New Cooper Union president is focusing on free tuition’s return

Laura Sparks, The Cooper Union’s new president, in the school’s Foundation Building in Cooper Square. Photo by Stanley Wlodyka

STANLEY WLODYKA | The plan is on the table.

In accordance with the consent decree brokered by Eric Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general, The Cooper Union’s Free Education Committee, or F.E.C., in January published the plan that is intended to, in 10 years time, get the college back to just what the committee’s name suggests: free.

At the helm of this ship is Laura Sparks, who was inaugurated as the 13th president of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art last month in the institution’s historic Great Hall. The ceremony included a performance by Kennedy Center honoree Carmen de Lavallade, a dancer who grand jeté’d into the hearts of Americans in the 1950 and ’60s, in spite of the prejudice against her race. The universally beloved actor John Lithgow was also present, taking a break from his one-man show on Broadway to make a speech in support of Cooper Union’s first female president.

Praise for President Sparks extends beyond the mouths of the beautiful people. From security guards to students, the Cooper community as a whole seems excited by her arrival.

“She understands the actual spirit and mission of Cooper. In terms of leadership, she’s the best we’ve had in a good while,” said Santiago Pidara, a senior art major who belongs to the first class that was charged tuition back in 2014.

Sparks will need all the support she can get. The F.E.C. plan is ambitious by some people’s standards, aggressively idealistic by others. The consent decree requires that an independent financial monitor review the proposal. That proposal — in the form of a report — was just released, and it expresses the belief that the greatest risk to the return to free tuition is the elite East Village educational institution’s fundraising targets: $3.2 million this year, $5 million next year, and so on and so forth until 2029, when the expectation is for $17.8 million. The plan allows for only a 5 percent deviation from these goals, in order for the school to revert to its historically free-tuition status.

Sparks is undeterred. She notes that fiscal-year-to-date fundraising is up by almost $1 million versus the same time last year. She intends to keep her focus on asking herself and the institution about how to balance financials with long-term academic mission.

Or, as she put it, “What do we need to do to make sure that we’re not only financially responsible, but that this is a resilient institution, so that we can take other kinds of risks, we can take programmatic risks, because we don’t have to be concerned that our doors are going to close?”

The school’s board of trustees is expected to vote the plan into action on March 14. Barring any natural disasters, the forecast predicts clear skies for the F.E.C. proposal.

In some ways, the financial crisis Cooper Union underwent has been a blessing in disguise. Stripped of its bragging rights as a free top-notch institution of higher learning, it has had to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The result, as Sparks discovered when she walked on campus, was an impassioned community determined to live up to the challenge that its visionary founder, the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper, put forth.

“The cost of higher education has been out of control,” she said. “My hope is that Cooper Union can lead by example in demonstrating what’s possible when we operate with financial discipline, focus our resources on the important academic things that are happening at the school, and allow our students to graduate from here with an extraordinary education and no financial burden.”

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