I want to do three things in this statement about my candidacy for Alumni Trustee:
1. Comment about the role of Alumni Trustee
2. Discuss the importance of this moment in time for Cooper
3. Give voters some sense of how I would approach this role
I’m not going to wax eloquent about my years at Cooper, the great experience of studying here in NYC and the great foundation that my Cooper education gave me as a professional. I’m not going to try to outdo fellow alums in professing my love for Cooper. All that goes without saying’
So let’s talk about the role of Alumni Trustee:
The Alumni Association (AA) defined the role in these words: Communicate the voice of CUAA and constituents to the Board of Trustees, and communicate the actions of the Board to the CUAA, as appropriate. This description suggests that the role is primarily a conduit for information that’s moving back and forth between the AA and the Board of Trustees. Although such activities are important, the description ignores the more significant role of a board member’working with fellow members to formulate the policies to be carried out by staff. Specific duties also include approving key business decisions (such as the annual budget) and hiring and firing of the institution’s President, should that be necessary.
With these tasks comes the obligation to act collectively as stewards of the institution, consistent with its charter and other governing documents. Such documents often stipulate that board members put the institution’s interests ahead of their own, thus obviating any potential conflicts of interest that may come up.
Now, on to the importance of this moment in time for Cooper:
Coming to Cooper from Washington State in 1972, I was amazed that an institution in New York City that was giving away something as valuable as a college education to any person off the street (who could meet its merit-based standards) would be such a high-minded, thoughtful and student-centered place (to use a 2015 expression). It didn’t seem to be the least bit corrupted by the hustle and bustle of commerce and the urban dynamism of the city that surrounded it. That seemed truly remarkable’probably the result of a really insightful vision and plan by Peter Cooper, working with his family and close business associates. It also has benefitted from a succession of leaders’stewards of the vision’who have acted with integrity and purpose in advancing Peter Cooper’s legacy and adapting it to contemporary challenges. Again, that seemed to be the case when I was a student back in the 1970s.
Sadly, the Cooper of today, with conflicts over tuition and its once rock-solid financial foundation now in jeopardy, is a very different place. To borrow my fellow candidate, John Leeper’s phrase: ‘No one was minding the store.’ We both agree that the situation needs to be turned around.
Most everyone, it seems, would like to get back to that older, earlier Cooper’the one I remember from my school days. But it will take more than nostalgic longings or even a time machine to get us there. It’ll take vision, discipline and careful oversight. That’s what Boards of Trustees are supposed to provide, on behalf of the institutions they serve. It’s hard work, often involving lots of detailed analysis, discussion, clear thinking and even clearer decisions.
I know about this because I’ve started two successful nonprofit organizations and, in so doing, set up or significantly modified their boards of directors. One where I was the founding executive director is now more than 20 years old with more than 2,000 members; the other, where I was initially both co-director and a board member, is now more than ten years old. Both have remained viable as organizations and achieved significant positive change, fulfilling many of the goals that their founders set out for them.
So back to Cooper: It is clearly at an inflection point. Although recent positive events alluded to in vague terms by members of the board may change this prognosis, my sense is that dramatic changes may yet come as a result of the legal challenge now underway. Although the ultimate outcome will likely be healthy and positive, the interim period could be really, really difficult to navigate. It could precipitate an even greater leadership crisis that causes serious long-term harm to the reputation of the institution; Such diminishment may, in turn, negatively impact admission demand, contributions and other critical support until confidence returns.
It’s important that the people on the scene at this time be up to the task, be strong leaders and communicators, and have a good sense of what’s needed to set Cooper right in a very disorienting situation. Skill, competence, persistence and vision are now required to put Peter Cooper’s house back in order. Otherwise the institution may not survive.
So how would I approach this role?
I put my hat in the ring because believe that I’m skilled at something that Cooper needs on its board: I have a good track record at acquiring, selling and managing real estate; My education here at Cooper, mostly in art but with a bit of time in architecture, somehow equipped me to grow a personal real estate portfolio that, starting with just a few thousand dollars here in NYC in 1985, now comprises a group of properties in five states that is valued at much more than what I started with. In terms of magnitude, it’s nowhere near Cooper’s holdings. But I built the portfolio following principles of sound real estate investment and management. I also used my knowledge of trends in urbanism and real estate to make the best possible choices. I even survived the big downturn with all my properties intact. As my bio states, I’ve been a consultant in this realm for over 20 years, and in terms of predicting future trends, I’ve been a survey participant’alongside some of the biggest bigwigs the real estate profession’contributing my insights to the Urban Land Institute’s annual Emerging Trends forecast.
All trends aside, however, real estate is meant to be a conservative form of investment, with slow steady returns. But as the Cooper community has learned firsthand, when ‘alternative approaches’ are sought as a way to achieve returns greater than the norm, results can sometimes be disappointing. This said, I believe that Cooper’s investments can maintain themselves and grow by sticking with the basics, understanding reality and being disciplined going forward.
This last word, discipline is one reason why institutions of higher learning often look beyond their pool of graduates for leadership on the board. Grads are notoriously sentimental about their alma maters. Few would ever consider cutting the program or school that they graduated from in an effort to balance the books. But such steps may become necessary to save the school and keep the tuition free status that many alums (myself among them) want to return to.
Such cuts have been mentioned, but quickly put aside in favor of other strategies, presumably because such options seem too draconian and the mere mention of them makes alums crazy. But in my opinion, all options need to be on the table: cutting subject areas, and also reducing the student body. Cooper’s path to balancing the books pre-tuition was about keeping its footprint (number of students, number of program areas) small in relation to the endowment. With the imposition of tuition, the business model changes to one that now seeks more tuition paying students to pay its bills. Like every other school that charges tuition, Cooper will soon want to expand its operations to achieve the economies of scale that come with greater size. The longer that Cooper supports the tuition-based business model, the harder it will be to return to its former tuition free status, even if it sincerely wants to do so. On this point, recollections of the Green Camp sale and prior promises to purchase an equivalent property across the state line in New York, where property taxes could largely be avoided, come to mind.
From time spent on the web and recent conversations, I’ve gotten a sketchy picture of what’s going on with Cooper’s finances. I’ve learned that the negative financial trend at Cooper first came to light years ago around the time that Green Camp was sold off. Then, one by one, other properties have either been sold off or developed in ways that either help or hurt Cooper’s bottom line. At no point in the process of monetizing its assets to cover deficits year after year did the trustees or administration ever say: ‘Stop; Houston we have a problem!’
It seems that Cooper now lacks the pool of smaller assets that it can deploy to massage its bottom line in the way that it has been doing for years. Its one major asset, the Chrysler Building, has now been mortgaged for a bridge loan. Although that loan has provided some breathing room for Cooper, it puts the institution in an even more precarious situation because of the greater debt load that Cooper has assumed. For a variety of good reasons, that large asset can’t be further, divided, sold off or leveraged. It’s bad news for some, but good news for those like me who want to, once and for all, stop the gradual erosion of the school’s asset base.
Without getting into excruciating detail, the basic principal I would follow is this: A certain size of school (numbers of students, range of programs) needs a certain flow or revenue coming in. The tuition now being charged will augment existing sources, but even with that revenue, current trends related to the school’s existing deficit will eventually require that Cooper generate even more than what tuition at current levels will bring in. Some greater efficiencies are always possible, but they are generally achieved by administrators, not the board of trustees. As stated in the first point, the board’s job is to set policy: for example, a policy of balanced inflow of revenue in relation to expenditures. If the trustees (or other entities with standing) don’t trust the administration to carry out such policies, ‘regime change’ can, and sometimes does occur.
As one board member among a group of 20+ people, I’d do my best to bring discipline and clear thinking to the conversation. Tough decisions likely will be required. As a Cooper alum, I have a great love of the institution, but I’ve also had some distance from Cooper in recent years. As such, I bring fresh eyes to the situation. Also, as mentioned previously, I’ve attained a working knowledge of what it takes to preserve and enhance long-term real estate value. So if selected by a majority of the voting Alumni Association members, I’ll look forward to applying my skills and judgment to the task of getting Peter Cooper’s house in order, as it was, or at least seemed to be when I attended the school. Thanks in advance for your vote.
Peter Katz graduated from Cooper with a BFA in 1976, majoring in Graphic Design. He also studied for a year and a half in the Architecture school. During his time as a Cooper student, Katz won, by competition, the signage design program for the newly renovated Foundation building. In receiving that opportunity, Katz’s design beat out fellow students and his professor at the time, Herb Lubalin. Upon graduation, Katz worked under Lou Dorfsman at the legendary CBS corporate design studio and later was an art director in a small advertising agency that eventually became part of Saatchi & Saatchi.
Katz taught as an adjunct faculty member at Cooper’s School of Art shortly after graduation and also again in the mid 1980s. As part of his initial teaching stint, Katz worked with Dean George Sadek to organize Cooper’s Center for Design and Typography, and then served as its first director. The center, which continues to operate today, produces many of Cooper’s graphic materials in addition to pro-bono graphic design services—provided by students under the direction of faculty—for local nonprofits.
Katz began his own design consultancy less than four years after graduation from Cooper. That firm eventually became a partnership under the name Whitehouse & Katz and grew to a staff of twelve at its peak. Over its seven years of operation, the firm completed projects for Richard Meier & Partners, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, IBM Corporation, Columbia University Graduate School of Business, The Prudential Realty Group, Lincoln Center and a range of other clients.
Katz moved to San Francisco in 1986 and continued his practice there, but shifted his focus to marketing and strategic design for real estate development. He worked for clients such as the Port of Oakland, Embarcadero Center and the Inter-Pacific Group. In those years Katz worked internationally, completing assignments as far afield as Indonesia and Japan.
With the collapse of the real estate market in the late 1980s and early 1990s Katz took a sabbatical to research and write a book on new trends in community planning. The result of that effort was The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, published by McGraw-Hill in 1994. It remains in print today. Building on that period of self-education, Katz became a leading proponent of “New Urbanism,” an urban design and planning movement that Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times called “the most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the post-Cold War era.” Katz played a key role in shaping the movement as founding executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a membership organization that is about to convene its twenty-third annual meeting this May.
In 1991, Peter Katz instigated and co-edited The Ahwahnee Principles on behalf of California’s Local Government Commission. The document, one of the first statements of sustainable community building practices, has been endorsed by hundreds of municipalities in the United States and Canada. Katz was a co-founder of the Form-Based Codes Institute, an organization that advocates the use of Form-Based Codes, a promising alternative to use-based zoning.
In addition to his advocacy work, Katz currently provides consulting services in the areas of community development and real estate marketing. He has worked with a wide range of clients including government agencies, real-estate developers, non-profit organizations, charitable foundations and civic associations. Included among these are The Community Builders, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Brookings Institution and Sarasota County, Florida. Katz took a break from consulting during the recession and worked as a local government planner from 2005 to 2011.
Over the years Katz has authored numerous planning-related articles and book chapters. For almost two decades, the editors of Emerging Trends in Real Estate have included Katz among a group of industry-leading interviewees for their annual report, published by the Urban Land Institute and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Research commissioned by Katz showing dramatic differences in property tax revenue from various building types in the Florida County where he served as planning director has been featured in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Government Finance Review.
Katz was the lead advisor on the Contra Costa Centre Transit Village, a “Transit Oriented Development” in Northern California than won the American Planning Association’s national award for implementation excellence. The project, stalled for twenty years due to community opposition, employed a range of best practices proposed by Katz, and gained municipal approval in just eighteen months. With its first phase now complete, the project, received the American Planning Association’s 2012 National Award for Implementation.
Prior to attending Cooper, Katz held the title of Washington State Bicycle Racing Champion (Junior division) for two consecutive years in the early 1970s. He continues to ride his bike today for transportation and recreation in the Maryland community where he lives with his wife and two elementary school-age children.