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Laura Sparks Is the First Woman to Be Named President of Cooper Union

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art has announced that Laura Sparks, executive director of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, has been elected president. She will be the first woman to lead the institution. Her tenure begins on January 4, 2017.

In a statement, Sparks expressed her enthusiasm for working with the college’s students and faculty and said she plans to “identify a route to restoring full-tuition scholarships for all undergraduates.” She added, “I am confident that together we can reaffirm our sense of mission, stabilize Cooper’s finances, and rebuild the trust of our constituents.”

Cooper Union came under fire in 2014 when the historically tuition-free school decided to start charging undergraduate students for the first time as a way to prevent insolvency. Besides student protests, this resulted in an investigation into the school’s financial decisions by New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Litigation against Cooper Union ended in September 2015 after the school agreed to have an independent monitor keep track of its finances and to establish a committee that would explore ways in which the college could return to being tuition-free. In the October 2015 issue of Artforum, a roundtable, featuring Cooper Union’s faculty member Mike Essl and graduate Jory Rabinovitz, was organized to address the challenges facing art schools.

As head of the William Penn Foundation, Sparks refocused the foundation’s $115 million grant budget on social and environmental concerns, including the improvement of urban education for economically disadvantaged children, the protection of water resources, the development of urban parks and trails in underserved communities, and the cultivation of a vibrant cultural sector. Prior to her work at the foundation, Sparks served as senior vice president for community development at Citigroup, where she developed programs to increase affordable housing.

“We are so fortunate to have identified a new leader who brings substantial executive-level experience from the nonprofit sector as well as industry,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., trustee and cochair of the presidential search committee. “We wanted someone who valued Cooper as a first-class, unique educational institution, and also had significant experience leading a large, complicated organization through challenging financial circumstances. Laura Sparks has both skill sets.”

The Cooper Union’s board of trustees, advised by a search committee, chose Sparks from a pool of three hundred applicants.

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