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Laura Permut Sparks '93 Named President of Cooper Union

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City was built in 1859 on the radical idea that higher education in technology should be accessible to all who qualify regardless of gender, race, religion or economic status. Since then the college has developed a reputation for world-class programs in architecture, art and engineering, with many graduates becoming leaders in their fields. 
Tower Hill alumna Laura Permut Sparks ‘93 took the helm at Cooper Union as president in January 2017, bringing her strong background in community-focused philanthropy to the historic college. 
“We are so fortunate to have identified a new leader who brings substantial executive-level experience from the non-profit sector as well as industry,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., Cooper Union trustee and co-chair 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.”
Sparks graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College, where she was a philosophy major and economics minor. Her coursework in those areas grew into an interest in community development finance, where capital can help underserved populations. She worked in finance and earned an M.B.A. and a J.D. with honors from the University of Pennsylvania before becoming director of business strategy and director of development finance initiatives at Citi in New York. There she worked to build programs to increase affordable housing and eliminate barriers to opportunity for low-income families. 
In 2012 Sparks became the executive director of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia. There she was responsible for numerous initiatives addressing social and environmental challenges in the city and for designing programs in education, public space, the arts and the environment. Under her guidance, the foundation launched and refined new strategic priorities, focusing its $115 million grant budget on improvements in urban education for economically disadvantaged children, protection of the water resources serving 15 million people across four states, development of world-class urban parks and trails in underserved communities, and cultivation of a vibrant cultural sector. 
Sparks’ experience putting finance to work to bring about meaningful change will likely prove useful at Cooper Union. The college has faced financial difficulties in recent years, necessitating the introduction of tuition to the traditionally free school. Yet if anyone is prepared for the challenge, it’s Laura Sparks. 
“Cooper Union holds a unique and important place among America’s colleges and universities,” Sparks said. “Its remarkable history and the visionary goals of its founder, Peter Cooper, continue to provide an inspiration for American higher education, with its emphasis on excellence, admissions based on merit alone and scholarships that support full and equal participation by all students.”
Sparks is married to fellow Tower Hill alum Andrew Sparks ‘91, whom she has been with since their high school days. Her husband has worked extensively in the K-12 and higher education fields to address the needs of students and teachers in urban schools. They live in Philadelphia and have two children.

Q&A with Laura Sparks

You have described your interest in the intersections between different areas—economics and moral philosophy, capital and social justice, policy and finance —to help people. Why are they interesting to you? 
It has always struck me that the most interesting things in life seem to happen at intersections. We live in a world that is increasingly complex, and most social and economic problems cannot be solved in isolation. Housing, childcare, education, healthcare, economic access, hunger, water quality... These issues are all intertwined.  If we can’t put forth multi-dimensional solutions, we will fail to improve peoples’ lives. We were founded as a nation that proposed to offer equal opportunity; to do that within a capitalist context, we need to think about how our economic systems and social policy choices increase or limit opportunity.    
Were there any experiences at Tower Hill that you think shaped your outlook and career? 
I always come back to the school’s motto, Multa Bene Facta, Many Things Done Well. While I haven’t always done everything well, the motto that was embedded in my Tower Hill experience has always served as an important reminder to try new things, to embrace a variety of experiences, and to do more than just dip a toe in. It is through this combination of breadth and depth, a focus on multi-dimensional experiences, that life has stayed interesting, full and fulfilling. I am also reminded nearly every day, through tasks big and small, of the importance of an excellent education. Tower Hill prepared me to think critically and creatively, to write objectively and persuasively, to listen to a variety of perspectives, to act decisively and to hold myself accountable.    
What are your proudest accomplishments from working at the William Penn Foundation? 
Truthfully, my proudest accomplishment at the Foundation was creating an environment that allowed our staff—some of whom I hired and some of whom were there when I arrived—to work together in collaborative and creative ways to forward the organization’s mission.  It was a pleasure to be surrounded by smart, dedicated people at all levels of the organization who supported our grantees, pushed their thinking and the Foundation’s thinking forward, and designed powerful collaborations and coalitions. These are highly educated and committed people who have been and will be successful wherever they go, but I like to think that I helped to create an atmosphere and working platform for them to maximize their potential.  

What interested you about leading Cooper Union? 
The Cooper Union is an amazing institution that has played an important role in moving our country forward for over 150 years. Its progressive founder, Peter Cooper, built the institution in 1859 to ensure that working class people of all races, religions and genders could access a high-quality education without financial burden. He also wanted the institution to be a hub of important civic discourse that could improve our country. Cooper Union’s Great Hall is where Abraham Lincoln made his famous “Right Makes Might” speech, launching his bid to the presidency while publicly calling for the emancipation of slaves. Susan B. Anthony had an office at Cooper and advocated vigorously there for women’s right to vote. Before they were elected, Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Taft, (Theodore) Roosevelt and Obama all spoke there. The list goes on and on, serving as a critical reminder of the important role that institutions can play in elevating our public discourse and advancing positive social change. Like many colleges and universities, Cooper is exploring how best to continue making a world-class college education affordable to its students, currently offering scholarships that cover 50 percent of tuition for all of its students. I am excited to lead an institution that will play a critical role in defining new models that will keep college affordable for future generations.
The theme for this issue of the magazine is innovation; from where you sit, what does innovation mean? 
To me, innovation is about new things that make a difference in peoples’ lives. That doesn’t always mean that we are always better off for it or that all innovations are positive ones.  At Cooper Union, our task will be to innovate, while not losing sight of or dramatically altering the traditions, history and mission that make the institution so special.  In many ways this is Tower Hill’s challenge, as well.  How do you keep the great things that make Tower Hill, Tower Hill, while also making sure that it changes with the times, utilizes new technologies and serves an increasingly diverse population?  And how do you stay ahead of the curve, so that you aren’t just reactionary, but serve in a leadership role? Innovation isn’t just adapting new technologies; it might be new ways of thinking about an organization, new ways of sharing information, or new ways of distributing or developing leadership.  
Finally, innovation requires some acceptance of failure. Not everything is going to work immediately or work at all. Some of Peter Cooper’s greatest achievements were, ironically, failures. A number of his early business ventures were unsuccessful. His earliest efforts at laying the first transatlantic cable failed as well.  But he kept working hard, kept experimenting, and in the end his successes far outweighed his failures and laid the groundwork for an institution that continues, over 150 years later, to help shape the world in which we live today.