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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: George Campbell Jr.

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-09

George Campbell Jr. was trained as a physicist, but found that he needed the skills of a locksmith for the presidency of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

"I had to unlock the value that was inherent in our real-estate assets," Mr. Campbell said yesterday. "That's because when I became president, my mandate was to revitalize things, generate change, and create a more stable financial situation."

Those real-estate assets were formidable. They included the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan, the 77-story iconic skyscraper that was opened in 1930 on what was once the site of a farm owned by Cooper Union's founder, the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper.

When Mr. Campbell became president in 2006, he discovered that the annual revenue from leasing of the building was $20 million, or almost half of Cooper Union's yearly budget of $45 million. The budget is mostly funded out of the institution's endowment of $282 million, and from fund-raising that Mr. Campbell and his board undertake.

Mr. Campbell also found that that Cooper Union owned a parking lot at Astor Place between Lafayette Street and 4th Avenue, near its main campus. Revenue from the parking lot was around $150,000 a year.

He concluded that if he was to meet his mandate of creating financial security for Cooper Union - one of America's top ranked private colleges, offering degree programs in art, architecture, and engineering - he'd not only have to stanch the institution's annual budgetary deficit of about $7 million. Since the institution's founding in 1859, its 1,000 students have been offered full tuition - a figure that currently amounts to nearly $30,000 annually.

"I also concluded that I would have to ensure that some of our existing facilities would have to be modernized," Mr. Campbell said.

Tapping into his physics education at Philadelphia's Drexel University, and at Syracuse University - where he'd obtained a doctorate in theoretical physics - Mr. Campbell decided to apply organizational theory to his task.

"That meant developing a master plan for Cooper Union," he said.

His $250 million master plan involved a multi-year, three-building scheme under which, among other things, a new 22-story building would be raised at the site of the parking lot at 26 Astor Place. The building, designed by the internationally renowned firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, would contain 40 apartments.

"We expect to generate at lest $2 million annually in revenues from that building," Mr. Campbell said, adding that the property had been developed by The Related Companies. The developer obtained a long-term lease from Cooper Union.

Along with the residential tower - which is expected to be occupied soon - Mr. Campbell authorized the construction of a new academic building.

Designed by Thom Mayne and the Los Angeles-based firm Morphosis, the building will largely house Cooper Union's Albert Nerken School of Engineering, one of the top three specialized engineering schools in the country, Mr. Campbell said.

It will also provide space for the school's faculty of humanities and social sciences, the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, and the School of Art. Some 750,000 square feet of new space will be available to the institution.

"Once the academic building is occupied, Cooper Union will lease its current engineering building site at 51 Astor Place to a developer for design and construction of a mixed-use, primarily commercial facility - with space for some Cooper Union uses," Mr. Campbell said. "We're hoping that the academic building will have the same impact that Cooper Union's Foundation Building had on higher education in 1859, and that our Chrysler Building had on New York architecture in the 1930s."

When Mr. Campbell talks about his plans for Cooper Union, he fairly bounces in his seat, often leavening his remarks with humor.

That sort of energy and enthusiasm has long been his characteristic - ever since he was growing up poor in Philadelphia as the son of Lillian Campbell, a domestic worker, and her husband George. He was always a diligent student. While at Central High School, Mr. Campbell won a Simon Guggenheim Scholarship, which enabled him to attend Drexel University.

High school was also where he met his future wife, Mary Schmidt Campbell, now the dean of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and the city's commissioner of cultural affairs during the Koch administration.

"Being a scholarship student also gave me a deep appreciation of the importance of supporting educational programs for the young, especially students from minority communities," Mr. Campbell said.

His appreciation of such opportunities deepened when he went to work for Bell Laboratories. The storied company was traditionally attentive to the needs of youthful constituencies, not the least because the cohort steadily provided Bell Labs with bright candidates for its wide-ranging research and corporate programs.

Mr. Campbell did well at the behemoth.

"I did well enough that I knew one day I would be asked to head one of Bell's companies," he said, noting that the company had enrolled him in its leadership continuity program, and also dispatched him to attend an executive seminar at Yale University - sure signs that Bell regarded Mr. Campbell as future top executive.

But Mr. Campbell felt he wanted to move on to the not-for-profit sector where he could engage himself directly in mentoring minority students, particularly in science and engineering.

"More than 560,000 minority students graduate from America's high schools each year - but how many get opportunities to go into engineering and science?" he said. "Shouldn't we able to put them on the right track?"

Mr. Campbell raised those questions - and pursued answers - at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, a not-for-profit organization that the National Academy of Engineering had helped to establish.

He served there for 11 years. Then in 2000, he was recruited to head Cooper Union.
"One of the first questions that rose in my mind was, 'How do we ensure that Cooper Union remained in the constellation of top-tier educational institutions in America?'" Mr. Campbell said. We then realized that we had to develop our real-estate assets."

He also realized how important it was for a college president to gain the trust of the faculty, and how important it was to persuade it to come on board with regards to his development plans.

"You can't quite run off on your own," Mr. Campbell said.

Then he gave a huge smile.

"After all, there is no tenure for college presidents," Mr. Campbell said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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