A Chat with Bill Mea
POSTED ON: December 7, 2015
Bill Mea, vice president for finance & administration, says that becoming acting president of The Cooper Union in July was "nothing I had envisioned when I started here in 2014" and "totally off my radar." But when the board of trustees asked him, he says he was "happy to step in and do it.” He still brings his lunch to work from his Madison, New Jersey home where he lives with his wife, Raquel, a painter from Barcelona. "She wants me to eat healthy," he says. (Mea, 53, has two grown children from a previous marriage: Steven, 23, who graduated with a history degree and Colin, 20, a sophomore at Temple University studying communications.) We sat down to talk with him about his background, where he sees The Cooper Union going, and whether he is a Deadhead.
Where did you grow up?
Chester, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. It was truly one of those cities where a railroad track divided the city. And then that railroad track became I-95. So on one side of 95 it was slightly better economically and the other side it was horrendously bad economically. I had to walk through metal detectors just to get into high school, so it was a challenging environment in which to learn. My father was a cop so we weren't allowed to move out of the city. After that I stayed in Chester to go to Widener College [now Widener University.]
What kept you in Chester after you finished high school? Why didn't you go elsewhere for college?
Where I lived was safe enough and it was, economically, all that we could do. My father died when I was 13, of cancer, so resource-wise it was all we could do. It's a private college but back then it was tremendously cheaper, relatively, than college is today. I walked there from home. It was closer than my fraternity house.
What did you study?
I majored in accounting. The actual degree was Business Management, but the concentration was in accounting. I really enjoyed it. My original reason for taking accounting was to go into the FBI. It's one of the entrées into the FBI because they investigate business corruption. Ultimately I decided it was not right for me, plus my eyesight is bad so they probably would not have let me in anyway.
I spent my first 10 years out of college in public accounting, at Ernst & Young in Philadelphia. I was a first-generation college graduate, so going beyond the Philadelphia area … you didn't even think about it.
How did you end up in higher ed?
I had two main sets of clients at Ernst & Young: insurance companies that I worked with throughout the winter, and the rest was not-for-profits. I got to a point at Ernst & Young where I was senior manager, which is one step below partner and I was seeing that being a partner was no better than being a senior manager from a lifestyle standpoint. I was working a gazillion hours per week. My older son had just been born and I would never see him. He was asleep when I left in the morning and asleep when I came home at night. And I just thought, "Time to get out." The for-profit world did not hold a lot of attraction for me. Profit was not a mission to me. So I looked in the not-for-profit world and happened to see a controller position open at what was then called Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, later to be called Philadelphia University.
After working at a variety of East Coast colleges, Bill Mea found himself as CFO at Wagner College on Staten Island. But he grew bored, he says, and applied for the CFO job at The Cooper Union in spite of its obvious challenges.
What drove me to say "yes" were several factors. It was very easy to see that Cooper Union was unlike any other place. Then there was my desire to be part of figuring out how to make it survive. From a career standpoint I have been working now 32 years, but I am still young enough to have enough energy for the work that has to be done. So the combination of experience with still enough energy made it perfect to try and apply for whatever we need here. And however crazy the first year was, I am still glad I took the position.
How would you characterize your management style?
I was talking to some younger alums recently about financial types. Many can be very rigid. So many of my peers, their first answer is, "No." That’s not my way of doing things. My style has always been, "Let's see if we can actually make something work and figure out how. Maybe we can't, but let's at least try to figure out how first." I take that as my initial thought into anything we do. Let's see if it’s possible. Also, I prefer to listen instead of talking. I find that I cannot learn anything by talking.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
You may recall last March that we proposed doing something I considered a normal thing: charging for overloads. Tuition typically includes everything up to, let's say, 17 credits, and every credit earned above that you charge an overload. So I began implementing that like it’s a normal thing -- and at every other college in the United States it probably is -- yet it was taken very poorly by the community here. After listening to people and learning how much of a negative impact charging overloads would have, I then wrote to the community, retracted the proposal and said, "I'm sorry." That was one of the instructive things I learned in the past year as we implemented tuition. Even though we now have it, it has to be looked at differently than anywhere else. This is the most unique of any institution I have worked at, and this is my fourth. The students are the most brilliant I have ever been around. And that drives some of the challenges. Meaning that you have to be at the top of your game when you are dealing with everybody because they will ask the questions that should be asked.
In what ways are the finances here very different from other such institutions?
Most of the revenue here is not tuition. That's extraordinarily different. At every institution I have been at, including smaller liberal arts colleges, tuition, room and board would often make up 90 percent of the revenue. As of now, at The Cooper Union, it makes up less than 5 percent. It would grow over time under the tuition model, but most of our revenue comes from the Chrysler Building and other real estate holdings that we have. Obviously the desire is to get back to free, but even if that doesn't happen, the amount of money from tuition is never going to be that large. So it is remarkably different from other institutions in that way.
What's been the fallout of the departure of the former president and the five board members in June?
There's been a calming effect on the campus. That's not to belittle in any way any of those people, but the change we have seen since June was a lifting of a veil that has allowed us to be a little more free and lighter. I guess "lighter" is maybe the word. There is a lightness that we did not previously have. Last year was challenging, not just to me but to the entire institution. It is now our opportunity to rise from that and try to have a normal year that is about the faculty and the students and teaching and learning.
What's your top priority while in the role of Acting President?
To facilitate the healing we need to do. We fractured ourselves, especially in terms of our alumni. We've already begun healing that wound. Nils [Folke Anderson A'94, alumni association president] is fabulous in wanting to get us back together. We sent out our first letter together -- we co-signed it -- for alumni donations. So little steps like that are important. Also, we have to reengage with all of our academic units, allowing for some renewal of faculty positions that were held in abeyance for the last couple of years, allowing those positions to be recruited. Further, we have to provide people with the opportunity to focus on what's important to an institution. Not to lose sight of the financial issues and things we have to do but focus on what's important in this next year, which is academics. Then ultimately my job is to set up the institution well for the next president. To allow that person to come in with less issues than we had this year.
In September it was announced that The Cooper Union had reached a consent agreement with the Committee to Save Cooper Union and the New York District Attorney's office to settle a lawsuit related to the institution of charging students tuition, among other issues. As part of the agreement the board of trustees will create a "Free Education Committee" charged with developing a strategic plan aimed at returning The Cooper Union to a full-tuition scholarship model, while maintaining “Cooper Union’s strong reputation for academic quality within its Art, Architecture and Engineering programs at their historical levels of enrollment.”
What's the status of the settlement?
On September 14 the judge was supposed to approve the consent decree and the cy pres but she came back with five or six very small things like "Exhibit A has to be called Exhibit B." Literally that small. So the corrections were made and resubmitted around the 22nd of September. So here we are, still waiting for her signature of approval. That then gives us the opportunity to start moving on. [Since this interview was published the consent decree was approved on December 16. -ed.]
Once it is approved, how does that change the way you manage the finances of the school?
What it does is to make sure that we don't make decisions that lead us away from the goal of the Free Education Committee. That is in my mind one of the managerial things we should be looking at any time we make decisions. The goal is to get us back to free, so let's not take ourselves further away from trying to be free.
Can The Cooper Union grow?
Physically it would be a challenge for The Cooper Union to grow. We have engaged a space-planning firm to analyze all our spaces. Last year, when we had plans for growth, I said to the president, "I don't think we can physically handle more students." Based on the numbers the financial projections had in terms of students, I wasn't sure where we were going to put them. That's when I began the process of getting a firm in here. But I have not given them the task of, "can we have another 100 students?" My question is: "what is our capacity given our space?" It's not trying to lead them to an answer. I don't know that we can grow within our physical environment.
Let's say a donor gave you a new building. Should The Cooper Union grow?
The mandate for the Free Education Committee talks about keeping our current academic quality at historic enrollment levels. It's very explicit. So my current answer is, "No." We need to look at ourselves as we have historically been. We actually did have close to 1000 students at one point, but that was with the old engineering building. Now we have 850 or so undergraduates. So I would say as of now, "No, it should not grow." I would rather have a donor's money for scholarships or operations instead of a new building.
What state of affairs would you like to have at The Cooper Union in five years?
I'd like it to be financially sustainable, ideally, without tuition. But even if that isn't possible, it has to be financially sustainable. I don't think that's a pipe dream. I have projected numbers out to fiscal 2019 and 2020, and I think it can become financially sustainable by those periods and thereafter. Once we hit that point where we at least break even, then at that point we just have to make sure we stay that way. Now if we can do it with no tuition, even better. But regardless, that's where we have to be. In terms of what we look like as an institution, I don't think we will look that different from what we look like now. We are in this interstitial period where we are evaluating what our real future strategic plan is going to be. I see ourselves, at the end of this Free Education period, deciding where we are going to go. But let's get through these five years first.
What do you do when you are not here?
Mostly it’s just my wife and me spending some quiet time. I don't know if it’s a deficiency in me but I have never had a hobby. I have played golf. Don't particularly like it. I have a brother-in-law who is a pretty experienced rock climber. No desire on my part to do that. I enjoy listening to music. I find that it helps center me and bring me back to what I like.
In a recent communiqué to the community you referenced the Grateful Dead’s final concert. Would you characterize yourself as a Deadhead?
Not especially. I really love the albums but I have only been to one concert. It was the last concert, ever, at JFK stadium in Philadelphia. [Released as "Crimson White & Indigo, a CD/DVD, in 2010.] It was a great experience but I wasn't able to get into the 30-minute riffs. I do not have a Grateful Dead bootleg collection. I am not sure I could really listen to those. I used to love, back in the '70s, progressive rock. I was really into Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the like. Growing up in Pennsylvania you go to Springsteen concerts, so I went to those the most. I loved David Bowie. I always thought he was coolest person on the earth. Most of my musical interests have hung over since then.