Laura Sparks, executive director of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, has been elected president of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, effective January 4, 2017. Sparks will be the first woman to lead the institution.
Sparks is a leader in the field of community-focused philanthropy. At the William Penn Foundation, a leading philanthropy with an endowment greater than $2 billion, she was responsible for numerous initiatives addressing social and environmental challenges in America’s fifth largest 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. A magna cum laude graduate of Wellesley College, Sparks holds an M.B.A. and a J.D. with honors from the University of Pennsylvania.
The Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees, advised by a search committee that represented the four faculties, the student body, alumni and the trustees, unanimously approved Sparks’ appointment, which follows the conclusion of an extensive search process. More than 300 applications were considered, and 59 dossiers were reviewed in depth. Eleven of these candidates were interviewed at length; five of them were invited to return to make detailed presentations to the committee, including proposals for returning to full-tuition scholarships.
“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.”
Alumni trustee Robert Tan ‘81, also a member of the search committee and chair of the Free Education Committee, which is tasked with developing a plan that can return the college to a full-tuition scholarship model, added, “Laura Sparks brings the experience that the institution needs now to maintain its excellence while concretely addressing the financial challenges of the school. In addition, she has the experience and skills to bring together our community’s varied voices and lead them forward.”
“Laura Sparks’ deep commitment to diversity, to excellence and to other goals that align with Cooper’s ideals were impressive,” said Anne Griffin, professor of political science and a member of the search committee. “She appreciates the value of a small institution, the level of engagement that is possible here and what it can foster.”
Sparks expressed her eagerness to work with students, faculty, staff, alumni and the greater New York City community to chart a strong future for The Cooper Union. "I have been impressed with the passion, commitment and determination of Cooper’s board and search committee to ‘look forward’ while also acknowledging and respecting dissenting views and the voices of many throughout the wider school community,” she said. “I am eager to meet more of the college’s passionate, thoughtful and accomplished students, and to engage with its extraordinary faculty as we move the institution forward while holding true to its founding principles. I am confident that together we can reaffirm our sense of mission, stabilize Cooper’s finances and rebuild the trust of our constituents. All of these steps will be essential as we work to identify a route to restoring full-tuition scholarships for all undergraduates."
Sparks spent six years of her professional life in New York City, having served as senior vice president for community development at Citigroup. There she worked to develop programs to increase affordable housing and eliminate barriers to opportunity for low-income families. During the financial crisis, she played a critical role in coordinating Citigroup’s relationships with other stakeholders, including Fannie Mae, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and other government entities.
Sparks has served on a variety of boards and advisory committees, including the Credit Committee and the Capital Formation Committee for Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions, focused on improving the lives of low-income people and the urban areas where they live. As a member of the Governor’s Advisory Board for Community Development, she has advised Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on issues pertaining to public safety, crime, urban development, revitalization and disaster preparedness. She currently sits on the board of Aeris, a nonprofit information service for community investors who champion economic justice in underserved markets.
Sparks is married to Dr. Andrew Sparks, who has worked extensively in the K-12 and higher education fields to address the needs of students and teachers in urban schools, in both New York City and Philadelphia, where they currently reside. They have two children, a son, Casey (12) and a daughter, Haoshun (9).
Sparks plans to visit campus in the coming weeks to begin meeting faculty and students; she will begin regional alumni travel this spring.
William (“Bill”) Mea, Cooper’s vice president for finance and administration, will continue as acting president until January 4, 2017.