what?’. The answer is no one and nothing. The rationale for pursuing the settlement was to ensure the future of the school, because an adverse court ruling would be potentially catastrophic.
TCP: The last question is a thought experiment. You are to run the school. The stipulations are as follows:
- The year is 2012, but instead of years of crippling deficits, the school’s budget is roughly balanced, giving you approximately $30 million annually.
- You have at your disposal all of the endowment as it stood, before property started to be sold off. You also have the Foundation and New Academic Buildings.
- The school must be tuition-free.
What does this school look like? What is it moving towards? (In other words, what is your personal, idealized version of Cooper Union?)
MK: No brainer, the school would be free. Beyond that, I would want to update the facilities and curriculum to keep them current. In many small ways, Cooper was out-of-date, and I’d try and fix that. For example, I’d have updated computers and better incorporation of cutting-edge technology, like 3-D printers. I think this hasn’t been a concern recently, but I would make sure that we continue to keep things up-to-date in the future.
Looking at the bigger picture, Cooper has not historically instilled a sense of community and obligation to posterity. One of the larger, more fundamental changes I would push is to build that communal aspect. I would say that students given the full-tuition scholarship – or even half-tuition scholarship – have this privilege to attend because of people who came before them: Peter Cooper, the Carnegies, the Hewitts and many other illustrious donors, but there have also been many alumni donors. To the students, I would say “We hope that you enjoy it and make the best of it, and we hope that you remain part of the community basically forever, by contributing to sustaining the future of the institution, if you’re able to”. I didn’t realize until recently that it’s sometimes necessary say that explicitly.
There were years after I graduated where I did not donate to Cooper Union, particularly when I left New York City for a while, because I didn’t think about it. But, when I did return, I received a solicitation from the school to donate, and I have given every year since then – even before I was aware that Cooper was in financial trouble. On the other hand, there are some who have not given, ever. Had this message been conveyed to them before they came to Cooper Union, it would have been prominent in their thoughts after they graduate.
I think this is an important conversation to have with accepted students, perhaps even before they have decided to enroll. I have sent a note to John Falls, Associate Dean of Admissions, telling him to share my contact details particularly with accepted students from Stuyvesant High School, from where I graduated 20-ish years ago. In his capacity, Dean Falls has decided they are a good fit for Cooper Union, and I would, first of all, try to convince them to join our community. And then I would also explain to them that this scholarship is a gift bestowed to them by people who came before them, and that they have an obligation to provide that gift to those that come after them.