Adrian Burton Jovanovic’s Alumnus of the Year 2016 Acceptance Speech

Adrian J Alum of the year

Thank you to Nils, the Cooper Union alumni association, and the many other people who have helped out – I think we can all agree I’ve had a rather unconventional path to this honor…

Most of us know from direct experience how special a place Cooper Union was, and benefited from the no-frills but top notch education among gifted peers it offered. It was an academically rigorous setting where all us knew why our classmates were there. Sometimes we had to make more of less or go the extra mile to find the extracurricular activity we wanted, but that was part of the journey and the reward which helped make us resourceful.

Today we have another journey ahead of us, and as we look toward the future the past can help guide us. We can look to the cautionary tale of City College which was established in 1847 as the Free Academy of New York, offering high quality free education which produced 10 nobel prize winners and was known as the “poor man’s Harvard”. Then, its founding values began to unravel. First, in 1970, it abandoned meritocracy, instituting “open admissions.” Then, in 1976 it abandoned its policy of free tuition. After abandoning its core values what’s left is a pale imitation of what once was. A recent New York Times article speaks of substantial salary increases for highly paid administrators while facilities are left dilapidated. In one leaky lecture hall, enormous waterbugs charged a lecturing professor as students gasped and another professor sitting in on the lecture leapt in to begin stomping on them. Not exactly an environment conducive to learning.

The unchecked rise in administrative expenses in higher-education has unfortunately been a national phenomenon and contributed to an unprecedented rise in tuition and student debt. As senior researcher Andrew Gillen from the American Institutes for Research puts it, “There’s just a mind-boggling amount of money per student that’s being spent on administration… it raises a question of priorities.” As Bain & Co. analysts wrote in 2012, “In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate—executives would lose their jobs.”

Cooper Union has seen dramatic rises in non-instructional expenses with far more highly compensated administrators than we had back when there was no tuition. For example back in 1999 the President was making about $200,000 (which is about $300,000 in today’s inflation adjusted dollars), while about 10 years later the President was making more than twice that amount and showing up in national top 10 lists for college President compensation. As those of you that have seen Ivory Tower know, our previous President, Jamshed Bharucha, thought it was appropriate to be compensated at close to the level of Harvard’s President because “they don’t have a fraction of the problems we have.” And when the President’s salary went up, so did other administrative salaries. The question arises of whether having administrators who are more in tune with the institution’s founding values could have prevented the circumstances we find at Cooper Union today.

Restoring the full-tuition meritocracy responsible for Cooper Union’s unique environment and success will test our resolve. We all need to stay involved and carefully monitor the commitment to this task. Are the proper resources and skills being allocated to this effort? What progress is being made? With the hard lessons we’ve learned from the past, we know we can not take anything for granted and continued vigilance and involvement is a must for the future.

– Adrian Jovanovic