Nathan Cooke isn’t a miscreant. He isn’t a troublemaker or a misguided teen. He is a 26-year-old industrial design major in his final two trimesters at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Cooke’s a good student too — a rare Art Center scholarship recipient and an active force on campus. He’s the president of the EcoCouncil, a student organization designed to promote environmental responsibility on campus and beyond. Befitting his position, he’s an idealist, and when talking about his work he makes earnest statements like, “I want to use design to make lives better — to make a difference.”
Nathan Cooke is exactly the kind of student Art Center wants. That is, until recently, when Cooke inadvertently launched a campus-wide revolt.
It started with Styrofoam.
Despite branding itself as a world leader in sustainability education, Art Center’s cafeteria uses disposable Styrofoam dishware. For nearly two years, Cooke says, EcoCouncil, fellow students and even some faculty lobbied Art Center’s administration to ditch the Styrofoam in favor of something more environmentally friendly. Some recycling bins around campus wouldn’t hurt, either, they argued.
“But, we were consistently told there wasn’t enough money,” Cooke says.
After seeing tuition jump more than 5 perecent each year — it’s currently $45,000 a year for the three-year undergraduate program — Cooke found it troubling that a school which goes out of its way to promote sustainability couldn’t cough up enough cash to fulfill even its most basic environmental obligations. Then, last month, Cooke attended an on-campus Art Center–sponsored sustainability conference, which featured reusable plates, biodegradable utensils and recycling bins. The next day, the plates and bins were gone and the cafeteria was back to Styrofoam.
Cooke had had enough: “I didn’t want the school greenwashing itself.”
And so he did what many college kids might do under similar circumstances — he blogged about it.
“Art Center is in danger of becoming highly irrelevant to the very world it is trying to influence,” Cooke wrote. “While touting its desire to be a leader that prepares students for the world tomorrow, Art Center lacks any understanding of what that world will be. Or, at least, lacks the legs to walk the path it loves to talk about.”
Benign enough, but what he said next really rattled the monkey cage.
“I’m glad someone in Art Center was able to find the $385,068 in 2005 to pay Gehry Partners to design our new ‘advanced technical center.’”
Cooke was referring to the nearly decade-long effort to build a $50 million Gehry-designed research center on campus, an effort that happens to be the pet project of Art Center president Richard Koshalek. Since he took over as president in 1999, Koshalek has been pushing hard for the Gehry building — which would contain a digital library and a series of high-tech studios built to accommodate the design world’s changing technology — an effort that many faculty and alumni have privately said for years is to the detriment of the school’s educational responsibilities. Cooke was among the first to publicly put words to that frustration, and the timing couldn’t have been more explosive.
One day after Cooke’s post, Art Center’s Chief Academic Officer Nate Young resigned under curious circumstances — with Koshalek hinting it was due to Young’s handling of a $1.1 million educational budget deficit. A short time later, Young’s assistant, Rachel Tiede, fresh off maternity leave, was fired after speaking up for her former boss at a student government meeting.
Outraged students, faculty and alumni flocked to Cooke’s site to make their voices heard. Within days, the post had nearly 800 comments questioning Young’s firing, the Gehry building and Koshalek’s leadership. Signatures began to appear on an online petition calling for a moratorium on all new Gehry-related building expenses. The site has garnered more than 1,000 signatures — including several prominent alumni and the chair of Art Center’s top-ranked Industrial Design program, Andy Ogden. A separate Web site has called for the Art Center Board of Trustees to deny Koshalek a new contract when his expires at the end of next year.
Days after his site took off, Cooke received a disturbing conference call from school administrators, encouraging him to take down the post. The not-so-subtle suggestion on their part was that if he refused to comply, it could impact his scholarship money.