by Matthew Grattan (ChE ’19), Pranav Joneja (ME ’18), Kavya Udupa (BSE ’19)
This past Thursday, The Pioneer editors spoke with President-elect Laura Sparks about her priorities as president, her first impressions of Cooper, and the role that Cooper Union can play in the immediate community and even the broader world.
On Presidential Priorities
Upon entering office on January 4, 2017, Sparks’ priority is to listen and learn from the Cooper community. She’s already visited campus multiple times to talk to students and administrators alike as she wants a deeper understanding of not only the challenges that Cooper faces but the culture of the institution as well. Embedded in this priority of listening and learning is understanding the financial picture of the university.
Sparks realizes that to bring the institution back to free tuition she needs to understand the “depth and breadth of the challenge” and work with the Cooper community to create a vision and plan for the future. Bringing Cooper back to the 100% scholarship model is a central component to her plan but Sparks believes that “Cooper is about so much more than that.” To her, Cooper is a “platform for progressive change” and the education and preparation of the students to be successful after college all need to be proper considerations for this long term strategic plan.
So, the first twelve months of Sparks’ presidency will be primarily focused on putting this plan together while ensuring that it models what Cooper strives to be, “highly engaged, collaborative, and with spirit of progress.”
“Institutions have a role to play in correcting social injustices. The Cooper Union has an opportunity
to set an example for how this can be done.”
On DACA and Social Justice
Last week, Acting President Bill Mea and President-elect Sparks jointly sent campus-wide email announcing Sparks’ signature in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
DACA is an immigration policy enacted by the Obama administration in 2012 that allows undocumented immigrants who meet a certain set of requirements to legally work or obtain an education in the United States. Considering the post-election political climate, DACA appears to be at risk of being repealed by the incoming Trump administration. The petition—originating at Pomona College in California—has been circulating among institutions of higher education and carries over 450 signatures from the heads of public and private colleges and universities.
Sparks felt that Cooper “can and should do a lot” as she believes that though the university is historically known for being focused on the education of the students, it should play a role in the broader community especially after the recent presidential election. According to her, it is important to think as a country about how we engage in civic discourse, and “The Cooper Union has an opportunity to set an example for how that can be done in this country.”
Though it was perhaps a bold move to speak for the entire institution before taking office, Sparks felt there was broad support among the Cooper community after speaking with Mea, Dean Chris Chamberlin, and others. According to Sparks, “it is important for us as an institution to stand up for what we believe in and to make sure most importantly that our students and broader community feel supported.” Sparks and Mea both intended to sign the statement, but only one signature per school was permitted.
Signing the DACA letter followed from Sparks’ view that “institutions have a role to play in correcting social injustices.” Cooper Union’s history as a place of social change resonated with “my background, the experiences in my own career, and what I hope for Cooper going forward,” said Sparks.
Sparks’ sense of social justice and the role that institutions can play in furthering it stems from her time at Wellesley College. Taking classes in both economics and philosophy fostered “an entirely new way of looking at the world” while also encouraging conversations about personal beliefs.
“How can we be a model for rigorous education that’s high quality, that’s accessible, and that’s dynamic?”
On Her Perceptions of Cooper Union
As part of her presidential transition, she has begun working with administrators and speaking to faculty. She has also met many students by attending a community gathering open to all students as well as a reception event for scholarship recipients.
When asked how her perceptions of Cooper have changed, she said, “I actually haven’t been that surprised, and in some ways that’s what is surprising.” She also spoke about her perception that Cooper has a very strong culture, even though that culture is difficult to decipher sometimes.
To her credit, Sparks really is aware of the current situation at Cooper. She acknowledges the Presidential Search Committee for giving her an accurate representation of Cooper’s affairs. She answered, “I think they did a great job of making sure the candidates understand the place.”
On the Board Meeting in December
Sparks will attend the Board of Trustees meeting scheduled for December 7. She is expected to update the Board about her presidential transition, providing comments and observations about her reception while also seeking feedback from the Board.
Other items on the agenda include meeting requirements set in the Consent Decree as part of an agreement to terminate litigation. In simpler terms, when the Attorney General brokered a deal to end the lawsuit, there were some stipulations that must be met by certain dates.
In particular, the Consent Decree requires that “all Trustees who served on the Board as of October 6, 2006, shall have their terms expire as of December 7, 2016.” In effect, this means the current Chairman of the Board, Richard Lincer, will be forced to step down. Sparks comments on this change in Board leadership: “The Board, after it makes its appointments, will let the community know. In my experience in working with the folks that I expect to be in leadership positions after the 7th [of December], I’m very pleased. It’s been a highly productive working relationship and I think it will have a good outcome.”
Another requirement of the Consent Decree is a report produced by the Board’s Free Education Committee for the Attorney General. As written in the Consent Decree, the next progress report is due on January 15, 2017, and will update the Attorney General on the progress towards “returning Cooper Union to a sustainable, full tuition scholarship model.” Sparks: “I’ve been in discussion with the Chair of the Free Education Committee and getting up to speed with the budget cuts that have been made and others that are proposed.” ◊
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Pioneer as a whole.
The article “Something We Don’t Talk About” set the ball rolling for the topic of mental health and how what we go through as Cooper students plays a role in our wellbeing. None of us are strangers to stress here. The expectations from professors and the mountains of work are sometimes enough to push people past a breaking point. As Cooper students, we are a unique group of people that are here because we deserve to be here. But we are all also unique in that stress, anxiety, and depression manifests within each of us differently. Not everyone goes through that amount of stress here, but enough of us do for us to bring it to light and talk about it candidly.
The numbers are increasing, more people are talking about it, and now the question is: how can we help?
And we have been talking about it more candidly and openly than before. Every one of us has ranted about their stress and other negative feelings to their friends and family at least a few times. More and more people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of talking about the depression, anxiety, and other illnesses they experience because the stigma surrounding mental health is lessening. This recognition about mental health could come in response to the increasing rates of depression.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, depression currently affects 6.7% of people ages 18 and older living in the United States, while anxiety affects 18.1% of the same demographic. These numbers have nearly doubled since 1998. However, it is also possible that our openness to talking about mental health has led to the increase in these numbers, as more people are made aware of the importance of their mental health leading them to seeking diagnosis and help. No matter the cause, the numbers continue to grow. It is projected that depression will become one of the most prevalent medical conditions in the world, second only to heart disease.
The numbers are increasing, more people are talking about it, and now the question is: how can we help? Few of us are licensed therapists, so all we can really offer is a listening ear, emotional support, and love for those who need it. In some cases, that’s all it takes to help someone feel better. The article “Something We Don’t Talk About” was focused on the counseling sessions offered to students at Cooper and mentions that only 20% of the student body takes advantage of these sessions. I strongly recommend to anyone who feels the need to talk to someone to go to counseling!
I took advantage of counseling the first moment I could. Before Cooper, I was a little stressed and I had days where I felt pretty down. Unfortunately, I had no resources to which I could reach out to help me when I needed it. When I came to Cooper, the stress I knew before developed into full-blown anxiety. In high school, I had friends that suffered from test anxiety and I never understood what they were going through until I sat down for my first chemistry exam at Cooper. The room spun and I felt a rising sense of helplessness for the duration of the test. The anxiety came back in different forms at different times throughout the course of my freshman year whether I was taking a test or not. It was a stranger in my head that wouldn’t go away. I had never felt anything like it and had no idea how to handle it myself, so I scheduled a counseling session with Nicole, one of the counselors, the first chance I had. That session I had with her not only let me familiarize myself with the counseling Cooper offers but also gave me the help I really needed to begin tackling the anxiety. Since then I have become familiar with both Nicole and Philip and have seen both counselors regularly with plans on returning.
The counseling program we have at the Cooper Union is currently expanding. Neither Nicole Struensee nor Philip Bockman are employed full-time at Cooper, so the school is hiring a full-time counselor to work with students. According to Dean Chris Chamberlin, “having a full time person here will provide a level of consistency and integration with Cooper as well as expand what we can do.” Although both Philip and Nicole are skilled at their jobs, having a full-time counselor at the Cooper Union would allow that person to develop a better understanding of the culture that Cooper students experience. The person in this role will organize programs and workshops that proactively raise awareness about mental health in a meaningful way.
Schoolwork is important, but what’s more important is your well-being.
That’s not to say that Nicole or Philip do not have a good understanding of the Cooper culture; on the contrary, Dean Chamberlin says that response to counseling has been “overwhelmingly positive.” However, the school’s desire to hire a full-time counselor shows that the administration cares about students’ mental health and wants to help the students as much as possible.
We are all unique individuals, so stress manifests in us differently. Stress can be caused by various different things and affect us in very different ways, so there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that takes so many different forms. There have been people dissatisfied with their counseling experiences most likely because it just did not work for them the way it works for others. Fortunately, counseling isn’t the only thing available to us that works wonders on mental health. At Cooper, even the smallest adjustments can make a difference. When the stress becomes overwhelming, sometimes all you need to do is take a step back from all the work and focus on yourself — get some sleep, eat a good meal, talk to a trusted friend or family member. Schoolwork is important, but what’s more important is your well-being. ◊
I was born in Hollywood, Florida but my family didn’t stay there very long after I was born. I grew up in the small rural towns of South Jersey. I went to a public high school in Bridgeton, NJ where I ran cross-country and middle-distance track. I came to Cooper Union as a student in 1995 and graduated in 1999. After Cooper, I got my MFA at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 2001. I hung around Philly for a year with my cohort of MFA’s and sold tickets at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Eventually, I wiggled my way to the education department and worked with young children at the Mural Arts Program as I had developed some baseline teaching skills in Cooper’s Saturday Program. I kept myself afloat by doing art residencies that gave full or partial financial assistance such as the Skowhegan and Studio Museums in Harlem. I began showing my work around New York in 2004. By 2007, I had gallery representation, I was an adjunct professor at Cooper, and I taught courses at UConn Stamford. This was the juggling act until 2009 when I started teaching full time at Yale. During my time at Yale, I kept a studio practice going and was fortunate to exhibit at some major institutions and have a few solo shows at the Susan Inglett Gallery all while commuting between NYC and New Haven.
How did you arrive back at Cooper?
After teaching at Yale for 6 years I was really ready to be in one place. I saw that Cooper was hiring for tenure track positions in the School of Art, which I think was a big moment not only for me but for Cooper as well. I knew that whether or not I got the job, good things were happening at Cooper and I gave it a shot. I’m here!
Explore every idea good or bad.
Talk about your failures as much as your successes.
Learn a useful skill.
How do you perceive the difference of the art context at Cooper between “then” and “now”?
Well, I think like any art school, the art context is in many ways affected by the larger art context, at least from the standpoint of critical conversations being held. In 1995 the major gallery scene was SoHo. There were way less galleries in general. The New Museum was in an old building on Broadway and would show artists you didn’t see in major museums or galleries. Exit Art still existed and it held down the fringe. By the time I graduated in 1999, Chelsea was slowly becoming an art destination and there was funky stuff happening in Williamsburg with no baby strollers around. Williamsburg was pretty much invisible to the art market.
At that time, I believe painting was in its third dead-alive state and critics started talking about “conceptual painting,” that was, after a recent discussion of “bad painting.” The internet was a new beast and video and installation art were becoming more mainstream and gaining new theoretical frameworks, perhaps more than in a previous generation. Back then, it was sort of bad to talk about “identity politics” and “multiculturalism’ in mixed company. People talked of “culture wars,” which I always felt was such a negative term. What we were seeing of course was an all-out revolution in the arts where women and people of color were defining space in the art market and discourse for challenging Western patriarchy. Art was in a breakthrough stage.
Now many of these things are mainstream, but not without detractors in criticism. Language has changed. Art fairs are a thing. Galleries are as big as museums. SoHo seems like a weird place to go see art. You can see great art shows in the Lower East Side. Technology has drastically and quite intimately been integrated into our everyday reality. It has had a profound effect on art and social space and students are in tune with this. Art school facilities have adjusted. Painting continues its zombie apocalypse now joined by art, critical theory and history,things that have all been deemed dead and resurrected. We should consider art after Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby.”
What advice would you give to current students in the art school?
Explore every idea good or bad. Talk about your failures as much as your successes. Learn a useful skill.
What would you like your students, as young artists, to take away from your class?
That what we do as artists is different than what critics, curators, historians and gallerists do, but altogether it’s an influential echo chamber. Create your own echo chamber of perspectives with your peers and test them out while you have this time in school. Understand the difference. Develop a community.
Tell us a little bit about what you like to explore in your art, and about any current projects in the works.
I’m interested in the Black presence in painting. My narratives are about visibility and historical erasure. I like the figure. Male figures that are made of small pieces of natural debris that shift, pile and disperse as a condition of being. This is kind of like autumn leaves piled on the lawn. I cut pieces of flora out of this black velvet paper I’ve had lying around for some years now. I paint and collage in body parts. I’m showing two now at the BRIC Biennial which is becoming our central Brooklyn community hub.
“Black Pulp!” is a show that I curated with Mark Thomas Gibson and it shows a history of African-American printed matter alongside contemporary artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Kara Walker and Ellen Gallagher. Lots of printmaking and paper ephemera such as zines, comics and more! ◊
Note: BRIC Biennial is located at 647 Fulton St. The show “Black Pulp!” is at the International Print Center New York, 508 W 26th St. 5FL until December 17.
From November 11-14, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers hosted the annual Student Conference in San Francisco, where students studying chemical engineering were able to attend presentations, learn more about the field, and compete in the annual world-wide Chem-E-Car competition. It was truly an amazing experience, and witnessing the collaboration and organization from the hosting school inspired everyone who attended. With the help of the Career Center, Cooper ChemEs were able to fly out and participate in the student events.
After arriving in San Francisco, Cooper students explored a bit of the city and met some of the hosts of the Conference. The weather complied with the event, and allowed for everyone to take in the sights near Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. The conference involved back-to-back days of lectures, presentations, and student events. Some of the highlights included talks on process safety in the chemical engineering industry, topics on particle technology involving solids handling, as opposed to standard fluid handling, discussions on processes of brewing, and new methods of energy efficiency. Though Cooper did not advance to the national Chem-E-Car competition, an event where student teams build and design chemical reactions to fuel a car to move a designated distance, students went to support and cheer on some of the other teams in participation.
Additionally, students were able to attend the AIChE career fair, where many companies and graduate school were in attendance. Because of the large ratio of students to employees, the lines were long, but students were able to speak with representatives from Chevron, Honeywell, and more companies. Following many of the events, Cooper undergraduates met up with some of the ChemE graduate students, alumni, and professors! Professors Davis, Lepek, and Maidenberg met with Cooper students, and then stayed for the professional AIChE conference for the remainder of the week. ◊