Interview With Dean Wolf

Marcus Michelen (BSE ‘14)

TCP: How have your first few weeks/month as dean been?

Alan Wolf: I’ve been working long days, 7 days a week. I always thought of myself as a hard worker, but this has been a whole new level of busy. I thought it would get worse once school started but fortunately, it’s calmed down. We had lots of issues simultaneously: we are transitioning from Agent, the system that gives us access to student records to a new system called WebAdvisor. Any database change like this is painful, but we made the transition at the beginning of a semester, when we had a critical need to access those records for advising. We’ve also had problems with Moodle, which now seem to be resolved. All of this as we are focused on plans for “reinventing” the institution. So it’s been an incredibly stressful last few weeks. It’s probably not easy transitioning to Dean at a normal time in an institution. This hasn’t been normal. I have a new respect for administrators who attend endless meetings and do a hundred things a day that are required for the day-to-day operation of the school, and still have to find time for the really critical large tasks.

TCP: Do you have any long term or short term plans as dean for the engineering school?

AW: Well I’m an Acting Dean so I won’t get to work very long on long term plans, although I hope to start some initiatives. My hope is to be back to full time teaching by next September. The dean search committee will be restarting the search for a permanent dean soon. Filling a position like this generally takes 6 months or longer. Even if we identified someone in the next couple of months, they’re probably a dean elsewhere. Their institution is entitled to a reasonable amount of notice.

In terms of short term plans, it’s very simple. The president’s welcome message says that the deans have to prepare by November 15th plans for the trustees. I’m coordinating that in the School of Engineering. What we have done is formed five subcommittees. The five subcommittees are: An undergraduate tuition subcommittee. A graduate tuition subcommittee. That’s a misleading name because that could actually be any tuition-charging-program that isn’t our current four year undergraduate program. So it doesn’t have to be a masters program. Those two committees are for revenue generation. The three others are not directly tied to meeting our financial targets. Our financial targets are that we (the School of Engineering) needs to raise 3 million dollars a year in within five years and 6 million dollars a year within eight to ten years, in 2012 dollars.

The three other subcommittees: one is a program on the undergraduate program, meaning studying what we can do to improve the quality of our undergraduate education. There’s a communication committee, studying communications within the school of engineering as well as the other parts of the school. Communications also includes things like the outside world getting to know about us. The last committee studies culture and community. How do we make the place more alive? student morale, faculty morale. It’s an interesting thing that at cooper when we have speakers come from the outside world, in most engineering schools, attendance at such talks might fill a large lecture hall. At Cooper, it’s often hard to get 5 people to show up for a talk. What is it about our culture that disinclines people to participate in events like this? The five committees are going to prepare their five separate reports. We’re going to work together to turn them into something integrated that we’ll turn into the president. He’ll bring that to the board early December to cogitate on the future of the school of engineering. So that’s the short term plan. Also we have ABET coming. ABET comes December 1st. They leave December 4th. The Board meeting is December 5th. So it’s an interesting week for us. We’re hoping to get a six year accreditation in each of the four degree-granting programs from ABET and we’re hoping the board looks favorably on our plan for the future.

I am optimistic. While we are looking at a daunting financial problem, we have President Bharucha and V.P. Westcott working incredibly hard to deal with these problems. Looking at new initiatives, considering every possible financial plan, looking for Angel donors. I’m astounded by their energy and their commitment. It’s amazing. T.C.’s been here for about two years, Jamshed’s been here a year. They’re showing the kind of commitment to the institution that you’d expect from someone who’s been tied to the school for thirty years. They are working harder than I’m working, and that must involve some sort of time-distorting relativistic effect. So I’m optimistic. If any pair of administrators are incredibly skilled and devoted and selfless, it’s the two of them. They are incredibly inspiring. The reality is that I accepted this job because I have confidence in the two of them and I wanted to be part of their team.

TCP: Do you have any comment on professor Uglesich resigning so suddenly?

AW: I sent out a letter to the juniors and seniors which was my comments followed by, unedited, what [Professor Uglesich] cared to say. I didn’t send it to freshmen since they’d be arriving at a school in which he was already gone and the sophomores never had him. But I thought juniors and seniors were entitled to see whatever it was he cared to say, so I asked him to prepare some remarks he wanted to share with the community. I was really sorry to see him leave. I thought he was a terrific classroom teacher. I thought he was doing a great job and I’m sorry to see him gone.

TCP: Do you have any advice to the freshmen?

AW: You can quote me on this: I’m not going to tell them to study harder. That’s usually what I say. The reason I’m not going to say that is because I’ve gotten feedback, very recently, from a few companies that have employed Cooper Students over the years. Here’s what they’ve said: they say that Cooper students are smarter than students from other engineering schools. But they’re less skilled at communications, at presentation of material and they’re less well rounded. So students need to focus on that too. Being an engineer is not just about grinding through calculations. It’s about interacting with clients, sometimes finding developing new business, preparing reports that communicate effectively. That means they need to develop their writing skills and their public speaking skills. It’s something students have to focus on. A lot of potential employers are looking for people who have people skills and communication skills. That means paying attention to Humanities courses and commuication workshops. Are you shocked to hear this out of me?

TCP: I am!

AW: This is a new position for me because I’ve been sitting in these sort of meetings in recent weeks. In terms of the financial crisis, current students, and even next year’s students, are grandfathered in for no tuition. It can’t be true that current students will get tuition bills. I think current freshmen should focus on their education and count on the efforts of these committees to fashion a plan for the school of engineering that will make us sustainable. If it wasn’t clear from Jamshed’s welcome letter, the plans for the three schools are entirely separate. We could have three different routes to survivability. Each of us have dollar target: the five year target for architecture is 1.2 million and for art it’s 1.8 million. For us it is $3 million.

TCP: Is that proportional to total students?

AW: It’s actually proportional to the total cost of each of the programs. Our share is half, is because it costs half to run the school of engineering. I think it’s a good thing that the fates of the three schools have been disconnected, because what is acceptable to the three schools as a means of survival or sustainability will likely be different. What makes sense for art might not make sense for engineering. But I think freshmen should focus on their education and put their confidence in very hard working faculty and administrators as well as very concerned trustees to pull us through this.

I was thrown out of Cooper in 1976 because we ran out of money. That’s when the math and physics degree programs were terminated. Here we are thirty-some-odd years later. We’re out of money again. This time the financial problem is more serious. But we pulled it out of the fire last time and I believe we will do it again this time. It’s going to require some serious reinvention of the institution. The president has emphasized that it’s not just about money, that there are also serious quality issues. He wants to ensure that we are not just going to meet our dollar targets, but that we have poised ourselves to be equal to the best.

Friends of Cooper Union Pin-up Session (Full Article)

Christopher Hong (EE ’13)

On Tuesday, February 21, 2012, Friends of Cooper Union, a group started by Cooper alumni after learning about the potential of charging tuition, held an open pin-up session with the goal of advancing ideas that were developed in the breakout sessions (group meetings to brainstorm solutions to Cooper’s financial situation), enrolling more people in the development process, and developing actionable proposals that can help Cooper Union (enrolling and developing action actionable proposals is a result desired by the breakout process -  see http://www.theworldcafe.com/method.html). There were more than forty attendees to this event and it was organized in a series of presentations. Two main organizers were Karina Tipton (CE ’99) and Sean Cusack (BSE ’98). Karina Tipton moderated the presentations.

The night started with brief introductions and a presentation by Kerry Carnahan (CE ’00) and Henry Chapman (Art ’10). They presented the Friends of Cooper Union website, www.friendsofcooperunion.org, and discussed the purpose of this group and the event that night.

Then, Tom Synnott, a former chief economist of the US Trust and a current adjunct professor of Cooper Union, gave a presentation. He talked about how the ideas brought up in his class last semester and how it is still possible to save Cooper Union. Synnott and his class believe that the deficit reduction can be achieved with $2 million in expense reduction and $1 million in revenue. He also mentioned that it is possible to cut 10% of Cooper’s expenses and “once the impossible is excluded, the unlikely becomes possible.” Another thing that he brought up was the idea that LEDs light bulbs can be bought by alumni to replace the incandescent light bulbs that are currently in the New Academic Building to cut costs. Synnott stated that once half of Cooper’s primary deficit (non-interest deficit) is cut from $6 million to $3 million, that would show the world that the school is taking its financial problems seriously and enable us to go to foundations to look for grants with greater chances of success and go back to MetLife, show them our austerity, and possibly renegotiate our $175 million loan.

Next, Barry Drogin (EE ’83) made a presentation on the finances of Cooper Union. He discussed the numbers that he has regarding Cooper’s revenues. He also pointed out that each member of the Board of Trustees donated an average of $75,000 a year for the past 11 years. In addition, he discussed the large increase in the number of administration employees.

Next, Professors Richard Stock and Daniel Lepek (ChE ’04) discussed the potential Cooper Brewery project. The space that would be used for this brewery would be the commercial space under the grand staircase. Professor Stock mentioned that this idea was brought up to Dean Ben-Avi and Professor Yash Risbud and they are supporters. However, Dean Lemiesz is against this idea entirely. There are complications with this project, one of the biggest one being that there are students in Cooper that are under the legal drinking age. Regardless, this project is still proceeding and has the interest of many students. The Cooper brewery may soon become a reality.

Paul Garrin (Art ’82) then gave a presentation on entrepreneurship. The main goal is to create a program called The Peter Cooper Entrepreneur Society at Cooper that collaborates between the three schools and creates successful startup companies that will contribute $1 million to Cooper Union over the next 5 years. It would be a mentorship program where students would be mentored by alumni and faculty members. However, one problem with this program is the time commitment required of the participants. The academic studies of the students should come first before starting a risky startup company.

Two art alumni collaborated with Paul and started their own startups recently. One is by Caitlin Everett (Art ’08). Her startup is an art loan company called Artelicio.us / Artalyze.me. In her presentation, she is claiming that her startup will have the proprietary system that will set her apart from her competitors. This system will be a program that will determine what the best piece of artwork is for a specific room that you take a picture of. The idea of an art loan company where people rent pieces of art may not be very profitable unless there are art pieces from extremely famous people.

The other alumnus, Christine Moh (Art ’95), presented her social media website for Cooper alum, called The Cooper Union People. There will be many similar features to Facebook and special privileges would be given to alumni. However, there would be fees for usage to pay for the services and the profits would go to Cooper Union. In her flow chart, there were links to artilicio.us/artalyze.me. So how is this going to be successful if this is basically the same thing as Facebook, but with fees attached? And what is the ulterior motive to link things back to the first startup company presented?

After this, Kerry Carnahan (CE ’00) presented more information about Cooper Union’s financials and ideas brought up in the last breakout session were reiterated (i.e. eliminating deans, moving out of 30 Cooper Square, cut “extra” administration employees). Also, the administration must be more transparent by giving us all the numbers. In addition, the administration is not taking savings as seriously since the Expense Reduction Task Force has half the membership numbers of the Revenue Task Force and has a much looser membership structure. In addition, there are no guiding criteria or desired outcomes from this task force, signaling that the administration is not taking expense reduction seriously. The presentation ended with this question: “Do you really want to have to explain to people that NYU’s East Campus used to be The Cooper Union?”

Next up, Sean Cusack presented on communications. The administration claimed to be transparent in the fall, but have seemed to step back a bit. One idea that came up would be for Cooper to release the entire operational expenses cent by cent from computers to staples. This way, when alumni donate, they can say “I donated all the staplers and staples to Cooper” or something of the sort. It gives the donation more meaning than “I gave Cooper $250 and have earned a title.” In addition, Cooper should be giving back to NYC since we get a lot of support from the city and the state. Ways to give back would be to volunteer in programs like Iridescent. It would make Cooper more prominent in the community. Another topic that was brought up is the alumni boundary. Once students graduate, the alumni do not get many contacts from Cooper except a request for money. This system creates the boundary that discourages potential donations.

The last presentation was by Rocco Cetera (CE ‘99) and he presented ORG charts. These charts show how things are organized and he presented an updated organizational chart for Cooper Union based on the institutions ORG chart submitted to the latest Middle States Accreditation. The ORG chart showed that there are many layers of administration. Rocco added faculty to the ends of some of the chains because it was not included in the Middle States Accreditation version. One takeaway from the presentation is that there is a huge administrative layer that exists between the students and faculty to the president. The purpose of this presentation is to show how results of the breakout groups could be applied to enact change that the community wants to see. This presentation was to be given by Koukaba Moiadidi (Arch ’01) and Rocco Cetera. Moiadidi created the diagrams, but unfortunately, he had to leave early because he was not feeling well.

In the end, during a spirited closing discussion, Karina Tipton stated her reasons for working to preserve a tuition-free Cooper Union. Her reasons stem from preserving the existing admissions process and the unique Cooper Union alum she is “currently used to rubbing shoulders with,” and she believes this is a product of the Cooper Union meritocracy. After acknowledging the many contributions students have made to the discussions surrounding this issue and discussing the academic conflicts students may have in their availability to participate more directly in the Friends of Cooper Union discussions, she concluded, “the fact that they’re not going to be charged tuition [may] give them a level of distance that I don’t have as an alum because I’m looking down the tunnel and thinking, ‘should I just take Cooper Union off my résumé if they charge tuition because I think I might.’”

Overall, this was a successful event in informing the attendees. There were many new attendees who were open to giving their ideas with the main goal of helping save Cooper Union. Again, it is nice to see that there are still many people who care about Cooper Union and do not want to see it walk down the path that CUNY did. I felt that the brewery idea is definitely promising in raising revenue, but the barrier of underage students would have to be overcome first. Also, I felt that the entrepreneur presentations seemed more like a pitch to get customers and the idea of saving Cooper got dissolved in personal incentives. Entrepreneurship is a good idea, but we need the $1 billion idea to really save Cooper. It was unfortunate that there were only about 5 students who attended that night, but with more student attendees in future events, the Friends of Cooper would have a better sense of what students are going through today in Cooper Union. The next event hosted by Friends of Cooper Union will be another breakout session on February 29 at 7PM in LL101. Food will be provided and all are welcomed.

If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, e-mail us at cooperpioneer@gmail.com. You may retrieve the presentations from this pin-up event from goo.gl/ZWLmp.