Mission Statement Rewrite

By Juan José García (Art ‘20)

Yet, maybe it is precisely that impetus to move forward that might get in the way of the intent of the draft.

On Tuesday March 7, 2017, a campus notice was sent to the Cooper community containing the current draft of the mission statement of Cooper Union. The draft was sent with hopes that it “will generate the kind of discussion and debate that will add to the renewed sense of institutional purpose at this time,” while also aiming to receive input from the community.

The Mission Statement Committee is composed of Monica Abdallah (ChE’17); HSS professor and committee chair Peter Buckley; art professor Leslie Hewitt (Art ‘00); Mauricio Higuera, architecture staff (Arch ‘13); Sangu Iyer, CUAA, (CE ‘99); engineering professor and Middle States self-study liaison Sam Keene; math professor Stan Mintchev; Elizabeth Rivera, Major Gifts, Alumni Affairs and Development; Monica Shapiro, architecture academic administrator; and Kevin Slavin, trustee, (Art ‘95).

The rewriting of the mission statement of the Cooper Union has significant implications: It has been almost three years since the school’s administration historically moved to charge tuition to incoming students and the Committee to Save Cooper Union filed a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court to block the move.

In the well-documented timeline of the school’s recent financial crisis, there is an evident lack of clarity in the administration’s communication under former President Jamshed Bharucha. The move to tuition became clear to the community through the change in language that the administration used: the disappearance of any mention of free tuition (and its history) in the Cooper Union website, emphasis on words like ‘expansion’ and ‘global’ on behalf of Mr. Bharucha, as well as the progressive change in the literature of documents. For example, the 2001 revision of the mission statement found in course catalogs was replaced with a letter from the former President.

But language can also harbor honest dialog between the administration and the community that it regulates, and the Mission Statement Committee’s current draft is decidedly aware of the importance of these nuances in language. The end of the first paragraph of the draft reads:

“The institution continues to admit students on the basis of merit and potential, and awards scholarships to all enrolled. The Cooper Union strives to honor Peter Cooper’s vision to provide free education for all.”

It is clear that the current iteration somewhat addresses the historical importance of Peter Cooper’s vision of free education, yet it fails to implement this vision with any certainty that is true to the current state of The Cooper Union.

The mass e-mail does acknowledge the practical need for a new statement: “At the close of the academic year 2015-2016 Bill Mea, then acting President, presented the outlines of work required for strategic planning and for Middle States re-accreditation,” referring to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a voluntary, non-governmental, regional membership association in charge of checking the standards for accreditation of its members (of which Cooper is one). Standard I for accreditation with the commission is a clear mission statement as, “the institution’s mission defines its purpose within the context of higher education, the students it serves, and what it intends to accomplish”—again emphasizing the importance of the language used in an institution and its inherent link to the ethical practices within that institution.

Furthermore, the current draft seems to have good intentions, emphasizing that Cooper as an institution will try to return to its founder’s vision of a truly free education. It aims to move past the crisis and projects itself towards an ideal future of Cooper Union. Yet, maybe it is precisely that impetus to move forward that might get in the way of the intent of the draft. It was only roughly five years ago that the school saw itself in the midst of protests, occupations, administrative resignations, and lawsuits. It was about three years ago that charging tuition went from imminent possibility to inescapable reality.

Therefore, the timing of this preliminary sketch for the statement might seem a bit odd and sort of reactionary. The Fiscal Year 2016 Budget and Financial Projections document estimates that the school will not break-even in terms of its assets and deficit until Fiscal Year 2020, and even then the budget says: “…we would need additional revenue or expense cuts beyond FY 20 to cover salary, non-personnel, and debt service increases in order to maintain the full-tuition scholarship model.”

Understandably, there are the practical implications of re-writing a document at the core of the values of the Cooper Union. But perhaps the idea of creating new language to describe the school’s purpose has the potential to entertain a certain action of “glossing-over” the very real problems that it faced back then and the problems it faces now—an action that lead Cooper to the lack of clarity that fiercely distanced the administration from the community; an honest human fault of haste, in an urge to return to normalcy.

Maybe then, it is valuable to clearly and explicitly recognize the flaws in the previous choice and negligence of a specific language, before trying to find a new one that appropriately suits the Cooper community. Or it is also possible that the dialogue and communication in the school is not contingent on the language used to delineate the ethical and professional objective of the institution. Instead, the issue at hand might be a need for awareness of how and why we, as a community, choose the words we do. Nonetheless, the rewriting of the statement is an important event in the ongoing history of the Cooper Union. Regardless of whether it is celebrated or questioned, the rewrite is definitely an event that needs to be acknowledged. ◊

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