Editor’s Note: With our new digitally distance world, we as a team have decided to take advantage of the medium and publish video interviews instead of classically transcribed interviews. The first in our series, Kitty Wang sits down with the Cooper Union’s Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Rose Ojo-Ajayi to highlight her work. The interview is accessible through this link here and also embedded below:
By Jenna Scott (CE ’21) and Courtney Chiu (ChE ’21)
Can you tell us about yourself?
Sure! My name is Mili Shah, I’m a professor here in the Math Department. I grew up in south Georgia, hence the accent. I went to Emory for undergrad and Rice University for grad school. And then I was a professor at Loyola University in Maryland for 11 years.
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.” ◊
“WOUND is a study center for practices of listening, attention, and collaboration. The study center is pronounced /waʊnd/, as in: the clock has been wound. WOUND aims to mend time and attention by providing (1) practice spaces for groups, (2) a study center for sculptural tools, and (3) trainings in practices of listening, attention, and collaboration.” - http://woundstudycenter.com/
by Emma Faith Hill (Art ’17)
Your title in conjunction with the show is Director. Can you speak about what the role means for you? How it differs from the title of Artist or Curator?
At this time, a Curator or an Artist is often understood to be a person whose individual expressions, labor, and critical thought enable a project to exist. But I want to create projects that exist beyond my initial vision; that can be modified and renewed with the energy of the people who are working on them, over years. So I am the interim Director of the Study Center because I am currently the primary person who is responsible for the long term mission of the space. The Study Center aims to mend time and attention by providing (1) practice spaces for groups, (2) a study center for sculptural tools, and (3) trainings in practices of listening, attention, and collaboration. The Director must change for the project to live on, over time, in adaptation to local contexts, so I look forward to transitioning out of this role.
By naming my role within the Study Center, I am articulating the tasks that I carry out at this time, while also opening up these tasks to people in the future. I am interested in naming titles and roles that comprise the systems that I create because this allows for visible accountability and training for people who wish to move into these roles. When someone hears the title of Director, they imagine that it stands for a series of responsibilities and tasks in service to a broader mission, while an Artist or Curator is likely imagined to be responsible to their own vision, a vision that can change from every season. While I hope that the ways we understand the titles of Artist and Curator transforms in time, at this moment, the term Director conjures up associations that align more closely with my goals for longevity and strategic action.
If most New Yorkers have no
experiences of democracy at work,
at home, in school, or online,
how will we learn to work together?
I aim to co-create both discrete works of art and also institutions for the solidarity economy. My method is to enjoin objects to their contexts of circulation. For example, I build sculptures for barter only as I also co-create international barter networks that continue to grow; I fabricate model Shaker housing and I also convene organizers of community land trusts. I am currently working with Susan Jahoda and Emilio Martinez Poppe on a book and a card game about the commons, which could eventually live in the Study Center. But at the moment, we lack nuanced dialog and critical reflection about group work in the visual arts. This Study Center provides a space for reflection among peers, which lays the groundwork for additional feedback and deep thought about the card game and book. I find that many emergent projects make sense within collective work or institutions that must be established.
As well as directing Wound, you also contributed many Ladder Chairs to the show. Could you expand on where the design of these chairs came from?
I want to furnish gathering spaces with objects that are as inspired as the conversations that occur in those spaces. Ladders, like the sculptural tools in the Study Center, have functioned historically in artworks as both designed objects and also as cultural symbols. I made the ladder furniture to connect the spatial dividers of the Study Center to this long lineage of ladders from Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Fluxus, and Conceptual Art. I am thinking of one of the last sculptures that Joseph Beuys made before his death (Scala Napoletana, 1985), Mel Bochner’s measurement of a ladder’s shadow (Measurement: Shadow, 1969), Man Ray’s photograph of a miniature ladder engulfed by a human foot, Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs of ladders, Yoko Ono’s ladders (Ceiling Painting, 1966, Golden Ladders, 2015), and Alma Buscher’s ladder chair (Ladder Chair for Children’s Room, 1923). Ladders have been used to stand in for aspiration, for getting ahead, and also for temporary stability, for construction of the new.
The image I created for the show, which circulated months before on a postcard, is of a ladder, tipped on its side, being used as a compass. The rungs become available for the compass point as well as the tip of a mark making material. The ladder chairs I made also have a small piece of graphite, making the careful observer imagine the furniture on its side, drawing a six-foot circle. The inability of the two points—the point that creates the center of the circle and the point which draws the circle—to connect is often my experience of communication in groups. People circle around one another, unable to hear what they do not already know or think. As the Study Center is dedicated to group work in the visual arts, this concept of division through aspiration and verbal disconnect seemed important.
The columns are made of turned poplar, and can be used for meetings, or they can stack to form a 10-foot column. This sculptural furniture is meant to point toward the classical forms that structure social life and social space in academic settings and to the smugglers of antiquities who broke ancient columns into sections. I hope that visitors will practice assembling and disassembling these forms while thinking about the design of spaces for learning.
In an arts ecology that privileges
individual success, and that rarely flies collaborators
around the world for public talks,
conversations about political economy become primary.
In addition to the turned poplar edition of the furniture, I have made a version that is an open source file for people with Computer Numerical Control machines to adapt. The CNC version is an example of what I call an Open Source Systems and Art project. I made the designs, files, and assembly process for this and (also for my Queer Rocker) available for use and modification because I learn by doing and by uniting research with action. I hope to add spaces of reflection and healing to social movements, so many of which are, at present, focused on protest and progress. Many students, activists, and grassroots organizations cannot afford to purchase furniture, but they may have time to create things with the materials around them. My aim with open source projects is that through communal production and alteration, an embodied politics will emerge.
The tools in the show are labelled as either “On View” or “In Use”. What classifies a tool under one of these two terms? And how does the label of ‘tool’ rather than ‘sculpture’, ‘piece’, or ‘artwork’ transform the objects?
A tool “In Use” is an object that will be touched, activated, and used during the time it is at Cooper Union. For example, Adelheid Mers’ The Braid is “In Use” both during her training in notation and communication methods and also throughout the duration of the Study Center’s hours at Cooper Union. Conversely, Paul Ryan’s Rose Window is “On View” because it is a delicate model that cannot be remade, so it cannot be used at this time. By referring to the objects in the Study Center as tools, I hope to trouble the autonomy we often associate with sculptures. What would it mean to see all objects in exhibitions as both formal experiments in material and scale and also objects that need to be understood within a community of practice? Stamatina Gregory and I made a decision not to show any documentation (photography, video, interactive websites) of the tools in use, because we wanted to emphasize the importance of demonstration, of experience as a criterion of knowledge. In this way, all objects have the potential for use, but may be resting at this time.
Collaborative time is a part of the study center’s vocabulary (used in wall text and online), and is “a time which is specifically marked by our engagement with one another.” This definition felt related to the goal of solidarity economies, where the gains made are produced from non-for-profit exchanges. For you, are these two models (collaborative time and solidarity economies) integral to one another?
The term “solidarity economy” emerged in the global South (economia solidária) and is known internationally by different names: the workers’ economy, the social economy, the new economy, the circular economy, the regenerative economy, the local economy, and the cooperative economy. It is recognized globally as a way to unite grassroots practices like lending circles, credit unions, worker cooperatives, and community land trusts to form a powerful base of political power. The solidarity economy is a system that places people before profit, aiming to distribute power and resources equitably. In this way, collaboration is always already a component part of the solidarity economy.
Caroline Woolard notes: As Marco Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network stated at the World Social Forum in 2004: “A solidarity economy does not arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a collective… innovative practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for social change if they interweave with one another to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-finance-distribution-consumption-education-communication.”
When an issue is your focus, group work becomes obvious, because the group will keep the issue alive. When we collaborate, we have to articulate our process to others, and therefore to ourselves, as well. This allows us to understand our own work and to refine our thought in debate and in encounters with difference—difference of experience, of perspective, of values. When we collaborate, we also have to accept different approaches to allocating time and money to projects, as collaborators attempt to agree upon which resources to share. In an arts ecology that privileges individual success, and that rarely flies collaborators around the world for public talks, conversations about political economy become primary. By articulating a collaborative economy of shared time and resources, students of collaboration also become students of solidarity economies, looking at shared livelihoods as always already part of shared production.
The Wound Study Center is made to be on-going, (which seems inherent to the study center, since the facilitators chosen to participate engage in long-term practices). Where do you see the Study Center next, and how malleable is its format as it transitions locations and institutions? How important is it that the study center operate in an art-related environment?
It is not important that the Study Center operate in an arts environment, but it is important to recognize that no new models for economic justice will be created without the arts. I see the arts as the center of all interdisciplinary work. To my mind, institutions like community land trusts, cooperative finance, and other brilliant, beautiful, systems-thinking models require the arts to envision, implement, and celebrate the unknown. The practices that the Study Center honors enable people from law, policy, finance, health, and planning to come together to create innovative models. While we see these models of credit unions, worker cooperatives, and community healing spaces, we might not realize that what brings interdisciplinary teams together are arts practices. Lastly, the arts are often the best place to test ideas for long term institutions. I have done much of the research and development of long term institutions within arts spaces.
The Study Center could take a variety of forms, ranging from (1) a small display case of tools in a community center or public library to (2) a week-long study seminar for groups with daily trainings using sculptural tools. In the best case scenario, the Study Center will (3) become a permanent space for group work in the visual arts. Just as dancers take classes throughout their lives, the Study Center would be a place to take classes or use meeting spaces on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I would run into other members of collectives, groups, and cooperatives in class, knowing that the musculature of dialog, attention, and listening has to be practiced to become strong. For this to function, I will need to move the collection to a permanent space. I am currently in dialog with the New York Public Library and also the Brooklyn Commons about this possibility.
As (4) a group of practitioners, the Study Center can exist as a consortium that offers meeting-facilitation and collaboration trainings to corporate clients as well as community based organizations using sculptural tools in unconventional environments. For example, Project 404 could teach members of a worker-owned business how to focus on a single image on their smart phone in a gallery. The Extrapolation Factory could provide futurist scenarios for activists in the basement of a museum.
If most New Yorkers have no experiences of democracy at work, at home, in school, or online, how will we learn to work together? This Study Center provides a practice space for joint work and joint decision making. Whether the Study Center becomes a small display case, a week-long institute, a permanent space, or a consortium of practitioners, I know that this is the work that is necessary for the cooperative culture and the solidarity economy that I want to see. ◊
Where you are from and how did you hear of Cooper?
I’m from way upper Manhattan (now called “Hudson Heights”) and discovered Cooper Union in my junior year of high school, when researching potential colleges. I was looking for a top school where I could pursue my interest in computers, and free
tuition certainly made Cooper stand out!
I moved to Seattle in 1990 to work for Microsoft and later, in 1994, founded eMedia Music, an educational software company. Over the years we’ve expanded into instrument and software bundles and distribution of other music related products. I’m running the business there, managing software development, and overseeing our sales/marketing and operational efforts. I’m based in Seattle but do get to New York regularly to support our operations and contribute to the effort to restore Cooper Union’s free education mission.
You were elected to the Board of Trustees in 2015; how would you describe your involvement on the Board?
Like all Cooper trustees, I share responsibility for the strategic development and oversight of the school. But it’s no secret that alumni elected me, and I joined the Board, in order to help achieve an expeditious return to a stable, tuition-free, and thriving Cooper Union. To achieve those goals, the Board has to build trust and support through transparency, fiscal responsibility, and unity of purpose. I’m pushing hard and trying to spur discussion and
action on all three fronts!
“The Board will not authorize cuts that
compromise the education or safety of our students.”
How would you describe your involvement with the Free Education Committee (FEC) so far?
The Free Education Committee was one of the new board structures dictated by the Consent Decree. Its role is to develop a comprehensive and viable plan to return to full-tuition scholarships for all Cooper undergraduates. I believe that the FEC is critical to the ultimate success of our efforts to restore Cooper’s mission. That’s why I pushed for its inclusion in the Consent Decree and sit on the Committee.
The FEC has to consider complex fiscal, legal, educational, and operational issues as it develops its recommendations. It’s a massive undertaking. To date, we’ve been gathering information and studying past efforts. But I’d like to see us make more progress, faster, in developing a thoughtful framework for the plan to return to “free” as well as establishing extended working teams to pursue specific plan elements. I’ve asked the Board to consider adding more trustees to the Committee to help expedite that work.
As President of the Committee to Save Cooper Union (CSCU), you were one of the main petitioners in the lawsuit against the Board of Trustees. Some of the respondents of the lawsuit—such as current Chairman of the Board, Richard Lincer—are still trustees now. How would you describe the dynamic of your relationship with them now that you serve with them as a trustee?
Chair Lincer and the trustees have made a genuine effort to cordially welcome me to the Board. I truly appreciate that effort. For my part, I’m determined to work constructively with the Board and do my part in helping it be as effective as possible. Acting together as a unified and mutually supportive group is the best way to succeed.
Richard Lincer’s term ends this December, what action will the Board take thereafter? What would you say is the main focus of the Board of Trustees looking forward?
After Richard Lincer’s term ends, the Board will appoint another Chair. The Chair has a considerable amount of influence on the board—for example, the Chair appoints all Committee Chairs and sets agendas for board meetings. It’s premature to speculate on the focus on the board until the new Chair is in place.
How would you describe Cooper’s current financial outlook especially considering our higher-than-normal proportion of non-instructional staff relative to students? What steps has the Board recommended to create a balanced budget?
At the June 2016 Board meeting the Board instructed Bill Mea to model and evaluate scenarios for additional expense cuts
between $5 million and $7 million. However, while it is critical that Cooper live within its means, the Board will not authorize cuts that compromise the education or safety of our students.
Scott Lerman (Art ‘81) joined the Board recently. Wasn’t he involved with the Committee to Save Cooper Union? Could you describe his what he does with CSCU and the Board?
Yes, Scott is one of the important new voices on the board—as a former President and CEO of two leading global brand consultancies, and current CEO of Lucid Brands he brings valuable organizational and branding expertise to the board.
Scott was officially a strategic consultant to CSCU (pro-bono—we couldn’t afford him otherwise!) and was directly involved in the Attorney General brokered settlement negotiations that resulted in the Consent Decree. He currently serves on the Communications and Development committees of the Cooper Board.
What do you think about electing Laura Sparks as President? What skills do you think she brings to Cooper?
The Board sought a 13th President capable of partnering with the Board to stabilize Cooper’s finances, restore full-tuition scholarships for all, and advance the quality of the schools. Laura Sparks brings highly valuable experience and skills to Cooper Union. She has led a leading not-for-profit foundation, is knowledgeable about fund- and grant-raising, and has relevant financial expertise. Her proven abilities in uniting and inspiring diverse communities and raising institutional prominence coupled with her respect for Cooper Union’s historic mission bodes well for our future. I have high hopes! ◊