Category Archives: Alumni Interviews

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Sascha Mombartz: Office for Visual Affairs

by Pranav Joneja (ME ’18)

Meet Sascha Mombartz. Photo by Catalina Kulczar.
Meet Sascha Mombartz. Photos by Catalina Kulczar.


How did you find out about Cooper?

Well, I’m originally from Germany, but this story should start when I first moved to America after finishing high school in Egypt. My father was a diplomat for the German government and his job had us moving around a lot. I was born in Malta, I grew up in Ethiopia, Thailand, Germany, and then Egypt. So, it begins when I was around 18 and we were posted to Texas. 

I showed up in Denton, Texas and it was a completely different world—bit of a culture shock you could say. I had started attending the University of North Texas, which was a big college in a pretty small town. The graphic design program I was in had a very commercial focus—lots of advertising and things like that, which is what I thought at the time I wanted to do.

While I was there, I attended a photography show and the curator was from New York. He told me about this school in New York called “Cooper’s Union—or something like that. It’s free!” Of course, I didn’t believe him right away so when I got home, I looked it up and it was a real what-the-fuck moment. It was real! But I had just missed the application deadline!

So, I called the school and through those calls I got all the way to Dean Vidler, the dean of the art school at the time. I don’t even know why they let me talk to him! Anyways, despite all my explaining and pleading, he said that I would have to wait another year to apply.

Six months later, I went to a portfolio review and Day Gleeson (Professor in the School of Art) was there. You know you hear all those stories about people who go to portfolio reviews and are crying, so I was pretty nervous. I was also the only guy wearing a shirt, tie and a jacket—I don’t even know why. But somehow she took a liking to me.

Do you remember what you showed to Day Gleeson at your portfolio review?

That was another sort of weird thing. I had only brought my laptop and was showing her these websites and videos I had made. And I think some logos I had designed, too. This was before it was easy to make websites, so it was kind of weird and sorta new. Everyone else was lugging around these huge portfolios—like physical bags and boxes—while I just had my laptop only.

I was also the only guy wearing a
shirt, tie and a jacket—I don’t even know why.
But somehow she took a liking to me.

"See Something, Say Something." Concept by Sascha Mombartz.
“See Something, Say Something.” Concept by Sascha Mombartz.

What did you feel when you first got to Cooper?

Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It’s difficult to judge from afar all these things without actually being there. I was very… confused? I had come from a place that was very structured, and even though Cooper had classes like Graphic Design, it wasn’t like Graphic Design at UNT. The whole studio idea was very open. You have to almost come up with your own assignments.

I took an advanced drawing class. The guy next to me was doing a sculpture, another person was doing a dance performance and I was sitting there like “I don’t understand, I’m in a drawing class!” It was such a contrast from where I had come from.

Cooper is also very heavily focused on the concept. Yes, there’s a component of technique involved, but I feel at Cooper it’s all about the idea or concept behind your project.

You might say that about any high-brow art school.

Sort of, yeah. But sometimes people value the craft of the work, or they look at the technique. I didn’t go to other schools, but at Cooper, more than anything else, it was about the concept. At least that’s what I think. I feel that your craft was treated like your own business and you got better at it on your own.

Stamp on money concept by Sascha Mombartz.
Fund Trust stamp series by Sascha Mombartz.

I found some work you made while you were at Cooper; you submitted it to The Pioneer. Do you remember this?

"Pull Yourself Together," Illustration by Sascha Mombartz. Originally printed in Volume 86, Issue 5.
“Pull Yourself Together” by Sascha Mombartz. Originally printed in Volume 86, Issue 5.

This one is called “Pull yourself together.”

It was part of a series of little word games I made for a screen printing class with Lorenzo [Clayton]. His big thing is to teach us to iterate. He doesn’t use the word ‘iterate’, but that’s what he teaches. He explains how you come up with an idea and then try it in lots of different ways and keep experimenting until you find a solution.

When you graduated, what was your path out of Cooper?

Well, I graduated in December 2008 because I was a transfer student. My father was very eager to have me supporting myself financially, but he agreed to help me out for one month after graduation. Basically, he would pay for January rent; after that I was on my own.

Now it was early 2009, you know, financial crisis and everything and here I was trying to find a job. My friend Louise—she had graduated just a little before me—was working at The New York Times. She told me they were looking for a graphic designer and she managed to arrange a job interview for me with Khoi Vinh, their design director. The interview went really well and I was looking forward to hearing from them soon.

At the same time, I was also interviewing at Pentagram. I felt really good after that interview and I thought that was going to turn out well for me. They offered me an internship that paid quite well and I was so happy! I mean it’s Pentagram!!

[Editor’s Note: Pentagram is a multidisciplinary design studio. J. Abbot Miller, a partner at Pentagram and also a Cooper alumnus, designed the signage and is behind the decision to use that typeface you see everywhere in the NAB—the one with the chamfered edges. It’s called Foundry Gridnik.]

“It’s all downhill from here.” Williamsburg Bridge, New York, 2012. By Sascha Mombartz.

Then I heard back from The Times—they wanted to do a second interview. I was like, “Holy shit, this is huge!” I was very excited. But then I felt kinda bad because I was supposed to start at Pentagram the next week. I felt like I should let them know that I’m doing other interviews because… well it’s gonna suck for them! So, I called them up—see I thought this was a good idea when I did it—and I said:

“Hey, I’m doing an interview with The New York Times. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I thought you should know.”
And the lady was like: “—Oh cool, thanks. Uhh, I’ll call you back later.” *click*
And I thought to myself, “Oh shit, call me back later? Uhh.” But this was just before my interview at the Times, so I just refocused on that. When I got out of the interview, I had a voicemail. It was from Pentagram:

“Hey Sascha, thanks for letting us know! We found someone else to take your spot. Good luck with The Times. Bye.” *click* And I thought, “Hooooly shit, I went and fucked that up. I just lost that job.”

After that, I started getting anxious. I hadn’t heard from The Times in a while, so I called them. They said, “Hey, thanks for calling, you were second on our list, but we decided to go with someone else. Thanks so much.”

 I should have started at Pentagram, and then if I got the job at The Times, I should quit and go there instead. That’s okay to do. I’m not going to hurt Pentagram by doing that; they’re too big.

And then I just crumbled. I was such a moron; I should have just shut up and I would still have the Pentagram internship. Of course, now with hindsight, I would say my advice is you definitely need to look out for yourself because other people are not going to look out for you. I should have started at Pentagram, and then if I got the job at The Times, I should quit and go there instead. That’s okay to do. I’m not going to hurt Pentagram by doing that; they’re too big.

Anyways, I had ended up with nothing. Mega-bummer.

Two weeks later, I got a call from Khoi at The Times again. He said:

“Hey Sascha, are you still looking for a job? Would you be interested in working for us?”

I was excited all over again! I got the job! What had happened was the person they originally hired—she had her own design studio and had more experience than me—just did not fit in with the team. After an incident, she was let go and so I got the job!

That was my first job right out of Cooper. I was on the digital design team at The New York Times. We made all the minute details and features of the website and sidebar and translated that experience to all their mobile apps and stuff. It was such an amazing experience and I guess I did realize it at the time. You only realize how great the first job was when you’re at the fifth job and it’s not so amazing anymore.

Sounds a bit like dating.

Oh, yeah, 100%, everything is like dating.

What were the not-so-amazing places you ended at?

I don’t think I could tell you that on the record. 

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“Black Hole.” 2008. Installation by Sascha Mombartz in his senior show.

Where has your career taken you after that?

Well, I tried a bunch of things. First I started a company with two of my friends. We made a lot of mistakes and things didn’t end so well between me and friends-turned-co-founders. After learning a lot from that I experience, I tried something else in the form of a new company I started on my own.

The idea came to me when I visited Walter De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer and The New York Earth Room. These are two mind-blowing installations in SoHo that I wanted to share with my friends. So, I started taking my friends there and that morphed into me looking up more about the history of SoHo. I already knew the history of Cooper Union, I knew things about McSorley’s story—I was so fascinated by the little bits of information that change the way you look at something.

Soon after that, I had a job giving walking tours of neighborhoods to random people. Yeah, like tourists and even local people who were curious. It was a lot of work to read up and learn enough about New York to answer any questions, but I was already interested in all of that and now I had a good reason. I charged $50 per person. And I had to do the tours whether it was raining or it was sunny, so it was pretty hard.

It made sense to me that this could be an app, so that’s what I started working on.

It was initially called ArtwalkNYC and now it’s called Float. It’s a guidebook-as-an-app that tells reveals the little bits of information that exists all around you. It helps you make your own tour of these neighborhoods.

Looking back at that now, I think I realize I picked something really difficult. Creating high quality, original content is super hard. And the travel business is also very crowded. There are literally 50 other guide apps—from like Lonely Planet and other guidebook companies going digital. I put in a lot of work and I felt it wasn’t really going anywhere, so it’s shelved for now.

[Editor’s Note: The app is still available as Float and features over 300 stories about places all over the five boroughs. One story about Cooper Union: “The statue of Peter Cooper in the park used to be cleaned by Jackson Pollock when he worked as a stone cutter at the Emergency Relief Bureau.”]

Urtak, one of Mombartz's first startups, was an online discussion platform. The concept was that each comment must be a question—and "Yes", "No", and "Don't Care" responses are collected from other readers. Mombartz produced the graphic above using data from an Urtak discussion on Cooper's decision to end free tuition in 2012.
Urtak, one of Mombartz’s first startups together with Aaron Gibraltar and Marc Lizoain, was an online discussion platform. The concept was that each comment must be a question—and “Yes”, “No”, and “Don’t Care” responses are collected from other readers. Mombartz produced the graphic above using data from an Urtak discussion on Cooper’s decision to end free tuition in 2012 (click to enlarge).

What do you do now?

I’m a freelance designer, so I pretty much work for myself. My studio is called the Office for Visual Affairs. It’s a little joke I have with my dad—he used to work for the Office for Foreign Affairs as a diplomat for the German government. I think he kinda gets it, but he’s never mentioned it since… I think it was the most hilarious thing. ◊

Jay Maisel, photo by Winter Leng ChE '18

Faces of Cooper: Jay Maisel (Art ’52)

Jay Maisel is an illustrious photographer and celebrated alumnus of the School of Art. 

by Pranav Joneja

Jay Maisel, photo by Winter Leng ChE '18
Photo by Winter Leng (ChE ’18)

Have you come back to Cooper to visit recently?

I would pass there every day because I lived nearby. But I just haven’t gone recently because now I live in Brooklyn and it’s hard for me to walk now. I’m going to get double knee replacement surgery soon so I’m hoping that I will be able to get around after that. All my friends who have had new knees put in tell me about how they’re out dancing now, so maybe if I can do that too, I’ll come out there.

When I did live in Manhattan, I would try to go to the annual exhibit. It was always the same every year, but it was always fun!

Recent photo by Jay Maisel

–◊–

ON BEING AT COOPER

Did you have your own senior show when you graduated?

Yes, of course I did! I remember I had a sculpture of two people fucking. And the dean sternly told me:

“No, you cannot call it Copulating Couple!”
“Why?!?”
and he said—smacking the table—“Because people know what it is! You don’t have to write it down!”

Tell me more about him.

His name was Shaw; he was the dean of the art school. He was a redheaded man with balding hair. He and I had lots of interchanges because I was always up in his office complaining about everything. Just before I was to graduate, I got a notice saying I was first in the class but I also got another notice saying I wasn’t going to graduate because of my absences and my tardiness. So I went up to his office and I showed him the first notice in one hand and the second notice in the other… and he said “Well if we didn’t keep a rein on you, you never would have shown up!”

Cooper Union's yearbook, The Cable, 1952
Cooper Union’s yearbook, The Cable, 1952

 In the archives of the Library, I read that the selective service draft was in effect at that time. How did that affect you?

 Yes, we were in the middle of the Korean War when I graduated in 1952. Even before the draft, I told my father I was going to enlist and he said:

“You can’t enlist because you’ll die!”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I will fucking kill you if you do.”

But, seriously, I didn’t really believe in that cockamamie war but I didn’t want it hanging over my head the whole time.

Anyways, later on I was drafted and I went down to the examination at the draft office. The guy commanded everyone to do deep knee bends and I just stood there,

He said, “Okay, wise guy, what is it?”
“I can’t do deep knee bends.”
“Why not?”
I shrugged.
And he barked, “Well, you just stand there for four hours until we can get to you.”

And I’m standing there thinking, “Stand here for four hours or go into the army…?” I was so impatient; the choice was starting to feel difficult.

Anyways, I stood there and they finally got to me. They needed to do more tests—I was there another hour!—and they discovered that I had cartilage problems in my knees. That’s why I can’t walk now. My knee saved my life [from the draft] but every once in a while it got worked up and it caused problems for my mobility.

Cooper Square in the 1920s. Union News Company

Did you get up to any other antics while you were at Cooper?

Sometimes, school furniture broke and they would have to throw it out. One time there was this huge, ten-foot table that was a little damaged on one side. By all other means though, it was a great table—solid wood and heavy. So I took the table, put it on my head and carried it to 17th Street where I lived. I carried it up all the stairs and put it in my room against the wall… But that’s when I realized I had the fucked up side facing outward. I tried turning it around but my apartment was so small I didn’t have space. So I had to take it all the way back downstairs, outside onto the street, turn it around and bring it back inside.

What did you do during your free time, during breaks from school or summer?

I ate.

Photo by Jay Maisel
Photo by Jay Maisel
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Photo by Jay Maisel

–◊–

ON HIS FIRST WIFE

I had gotten married at age twenty—which was bizarre. I got married to a woman I met at an art program just before Cooper. She was two years younger than me and her father was a wealthy lawyer at the time. She was also a painter and she went to Columbia while I went to Cooper—so when we compromised on where we would live, we decided to live on 116th Street. [What a compromise!]

She was a very bright woman and she was culturally much more aware than I was. See, you have to understand I was very limited being brought up in Brooklyn and just from her family background she had opportunities to learn so much about the world. She actually introduced me to a lot of art and music and culture.

She was a very terrific lady. Our marriage lasted eight months.

Whose idea was it to get married?

I think we both wanted to get married but we were just much too young. If anyone had just said to us “Go ahead, get married,” we wouldn’t have done it. But everyone told us we couldn’t, so of course we went ahead and did!

At the time it wasn’t uncommon to get married so young in the Midwest. It was the ’50s, everyone was rushing to have their 2.6 kids and live in a house. But in New York, it was beyond stupid.

New York in the 50s, by Jay Maisel

 –◊–

ON STUDYING AT YALE WITH JOSEF ALBERS

Yale attracted students from Cooper for two reasons: The first was of course the chance to work with Josef Albers. He was a very famous German painter involved in the Bauhaus and after escaping the Nazis, he came to America to teach at Black Mountain College. After that, he taught at Yale. He knew of Cooper Union’s rigorous program and invited Cooper students because of that. The second reason was that after three years at Cooper, we only had certificates but doing just one year with Albers at Yale meant we got a Bachelors in Fine Arts.

Albers thought that your medium should not influence the product of your work—you should have complete control over your work. He’s the exact opposite of Marshall McLuhan, who said “the medium is the message.”

At first, I had a lot of difficulty learning from Albers. See, I’ve never been neat— I’m kind of a slob. While at Cooper, Morris Kantor, my teacher and famous painter himself, said my works were not paintings, they were “emotional outbursts.” Meanwhile, Albers was very… German. He liked to be in control of everything. He said you should be able to paint in a white Palm Beach suit, while I couldn’t paint in a Hazmat suit. I got paint everywhere!

He didn’t like my paintings at all! He also gave a color course, which I excelled in because it was done in cut paper. But my paintings? No! It got so bad that I barricaded my studio so he couldn’t get in and look at my work—I was so embarrassed.

Homage to the Square, Josef Albers

I remember one time we were doing a color study and I had chosen to do it with Color Aid paper. I had done this 30in-by-40in piece that I was very proud of. And he looked at it from outside my booth—because that’s where I had barricaded him to stand—and he said “Ach! Boy, now we finally begin to understand something about painting!” But then he pulled aside all the furniture and walked in and said “It’s paper!” and walked away disappointed in me.

Another time, he invited his students to contribute to a book he was doing. I really liked doing color studies so I submitted this incredibly complicated piece—I cut out circles and placed them inside each other. It was one color, against another, over the background and then another one… And Albers thought it was great, he put it in his book. But before he did, he changed the colors!!! The book was eventually published, titled Interaction of Coloryou might have heard of it— and it cost $3,500. The reason it was so expensive: each page was silkscreened and individually approved by Albers.

Photo by Jay Maisel

–◊–

ON FIRST GETTING STARTED IN THE PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS

I didn’t start with photography until the second or third year at Cooper. The first real moment was—

There was this art history professor, Dr. Zucker. One time he was gesturing in class and I wasn’t really listening to him anyways, so I took a picture. They ended up using that picture for a double page spread in the yearbook. Seeing your work reproduced on a double page… that was the first time something like that was done with my work.

New York in the 50s, by Jay Maisel

What was the first moment where you felt you had really ‘made it’ / become successful?

Well, it’s a really subtle thing. I got an assignment to travel across the United States to photograph cars in an experimental way. The two other people asked to do the same were Elliot Erwitt and Ersnt Haas. We weren’t working together per se, but we were asked to do the same assignment. And these were two top fucking guys. Erwitt is still working today and he’s a genius. Haas was my mentor. He didn’t know it at the time—and later I got to know him better—but he was my hero!

But in my mind: if somebody thinks that I’m in this kind of company and working at their level, then I must have made it! 

What about your first exhibit?

A year after I got into the business, I got my first exhibit at Roy DeCarava’s A Photographer’s Gallery. A photographer friend of mine, Garry Winogrand—he’s a contemporary of mine and I respected him very much, but he was also the most honest, tactless person in the world—when he came to the exhibit

He asked: “Who designed this exhibit [space]?”
“Well, I did”
“You did a good job, nobody’s gonna see how bad the pictures are.”

We were very good friends, but we fought a lot in jest. Garry once said to me:
“The reason your pictures suck is that they don’t reflect the chaos of the world”
“And yours do?”
“Yes, mine reflect the chaos of the world!”
“So why do mine have to? You’re taking care of it.”

 

Photo by Jay Maisel

  –◊– 

The main entrance to 190 Bowery St. “The portico, which contains a flight of bluestone steps leading to the main doorway,  features freestanding Tuscan columns, decorated with rosettes and egg-and-dart moldings, supporting a molded entablature.”  Photo by Winter Leng (ChE ‘18).
The main entrance to 190 Bowery. Maisel lived and worked for nearly fifty years in this historic Revival Renaissance-style building designed by Cooper architect, Robert Maynicke. 

ON LIVING AT 190 BOWERY

When I was looking for a new place, it was the first building I even looked at. When the agent told me he was going to show me an abandoned bank, I had assumed it was a two-story bank somewhere—there were a number of them in town. But when I saw 190 Bowery, I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? I can’t do this!” And he said, “You can do it” with a smirk.

Since we were there already, I thought to myself I should take a look anyways. As he told me more about the place, I said, “Holy shit, there are 72 rooms in this place!? I don’t know if I can do it!” And again he just said, “You can do it.”

Of course it was later that I found out he had severely underestimated the cost of upkeep for the place. But still, it was a dream! I would never have to worry about space, I would always have someplace to put anything. And the fact that everyone told me I shouldn’t do it—well I did it anyways. So I put in a down payment of a quarter of the $102,000 price and I bought it.

In the early years, the agent also found me some tenants to take up the third and fourth floors. I had artists Adolph Gottlieb and Roy Lichtenstein paying me $350 for 3,500 square feet. It wasn’t a lot of money and eventually it wasn’t worth the bother to rent, so I just stopped.

While I lived there, I did most of my work in the main room on the ground floor. It was 40-feet-by-60-feet and the ceiling was 20-feet high, so it was just a joy to be in. There was the old bank vault underneath it. We had gallery spaces on the second and third floors and the fourth floor was storage and guest rooms. The fifth floor was mainly workshops. And we lived on the sixth floor—my wife, daughter and I.

What do you use the bank vault for?

Funny you should ask. Everybody who came to the vault said, “Gee, what a great darkroom this would be.” Or “Gee, this would be a terrific place to store wine.” But this one guy came, looked around and said, “Finally, a place where I can masturbate in safety and privacy.”

Everybody had an idea for what they would do for it, but I knew exactly what I was going to do with it. I stored all my important work, my negatives, my prints and transparencies and other important documents. That’s what I did.

The elevator in Maisel’s home. Photo by Leigh Davis, New York Magazine.

Tell me about the elevator.

There were two elevators, but the lines were cut in one of them when I got the building. So we cannibalized parts whenever we needed to fix something up in the first elevator. The elevator was copper and I would have to shine it up. When I got it, it was painted black and it was a lot of trouble to keep it shined up.

It also had an escape hatch.

An escape hatch out of the elevator?

Oh yeah. It would get stuck a lot and I would need to use the hatch to get out. Sometimes it would get stuck near a floor, so it was okay and you could climb out. Other times it would get stuck between floors, so it got very hairy. I used to keep a 12-foot telescoping ladder in the elevator so I could use it when I needed to.

What about the graffiti on the outside?

Well I don’t have that problem anymore now that I live here [in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn]. And no, I don’t miss it, Jesus! Ninety percent of it was shit!

There was one guy—Keith Haring, you might have heard of him—made art on my building and I absolutely loved it! But he did it in chalk, so it would wash off when it rained.

Early on, there were many times when I got so pissed off by all the tagging and graffiti even on my windows blocking the light. So I used to spend an entire weekend cleaning it off. But by the next week, it was all covered again because I had basically made them a new canvas.

In 2001, the city came and told me they could help clean it off if I agreed to it. See, they can’t force me to remove it because it’s a freedom of speech matter. But I agreed, and so they came and tested if it would even come off. Soon, they figured out how to do it and said they would come back tomorrow. The next day was September 11. They never came.

In previous interviews, you’ve said you’d never sell it. What changed?

Have you ever seen The Godfather? [Yeah.] He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was becoming untenable. When I bought the place, it cost me $200 to heat the place because gas was 10 cents a gallon. A few years ago, gas was four dollars a gallon. So it was $8,000  a month just to heat the damn place.

 

Someday I’m going to do a book about the place. I’ve got the pictures, and I’ll do it someday…

Interview with Malcolm King (EE ’97), Board Trustee

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.

Alumni Interview: Firat Erdim

Caroline Yu (EE ‘15)

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Meet Firat Erdim (Arch ‘01). The Pioneer interviewed him over the summer in 2013. Check out how his Cooper experiences shaped what he is doing today and what advice he has for current Cooper students.

The Cooper Pioneer: What is your favorite memory of Cooper?
Firat Erdim: There are so many good memories that it’s hard to pick one. The architecture studio certainly holds many of those memories for me. I met my wife there. We celebrated our first Valentine’s Day together while working overnight in the architecture studio. We both had some sort of deadline the next day. She gave me a copy of John Hejduk’s Soundings, which I still cherish, and I brought her a single rose once an hour through the night.

TCP: What clubs or groups did you enjoy the most during your time at Cooper?
FE: I didn’t get involved in any groups or clubs while at Cooper. The architecture studio kept me pretty busy, and when I was less busy, there was the whole of New York City to explore.

TCP: What specific aspect of Cooper has influenced you the most during your career?
FE: Without a doubt, the most influential aspect of Cooper for me was the spirit in the architecture studio. The creative energy, support, and dialogue that existed between the students there are like nowhere else I’ve been. It gave me a sense of what it means to participate in, and hopefully contribute to, a community engaged in creative work and intellectual exploration.

TCP: Why did you choose to pursue a Master of Architecture degree?
FE: After graduating from Cooper, I worked at architecture firms, primarily Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, in New York for about five years. During that time, I was also making drawings and constructions at a studio space I rented with a few friends, all art and architecture alumni from Cooper. After about five years, I had accumulated many questions about the relationships between art, architecture, and the city. I thought exploring, and hopefully resolving, these questions were critical in figuring out how I wanted to practice going into the future. The Master of Architecture degree allowed me the focused time to work on this, and a community of colleagues and mentors to engage in debate. It did not resolve anything, of course, but gave me much more to think about, explore, more reasons to make new work.

TCP: Do you still speak to your classmates?
FE: Yes, I try to keep in touch as best as I can, though unfortunately I have fallen out of touch with some. I think the friends one makes there are like no other. They’ve seen you at both your best and your worst. It’s always inspiring to hear the kinds of things my friends from that time are working on now. There is a process of adjusting to, and finding one’s way in the world, and it leads people in unforeseeable, interesting directions.

TCP: Can you describe your current job, industry, and/or company? What is the theme of your current work?
FE: In the last few years, I have been teaching architecture and landscape architecture students, while also working on independent projects, usually involving axiomatic drawings and constructions about architecture and landscape. I spent the past year in Turkey, teaching in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Design at the Izmir University of Economics, and co-directing a project and exhibition space that my wife, Olivia Valentine, and I founded there. This space, which we called “Flash Atölye” became an entirely new direction for me. We rented this small storefront shop in a “pasaj” – a covered commercial arcade – in the old market area of Karsıyaka, Izmir, initially intending to use it as a studio. The space was essentially a large vitrine, with two solid walls, and two glass walls facing the interior court of the pasaj. The pasaj itself, and the surrounding market, is a cornucopia of small craft and trade businesses, with tailors, barbers, bakers, leather-workers, curtain-makers, printing presses, etc. Realizing the potential for an interesting dialogue to happen there, we invited some friends from our community of artists and architects in the U.S., all of whom had a practice engaged in issues of making and place, to come and do a project in our space, send us work to exhibit, or simply send instructions for us to carry out. In the end, we had hosted about a dozen projects, with people from Chicago, New York, and Izmir. I’m very happy to say that the response from the local community was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Despite the language barrier and lack of a shared cultural context in most cases, an interesting and transformative dialogue took shape centered on a respect for making things with care.

TCP: Can you describe your professorships? Do you enjoy teaching students?
FE: I feel very fortunate to have taught students of architecture at a few different institutions so far, including the University of Virginia, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Marwen Foundation, both in Chicago; and at the Izmir University of Economics, in Turkey. I’m just starting a new teaching position this year at the School of Architecture and Design at IE University, in Segovia, Spain. I think working with the different curricula and students at these institutions has helped me develop my own voice as an educator. My teaching role has been with, for the most part, students in the early years of their architectural education, especially in the case of the middle-school students I was teaching at the Marwen Foundation. Those students at Marwen were amazing, by the way. We made upside-down, hanging structures inspired by Gaudi’s string and chain models. The combination of uninhibited creativity and utter seriousness with which they pursued their work was very inspiring to me, and would give most first year students in college a run for their money. In fact, Marwen has a mission and spirit similar to Cooper, so it’s not surprising that it worked so well.

I take my role as a teacher pretty seriously, and I think it is always a challenging, sometimes frustrating, but most often a tremendously rewarding experience. That’s something I’m very grateful for. I feel that any given school is, in a sense, re-created every year, based on the space that is constructed between students and teachers in any class, over the duration of any project, and teachers have a crucial role in setting the table for that to happen. I think that space is the one that is important, rather than the building that happens to house the institution. But especially when those two spaces can be brought together, then magic might very well happen.

TCP: Which institution has been your favorite place to display your work?
FE: I think I am more interested in situations where there can be a constructive dialog between the institution and the act or place of making. Perhaps the most interesting situation is where one invents the institution itself. Then it’s not just about exhibiting but also continuing the process of making something and engaging the world with it, and maybe even creating the opportunity for something else, something unforeseeable to happen. For me, the most exciting situation was with Flash Atölye, which I’ve already mentioned. Though Flash was primarily focused on hosting projects authored by others, Olivia and I collaborated for the first (and hopefully not last) time, on the inaugural project for the space. I also worked on a collaborative project with a couple of the pasaj tenants, bringing together the craft of the phyllo-dough maker, Yigit Kara, and Arda Gunduz, the neighboring tattoo artist. I’ve generally considered myself a fairly hermetic worker, so this institution we invented changed the way I work, and I think that’s great. I have a lot of gratitude for the curators and gallerists, especially Roy Boyd in Chicago, who have supported my work, but no pre-existing institution or establishment I’ve exhibited with has pushed me in that way, so far.

TCP: What advice would have give to current Cooper students, specifically architecture students?
FE: I would say to pursue your work, questions, and interests with determination, but also to keep an open mind and cast a wide net. Make good use of opportunities to pursue lines of thought across subjects and disciplines, because the resources to do so are a lot harder to get a hold of once you graduate. That net you cast might very well become a foundation for work and research you want to do in the future.

TCP: What hopes do you have for Cooper over the next ten years, and beyond?
FE: My hope for Cooper is that it can survive this current financial crisis, and get on better footing for the long run, without losing the spirit and vision that have made it the exceptional and wonderful place that it is.

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Alumni Interview: Julia Szprengiel

Saimon Sharif (ChE ‘15)

Alumni can give the greatest advice because they too have been through the ups and downs of Cooper. The Cooper Pioneer interviewed alumni from the art, architecture, and engineering schools to inspire current students and show how different alumni experienced Cooper.

We interviewed Julia Szprengiel (ChE ‘07) to see what she’s up to now.

The Cooper Pioneer: What club/group did you enjoy the most during your time at Cooper?

Julia Szprengiel: During my senior year at Cooper, I finally joined the women’s tennis team. I had played in High School, and missed tennis quite a bit, but never thought I had enough time to add a sport into my already crazy Cooper schedule. As soon as I started playing with the team, all I could think of was why hadn’t I done this for all 4 years? My classmates had always impressed me with not just their intellectual abilities, but also their wide range of talents outside of the classroom, and their ability to continue to pursue these interests despite our heavy class schedules. Students really make it happen at Cooper. Sports, talent shows, musical performances, cultural events, clubs – everything is student run, and without the amenities and money of large universities. I encourage current students to explore all of their interests while at Cooper. Even if you don’t think you can do it, you probably can. Cooper students somehow always find a way.

TCP: What is your favorite memory about Cooper?

JS: I vividly remember the moment I found out that I was accepted to Cooper Union. I came home from high school, and there was a message from the admissions office on the answering machine (remember those?). Despite getting a phone call from the school directly, I still didn’t believe that I was getting in. Maybe they’re just really personal like that, I thought. Then I heard it — “congratulations, you’ve been admitted into the class of 2007!” The next part is foggy – but I’m pretty sure I screamed repeatedly, and then yelled expletives several times, while running around the house.

I had applied early decision because I knew Cooper was where I wanted to be. No doubt. I was stoked to be going to a place where I’d be surrounded by oddball super-nerds like myself. During the building tour on admitted-students-day I even overheard hallway debates about science (debates! about science!!); the geek inside me was bursting. Initially I feared that a school with such a high reputation might be filled with people who were competitive and cut-throat. Thankfully, I was wrong. I guess we all know that we can’t survive it alone, and so over the four years, we bear the academic scars together. This “Cooper collaboration” among students is something special, and my favorite memory.

TCP: Do you still speak to your classmates?

JS: I’m lucky enough to be one of the lasting “Cooper couples” from my class. My significant other (Javier Delgado ’07) and I currently live in Westchester together…so yes, I speak to him daily. We met during sophomore year when we realized that neither of us had a clue as to what was going on in our thermodynamics class, and ended up bonding over projects and homework assignments associated with it. I know, very romantic. It is great to share the Cooper bond, since only Cooper alumni can understand the idiosyncrasies of the experience.

I also have a couple of other closer friends from school with whom I keep in touch weekly.

TCP: What was your first job out of Cooper?

JS: After graduating from Cooper, I first completed my Master’s Degree in ChE at Columbia University prior to taking a job offer from Novartis Pharmaceuticals, which is where I still work today. I was accepted into a 2-year development program at the Novartis manufacturing/packaging site in Suffern, NY (~30min north of NYC). The program is designed to educate and expose the candidate to different areas of the business to provide a well-rounded foundation for a future management position. The best part is that the second year of the program is spent at different Novartis site abroad. My abroad placement was in Basel, Switzerland. I had an amazing year from a professional, personal, and cultural perspective. This was an incredible and rare opportunity, and I fully credit Cooper’s strong academic program and reputation for giving me the edge.

TCP: Can you describe your current job(s)?

JS: Currently, I am back at Novartis’ Suffern, NY manufacturing site, working in Operational Excellence in the Quality department. I lead and manage continuous improvement projects within Quality using Six Sigma/statistical tools.

TCP: What advice would you give to current Cooper students, specifically engineering students?

JS: Though it might be difficult for the ambitious, over-achieving students at Cooper, try not to obsess over your grades. Yes, they are important to an extent, but don’t stress if you get B’s and C’s more than A’s. I assure you that no matter what, when you come out of Cooper and back into the “real world,” you will be leaps and bounds above your coworkers in work ethic, knowledge, etc. without even trying. The work you consider to be the expectation will appear to be “above and beyond” to your colleagues and managers, and you will then see how Cooper’s rigor has shaped you.

Also, enjoy Cooper life outside of academics. Participate in sports, hobbies, music, clubs, etc., even if you feel like you don’t have the time. Believe it or not, once you begin a regular job, you will think, “now I really have no time” compared to college. When I started working, I thought that I would finally have time to indulge all the hobbies I put aside while focusing on school. Not true – life gets in the way at that point and the responsibilities pile on. Plus, you start to naturally go to bed by 11pm, and get excited when you finish chores on Friday night so you don’t have to do them on the weekend….sad, but true. So, take advantage!

Photo provided by Ms. Szprengiel (ChE ‘07)