By Brighton Huynh (CE’21)
(Editors Note: The content of footnotes have been moved to the end of the article. For those whom the letter is addressed to, I have shortened two job titles and moved the full titles to the end of the article to maintain continuity in the formatting of the letter)
Update (1JUL2020): The Cabinet of the President posted a recent response to the collective letter on June 8th recently.
Systemic racism has plagued the country since its founding and continues to do so. The cold-blooded murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Nina Pop have prompted a mass movement calling for the nation to proactively confront systemic racism. A collective of students took action to ensure that the Cooper Union transforms itself into an actively anti-racist institution. The following is a statement from some of the students involved accompanied by the body of the letter:
The letter below, addressed and delivered on June 8, 2020, to the administration of The Cooper Union, is by no means exhaustive in scope but hopes to serve as merely the beginning of a series of conversations needed to foster and transform The Cooper Union into an actively anti-racist institution. The actions proposed were initially questions and concerns voiced in a town hall hosted by students on June 1, 2020, as well as informed by other school-wide meetings held during that week. The letter circulated around various social media networks to reach students and alumni across the three schools. The letter was edited collaboratively using Google Docs and any signee was permitted to suggest changes and post comments to the letter. Each of these suggested changes or comments were addressed individually by the organizing members. The hope is that these conversations surrounding institutional racism will continue to develop throughout The Cooper Union.
Since the submission of the letter to the administration, the document has been further copyedited for typographical errors and improved readability.
The original collaborative document is available on Google Docs here.
If you wish to add your signature to the letter, please do so here.
If you wish to join the conversation, please read, comment, suggest, and share the developing list of questions—most of which were delivered jointly on June 8, 2020 with the letter below—which is available here.
June 8th, 2020
To: President Laura Sparks
Office of the President and Board Relations, Charlotte Wessell*
Chair of the Board of Trustees Rachel L. Warren
Dean Mike Essl
Dean Nader Tehrani
Dean Barry Shoop
Dean Chris Chamberlin
Acting Dean Anne Griffin
Associate Dean Adriana Farmiga
Associate Dean Lisa Shay
Associate Dean Ruben Savizky
Assistant Dean Hayley Eber
Assistant Dean Nada Ayad
Chief Talent Officer Natalie Brooks
Vice President for Enrollment Mark Campbell
Alumni Affairs and Development, Terri Coppersmith**
Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness Antoinette Torres
Vice President of Finance and Administration John Ruth
Head of Security Thomas Tresselt
Media Relations Manager Kim Newman
Creative Director Mindy Lang
Chief Technology Officer Robert Reinckens
On June 1st, around 70 students, faculty, alumni, and administration held a town hall in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and thousands of other Black lives taken from us within a context of 401 years of oppression in the United States. The goal of that meeting was to bring the whole Cooper community together to formulate concrete short-term and long-term plans of action for becoming an actively anti-racist institution.
The purpose of this document is to not only provide a list of actions that The Cooper Union should read and respond to individually, but to build a framework that further initiates independent actions as a result. This document is intended to be an ongoing resource for making The Cooper Union an anti-racist institution.1 This is an opportunity to set an example for institutions across the nation. The Cooper Union has been on the right side of history many times and today’s difficult events present another chance for us to do the same. For this document to be effective, it assumes the good faith of all those addressed and their subordinates.
For many of us, The Cooper Union has provided a unique skill set to speak up and demand justice when we are called upon by circumstance. The onus of initiating these conversations at Cooper has, to this point, been on the students and individual faculty members2, the majority of whom have been people of color. Moving forward, the school, as a body, must actively oppose police brutality; institutional, structural, interpersonal, and internalized racism; and inequities, wherever they are found. We feel that similar requests made in recent years such as Decolonize Cooper and the Mental Health Amendments have not been adequately met.
SILENCE IS A FORM OF VIOLENCE
We are aware that existing contractual and legal structures may interfere with these requests. That is not grounds to dismiss us outright. We intend to open a dialogue to reach actionable solutions consistent with our requests.
We believe these tumultuous times are empowering but also have the potential to be defeating. Instead of resigning to defeat, we can use this time to self-reflect and rebuild a better future. We can no longer work at the gradual pace of institutional reform; the moment to act broadly and decisively is now.
A coordinated effort between the three schools, the humanities department, and all members of the Cooper community is necessary to begin to heal structural inequity and create a truly anti-racist environment. An anti-racist school is one that actively addresses issues including, but not limited to: race; gender and identity; mental health; climate; class; sexuality; disability3; functional democratic governance; and freedom of expression.
The following demands provide an initial framework for a continuous commitment toward an actively anti-racist institution of higher education:
- Communications and Outreach: Response to Traumatic Events, Transparent Communication, Great Hall Programming, NYPD
- Decolonizing Curriculum and Pedagogy: General Administration, Pedagogy, CoreCurriculum, Art History, Architecture History, Electives, School of Art, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Albert Nerken School of Engineering
- Empowering Staff, Faculty, and Students:Student Resources, Staff and Faculty, New Hires, Administration, Governance
- Resources: Mental and Physical Healthcare, Outreach
Items denoted with an asterisk (*) require immediate attention.
1. Communications and Relations: Response to Traumatic Events, Transparent Communication, Great Hall Programming, NYPD
This section addresses The Cooper Union’s forthright communication, both internally and within its spheres of communication, regarding urgent support of Black life and affiliation with the NYPD.
Response to Traumatic Events
- *Make full and prompt use of all avenues available to The Cooper Communications Team (e.g., social media) to amplify issues impacting and involving BIPOC4/queer lives. This includes incidents of communal trauma. Respectfully, it took three weeks for the administration to acknowledge the mobilization around the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd.
- Create a lateral network of empathy and solidarity. Make sure to uphold it in times of communal trauma. Administrators, check in on your BIPOC/queer employees. Professors, check in on your BIPOC/queer students and colleagues. Ask them how you can be of support.
- *Determine and publicly disclose whether the institution is in a position to make any donations or conduct fundraising in defense of BIPOC/queer lives.
- *There is frustration that The Board of Trustees and the administration have failed to respond to repeated inquiries by administrators, faculty, and students to publish the minutes and notes of the quarterly meetings and subcommittee meetings. We, once again, request that these minutes and notes be published for the Cooper community.
- *Faculty and administrative committees play a significant role in the day-to-day lives of students and warrant complete transparency. Minutes, notes, and agendas for all these committees should be made publicly available, unless classified information is concerned, via a OneDrive and/or SharePoint folder to be updated weekly and organized by department and committee.
Great Hall Programming
- Expand the Great Hall’s permanent exhibition, “Advancing the Mission, Cooper Union at 150,” to reflect a more diverse and inclusive history.
- Focus Fall 2020 and/or Spring 2021 programming on decolonization. Urge programming outreach to center Black voices in Great Hall events. Use the experience of this programming to further develop efforts for decolonization across the institution.
- Secure the funding necessary to use the Great Hall for town halls and New York City public community meetings. Use the Great Hall and other Cooper facilities for free mutual aid and/or anti-racism workshops.
- Ensure communications for Great Hall programming reach beyond a predominantly white and/or economically privileged demographic.
- Open programming to reflect student proposals and suggestions.
- Prohibit the following: (1) NYPD’s non-essential access5 (e.g., use of restrooms) to 41 Cooper Square and the Foundation Building. Their presence makes BIPOC, queer, and other community members unsafe in an environment in which they are entitled to safety; (2) NYPD rental of the Great Hall; and (3) use of 41 Cooper for the production of movies or tv shows such as “Instinct,” which masquerade our institution as a police station. Although fictional, this publicly affiliates and overlays the image of a Cooper facility with the NYPD.
- *Inquire with the NYPD about their mobile centers and “counterterrorism units” being located in close proximity to The Cooper Union. This directly results in an unsafe environment for BIPOC/queer students and faculty. Our goal is to have NYPD mobile units relocated.
- *Evaluate the assets of the school and its trustees for actual or potential affiliation with the NYPD and/or other law enforcement agencies and/or arms manufacturers. Disclose fully any findings in this regard to the Cooper community.
2. Decolonizing Curriculum and Pedagogy: General Administration, Pedagogy, CoreCurriculum, Art History, Architecture History, Electives, School of Art, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Albert Nerken School of Engineering
This section addresses decolonization6 as it relates to each school as well as the humanities. We cannot decolonize our curriculum without first addressing the means by which we teach and how our pedagogies reinforce structural racism.
DECOLONIZATION REQUIRES ACTIVE UNLEARNING
- Actively recruit, hire, and support faculty whose identities and scholarship bring greater diversity to Cooper. Publicize all relevant policies and initiatives to the greater Cooper community.
- Create and approve, within each respective school and the HSS faculty, tenure-track hiring lines to support the effort to build an anti-racist Cooper Union.
- Provide faculty, staff, and students with the resources to participate in the decolonization process (e.g., workshops on cultivating anti-racist environments). Provide routine updates to the Cooper community on this matter.
- Synchronize scheduling to provide blocks of time for students in all three schools to collaborate. This will eliminate barriers prohibiting students from taking classes across the three disciplines, enrolling in the same HSS classes, and in classes specifically developed for interdisciplinarity. Block scheduling is one proposed solution.
- Support student input on curriculum content. Actively call for student input each semester.
- Be transparent with students regarding the rationale behind decisions made about curriculum.
- Consider the existing hierarchy between a teacher and their students. By uplifting student voices, we can challenge colonial assumptions and de-center these methods of learning.
Core Curriculum, Art History, Architecture History, Electives
- Evaluate and restructure the core curriculum (as well as HUM and SS electives) to equitably reflect various histories.
- Expand history courses to include a comprehensive survey of the art and craft practices of various cultures and geographies. ‘Orientalism’ is insufficient.
- Schedule classes in each semester that deal with the intersection of critical race/gender/queer theory.
Materials Clause (all three schools)
- Thoroughly assess the materials we, as students, consume in the course of our studies. These include, but are not limited to, chemical processes; cement production; painting; photo; printmaking; materials transportation; unchecked use and disposal of virgin materials; extensive mandatory supply lists from which some items are used once or not at all, etc. These decisions have a direct impact on the climate crisis, and may support entities that perform a bulk of contemporary coloniality.
- Secure funding and support for students for whom purchasing materials represents a significant hardship.
School of Art
As the School of Art, we must resist reproducing colonial taxonomies. As artists we sit “precariously as markers as well as makers of history.”7 As markers we risk upholding a system that has omitted narratives for centuries at the institutional level. As makers, we are responsible for practicing modes of creation that do not uphold this system. We should work to build a platform to uplift the various ways in which these stories are told and to highlight what they have the power to accomplish.
- Create spaces, starting in the Foundation Year, for equitable, non-critique-based discussion of work and theory, to include that of BIPOC/queer artists and scholars.
- Foster spaces that combat the isolation of School of Art freshmen from the rest of the student body.
- Hire more BIPOC/queer faculty in the School of Art.
- Expand the breadth of artists students are exposed to during studio classes. Consider scholarship and theory written by BIPOC/queer artists as a means of broadening students’ visual and artistic vocabulary and to provide a shared language for critical engagement.
- Provide students with more access to BIPOC/queer artists and thinkers outside of the Cooper School of Art community. Provide a platform for these contacts.
- Prompt professors to consider discussing how different media and art practices have been used historically, by whom, and for what purpose, so that students are aware of the contextual implications of their medium and materials.
Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture
- Reexamine the admission protocol and process. Admission is a huge body of work that is mostly done by a committee consisting of faculty and students that are unpaid for their time and effort. The hierarchies present result in an uneven balance of voices between committee members. It is, therefore, difficult to call out racist comments and decisions when they appear.
- Acknowledge the ways in which the architectural discipline––both in its theory and modes of practice––have reinforced the violence committed towards BIPOC/queer communities. The development and instruction of a curriculum within Design Studios, given its importance and breadth of topics covered, must be considered carefully. This is especially true when deciding on the context and location where a student is asked to develop a project.
- Besides a critical engagement with the tools and forms of architecture, an epistemological understanding of the discourse at large should be constantly re-examined and discussed. It is not only an account of history that needs to be decolonized but also the knowledge itself that should be decolonized. The assumed certainty of old-school, universal urban and architectural theories must meet with and make space for alternative, decolonized knowledge structures as they respond to our cities’ coexisting diverse and dynamic communities.
- Reassess and examine the ethics within both architectural education and practice with regards to the social and environmental damage that design projects perpetuate in their ideation and their construction. More information is needed to provide students with the tools to effect change in their education and future places of work. As such, in the courses related to the specifics of an architectural practice––especially those in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th years––there should be a concerted effort in teaching the nuances of an ethical practice which encompasses the use of labor, construction, and design processes.
- Assess the built work of current architecture faculty and guest faculty to investigate from what kind of projects they are profiting. Who is performing (or performed) the labor, design, and construction of our faculty’s current (and previous) projects and who are the clients? To be consistent with our values, we must, as an institution, be more critical and less celebratory of alumni who have been involved in harmful development projects (e.g., Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center).
Albert Nerken School of Engineering
Engineering can no longer take refuge behind the supposed apolitical nature of mathematics, science, and technology. Engineering is applied science and science is not immune to bias nor is it inherently apolitical. As a field, engineering must acknowledge its role in the state of humanity and its unwitting contribution to social injustice, racism, inequity, climate change, poverty, and famine, all symptoms which, by and large, are endured by a vulnerable majority of the world’s population. Conversely, engineering must recognize its vast potential to address these urgent global crises proactively and positively.
The following demands represent actions that the Albert Nerken School of Engineering can and should take to begin to seriously reassess and redefine its role within the field of engineering. This list is a start and is by no means exhaustive.
- Increase hiring of BIPOC/queer faculty who specialize in the intersection of engineering, art, ethics, and decolonization. A dedicated fellowship should be created for BIPOC/queer engineers that incentivize scholars through a competitive wage and prestige.
- The social impact of engineering should be incorporated into every course and become foundational to the Cooper Union engineering education. Students must understand the context of their work and its potential to damage society and the environment. It should be the duty of an engineer to understand the communities they affect and ensure their work is not detrimental, but rather beneficial, to these communities. With guidance, it should be realized that such a reassessment is, in fact, possible in courses across the five engineering disciplines.
- We request that the administration afford this time and make space for faculty to explore this important reassessment. Any such integration into coursework of a broader perspective with regards to the social impact of engineering may require non-contact hours for the faculty.
- Starting from freshman year, the institution should begin to familiarize students with the fact that, through their future career choices, they will either bolster or dismantle oppressive power structures. These power structures have and will damage the earth and we need to equip engineers to make change within these industries.
- More infrastructure and funding are needed to provide students with the tools to conduct research in socially responsible fields. This should take the form of more internal grants specific to this research as well as the requisite lab space for the students and faculty who are awarded these grants.
- Currently, much of the research and internships accessible to students relates to oppressive technologies such as mass surveillance, militarized drone research, or oil production. Again, there needs to be an institutional acceptance that engineering is not apolitical and contributes to racism, violence, and inequity when not approached with consideration and empathy.
- A broader range of companies committed to socially responsible engineering must be given direct access to recruiting Cooper students, while less focus and access should be given to exploitive companies. There must be more resources devoted to researching these socially responsible companies and incentivizing them to recruit at Cooper.
- Classroom settings that are open to social critiques regarding students’ work and their ethical practices must be fostered to a much greater degree. Capstone projects across all engineering majors should all be required to include an assessment of potential real-world impacts and how they will contribute to social inequity, specifically in BIPOC/queer communities.
If these demands are deemed untenable, we request that justification be given for this assessment and that alternative solutions that address the core issue of the original demands be presented.
3. Empowering Staff, Faculty, and Students: Student Resources, Staff and Faculty, New Hires, Administration, Governance
This section addresses how faculty, staff, and administration’s relationships with students can cultivate an anti-racist learning environment. It proposes systems that create clearer lines of communication within the Cooper community.
- Offer Remedial Courses for students who indicate gaps in their educational background.
- Continue offering summer HUM/SS/HTA/HSS classes for all students.
- Provide free, renewable monthly Metro Cards to students who meet need-based criteria.8
Staff and Faculty
- Make public the due process required to dismiss a professor for grievances including, but not limited to, faculty members who made comments (e.g. about students and the larger Decolonization Movement) that made students feel targeted. To this day, many such faculty members have not changed their behavior. Faculty members about whom frequent reports of racism9 or discrimination have been made, who have been given the opportunity to change, and have refused to do so must not be allowed to continue harming students.
- Each Title IX case should be investigated fully. Professors who abuse their positions of power to sexually harm or harass students have often escaped all disciplinary action and remain employed by The Cooper Union where they continue to harm students.
- Actively support students who are struggling with personal issues when they demonstrate a need for help instead of only intervening when they are close to failing. A teacher’s role should not be reduced to that of a disciplinarian.
- Hire a Vice President of Academic Affairs. This person will address the academic and systemic issues articulated in this document.
- *Hire an ombudsperson whose role includes that of an impartial, confidential, and independent listener. This person can take off-the-record accounts from students without role-inherent bias and work to resolve internal grievances.
- Hire a counselor whose role is to run an academic and social support program for first-generation college students and students with limited resources. This counselor’s mission shall be to improve access opportunities and matriculation.
- Hold mandatory, consistent anti-racist seminars every year for all staff, faculty, and administration that contain strategies for implementing anti-racist pedagogy.
- *Feature anti-racist programming in freshman orientation and during the freshman seminar. This could include, for example, active discussions with students as well as an online class, similar to that on sexual harassment and drug use.
- Give student organizations the option to propose a budget for their initiatives and if approved, receive upfront funding to implement and administer that initiative. The reimbursement system at Cooper creates financial barriers for students who wish to propose new initiatives but cannot afford to provide the necessary funding upfront themselves.
- For increased transparency, allow non-voting students to attend faculty meetings which do not discuss classified information.
- Hold student and department assemblies to communicate updates throughout the school year. These assemblies should happen during periods in which all students can attend.
- The Board of Trustees must regularly review and ratify amendments to the respective governances of the art, architecture, engineering, and HSS departments. These governances often have stood for years without any updates. Good governance allows institutions to run more efficiently which, in turn, allows them to address large scale change.
4. Resources: Mental and Physical Healthcare, Outreach
This section addresses healthcare’s role in the support of BIPOC/queer students and proposes ways in which The Cooper Union’s avenues of outreach can be actively anti-racist.
Mental and Physical Healthcare
- Increase funding for mental health services. Cooper should employ more than one full-time licensed social worker. Currently, students receive 6 free sessions a year with a mental health provider. Instead, increased access to mental health services should be provided for all students.
- Include more BIPOC/queer mental health providers in the Cooper network. An in-network provider list shall be made readily accessible to students beyond the short list Cooper has on its website, as most listed providers are not accepting new patients.
- Wellness checks involving the NYPD shall be a last resort. NYPD involvement puts students at risk of harassment and violence, which places BIPOC/queer students in an especially vulnerable position. Implementing law enforcement-free response teams has shown to drastically reduce complaints of aggression and use of improper force.10
- Disseminate Cooper Care’s coverage of gender-affirming health services such as hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgeries.
- Provide discreet, free, and public access to tampons, pads, and condoms in all bathrooms across Cooper’s campus.
- Restructure the assessment system to reduce students’ anxiety about performance as well as account for ways in which students represent comprehension and knowledge on a personal, non-numerical grading system. A suggested restructuring would be for a two-option grading system: A/B/C/No Credit or Pass/No Credit, with no GPA or student ranking system. Students should have the opportunity to opt into either grading system by the fifth week of the semester on a course by course basis. The conversations involving any restructuring of the assessment system must occur with students and faculty present to discuss all possibilities to change grading policies.
- Move the drop/add period deadline to a later date in the semester to allow students greater opportunity to fully assess the positioning of the class within the broader context of their education and their ability to succeed in the class. Such a policy will
encourage expanded interdisciplinary studies and strengthen the bonds between the three schools and humanities. This action can follow the pattern of a similar policy at MIT.11
- Instead of only intervening when students are close to failing, restructure Academic Standards to support students when there is reason to believe a student is struggling or if they demonstrate an active need for help.
- Secure increased funding for the Saturday Program to support its staff and undergraduate instructors. This financing should cover the necessary curricular materials (physical supplies as well as digital resources) and educational training.
- In alignment with the original principles of the Saturday Program, the free education model The Cooper Union was founded upon, and any initiative to make the institution actively anti-racist, consider the implications of moving the Cooper Union Art, Architecture, STEM, and Summer Writing courses/intensives to a free education model for all New York City public school students.
- Facilitate greater communication to public schools—especially in communities of color—about the Saturday Program and other information concerning admission to The Cooper Union.
- Make a broader effort to highlight for potential donors, alumni, current students, and the general public the existence of the Cooper Union Retraining Program for Immigrant Engineers.
We are calling on the Cooper Union to not only take concrete and sustained action at this pivotal moment but to set an example for all other places of learning. Over four hundred years of systemic oppression cannot be undone by one set of actions, by one set of people, or by one institution. Our community must have the forethought and empathy to listen to our underserved BIPOC/queer communities and provide action as new needs arise.
We implore those to whom this letter is addressed to, democratically, lead a paradigm shift in the culture of The Cooper Union. We demand they commit to working to become actively anti-racist, to decolonize the institution’s spheres of influence, and to be transparent and accountable for their decision making.
This discussion must be continuous and structured, with clear and productive goals and actions that are not mired in a labyrinth of empty committees and task forces. We ask The Cooper Union to set a precedent for constant introspection, progressive action, and commitment to its students. We expect full transparency and active communication with the student body in discussions regarding these questions, actions, and any subsequent actions.
We understand that the financial implications of the requests listed in this document are not insignificant, especially when we consider The Cooper Union’s recent history. President Sparks holds a unique position as she has inherited an office with a tumultuous background. The institution’s founding principle of a free education informs much of the ethos for this document and it runs parallel to our goal of equity throughout The Cooper Union. The institution’s return to free is not dismissed from consideration as we make these demands for anti-racist action. We hope that the addressees view us not as naïve, but hopeful, and that the breadth of our requests demonstrates faith in this institution’s governance and potential as we move forward.
We, the undersigned, can offer no more than our consistent participation, our unfailing support, our thoughts, and our criticisms. You, the addressees, hold the keys to the change we wish to see and know is possible. We look forward to working with you to make The Cooper Union a better place for its current community and for the generations of makers and thinkers who will contribute to this space for years to come.
1Anti-racism can be defined as some form of focused and sustained action with the intent to change a system or an institutional policy, practice, or procedure which has racist effects. (Anti-Racism Digital Library; https://sacred.omeka.net/glossary)
2Throughout this document, “faculty” shall refer to both full-time and adjunct faculty members.
3Amended after delivering original letter to administration on June 8, 2020.
4Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color
5As per the Cooper Building Access Policy: “No visitors can be admitted to The Cooper Union without written permission. All visitors to The Cooper Union’s academic buildings must present a photo ID. Visitors must also sign the Guest Log located at the security desk.”
6.1 “Decolonization is a theoretical interrogation that centers on the belief that diversity of knowledge systems is vital for meeting the demands and challenges of our time. To that end, it calls for a decentering from Western perspectives to include other modes of knowledge. It calls for the recognition of past injustices so as not to repeat them. It calls for active restructuring and continual reassessment.” – Cooper Decolonizing Initiative
6.2Decolonization efforts call for the following:
“Diversify syllabi and curriculum; Digress from the canon; Decenter knowledge and knowledge production; Devalue hierarchies; Disinvest from citational power structures” – Nayantara Sheoran Appleton, Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington
8Based on the model of the CUNY ASAP initiative
9 “As used herein, racism refers not only to social attitudes toward non-dominant ethnic and racial groups, but also to social structures and actions which oppress, exclude, limit and discriminate against such individuals and groups. Racist social attitudes originate in and rationalize discriminatory treatment. Racism can be seen in discriminatory laws, residential segregation, poor health care, inferior education, unequal economic opportunity, and the exclusion and distortion of the perspectives of non-dominant peoples.” (Thomas, 1987)
*Director of the Office of the President and Board Relations
**Vice President of Alumni Affairs and Development