Milton Glaser is indisputably an icon in graphic design and New York culture. Throughout high school and my first years in college while studying graphic design he was an inspiration. When I had the privilege to attend the Cooper Union (his alma mater) on a full scholarship, I, without a doubt, thought of myself in the shadow of Glaser’s legacy especially since he was then serving as a trustee emeritus to Cooper Union.
In 2013, the board of trustees was exposed for its financial mishandling of the school’s endowment which ultimately led to the administration campaigning for tuition as a means to resolve a self-induced deficit. A grass roots, student-led movement called Free Cooper Union (FCU) immediately resisted and organized several demonstrations and lock-ins. FCU inspired a larger community effort which led to the formation of The Committee to Save Cooper Union (CSCU), a not-for-profit organization. CSCU filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court against the board of trustees and, due to this litigation, Cooper’s model of free education is projected to be fully reinstated by 2028. As a board member emeritus, Glaser was complicit in abolishing a 150 year tradition of free tuition.
In May 2013, instead of supporting the student-led protests he wrote a letter and shared a petition scolding the occupiers and referred to the student occupation of the president’s office as “a poisonous and dangerous atmosphere.” At the time, he was voicing support for the current president, Jamshed Bharucha, and Mark Epstein, the chairmen of the board (they both resigned). They were the primary agents violently dissolving Cooper’s 150 year old mission of providing free higher education.
Milton’s disregard of free tuition as the core identity of the school forced my perspective to shift on his acclaimed slogan ‘I ❤ NY’. His privilege was glaringly unrecognized. He was no longer a leader to me, nor an inspiration. He became the oppressor. Glaser pulled the ladder up behind him. He greatly benefited from Cooper’s free tuition model: during his time at Cooper he teamed up with his classmates Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel to form Push Pin Studios. He married Shirley Girton, another Cooper graduate — this man’s life blossomed out of the opportunity that free education gave him! But once the administration had to face their financial mishandlings he chose to abandon the legacy that helped launch his career — in effect, diminishing free education for future students.
How can you love New York and not protect and uphold free education? How can you love Cooper Union and not protect and uphold its founding principle? For me love means commitment, and without commitment there can’t be love. Glaser lusts NY. To love NY, you must love Cooper Union and to love Cooper Union you must love free education, and to love free education you love humanity. It is the commitment that proves one’s love, not simply a desire.
I write this reflection in memory of Milton Glaser’s death because when we memorialize an icon, we tend to only think of the good things they brought into the world. I don’t intend to bring all of Milton down, nor could I, but through my personal experience I intend to add an important dimension to his legacy. In all industries, we need space for nuanced reflection when memorializing iconic figures.
One’s legacy is more than the material output of their career. Why does accountability dissipate when the heart stops? How do we set precedents for future icons? It’s about substance, it’s about scratching beneath the surface, spotlighting toxic behavior, and holding those we look up to accountable. Celebrate the design work of Milton Glaser but just remember he wasn’t on the right side of history when it came to the historic student protests that helped save Cooper Union’s visionary mission of providing free education in an era where student debt is 1.6 trillion dollars and suffocating generations to come.
—Troy Curtis Kreiner
(Cooper Union Alumnus | Art ‘14)
Edited by Griffin Snyder