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Open Letter to Cooper Union Board:

As an alumnus of Cooper Union, I was not surprised to see students take to the streets and protest the decision of the Board of Trustees to abandon the tradition of offering a free education. Cooper Union students have never been known to accept situations they see as unjust.

During my tenure, students protested an art show sponsored by Mobil Oil, by dropping oily fish on the gallery floor and erecting a protest sculpture to disrupt the posh VIP opening. I watched as the Dean of Art ordered the fire department to destroy the sculpture, which led to a successful effort by students to oust the Dean.

I was proud to take part in these protests and to advocate for the Dean’s dismissal from my post as a representative to the Faculty-Student Senate. These lessons taught me that people with conviction can stand up to any injustice, a lesson that has served me well in the 30 years since I graduated.

 At the time, I thought it was important to stand up to the school’s administration, but the issues we fought for then seem trivial compared to today’s challenges. There is nothing more sacred to the students and alumni at Cooper Union than the promise of “free education for all.”

The decision to charge tuition at the famously free institution is a demonstration of four serious failings of the school’s stewardship.

1. A Shameful Lack of Financial Responsibility

One of the most important roles of any board member is to protect the assets and economic lifeline of an institution. I’ve served on boards of schools, colleges and non-profit organizations and every board orientation includes a reminder of the fiduciary responsibility of board members. Yet the board approved the construction of an impractical building it had no means to pay for and it participated in decisions that left the school’s endowment severely depleted. The board’s decisions demonstrated both ignorance and negligence and they were compounded by the actions they took to remedy the situation.

2. An Approach Based on Division

There is no better way to address the needs of an educational institution than to bring all parties together in a constructive dialogue that encourages participation. Thousands of students and their families have benefitted from a Cooper Union education, and they are the best audience to turn to for support in a crisis. But at the time of the school’s greatest need for alumni and student support, the board and administration began to pursue a plan based on charging tuition, thereby alienating the very audience the school needs to cultivate for support. The result was to divide the Cooper Union Community, turning it against itself.

 3. An Abandonment of Core Values

Beyond their responsibilities as financial stewards, the board and administration play another role, which is just as important to the health of any institution. They are responsible for protecting the values of the organization. It is, therefore, astonishing that the board at Cooper Union has not uttered the one sentence that would prove they are worthy stewards of this storied institution: “We will not entertain any proposal that involves ending the policy of free tuition for all.” This simple sentence would have ended the protests and turned combatants into collaborators, working together to secure the future of the school.

 4. A Tarnished Reputation

One final role of any board is to protect the reputation of the institution it serves. For an organization with the prestige of Cooper Union, the reputation has more value than any physical asset. The board’s new plan is a sure path to depleting Cooper Union’s reputation in the same way its past actions depleted the school’s bank accounts. Without an immediate reversal of the board’s decision, applications will decline and both student quality and program rankings will surely follow. Alumni giving will decline and corporate support will be much harder to come by. And these factors will compound, making the school less attractive to students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and the community.

Of all of the board’s failings, the inability to foresee the collapse of the school’s influence is the most troubling. The board must come to believe what the students and alumni already understand, that charging tuition is such a crippling option that it must be taken off the table. And only when this course has been abandoned, will other paths become visible.

So I call on the board to demonstrate wisdom and goodness by ending this madness and affirming Peter Cooper’s commitment to free education for all. The alumni and students are eager to help solve the problems that plague the school, but only once we know that the principles that made Cooper Union great will never be put on the bargaining table.


Kelly O’Keefe

Cooper Union School of Art ‘82

Professor and former Managing Director of the VCU Brandcenter 

Chief Creative Officer of CRT/tanaka


Click to hear comments on Steve Jobs on PBS

This week, the business news was dominated by an announcement that Apple’s Steve Jobs has temporarily stepped down from the role of acting CEO to take a medical leave of absence. This is not his first medical sabbatical; Jobs has struggled with health issues for years, but the timing of the announcement came just one day before Apple, Inc. posted record-breaking revenues and profits, blowing past all analyst estimates by a wide margin.

The company now has revenues of more than $70 billion, tenfold its size when Jobs returned to the company in 1997. It has the most desirable products in most of its categories and a stock value of more than $300 billion.

Certainly Jobs has proven to be a brilliant leader with an uncanny ability to identify opportunities and respond with beautifully executed products. So the question is, can Apple continue on this path once Jobs is gone? Does Apple’s success surface solely from the perfect-pitch vision of its charismatic CEO or is there more at work here — a recipe that other leaders can follow?

To find our answers we can look at the performance of not one but two companies that Jobs has led in recent years, Apple and Pixar. Prior to Pixar’s 2006 sale to Disney, Steve Jobs was CEO of the motion picture studio while simultaneously running Apple, a remarkable feat, made even more remarkable by the fact that Pixar has the best track record of movie hits in Hollywood.

Over the years, I’ve followed both companies closely as a student of creativity and a teacher of successful brand practices. In my observations, I’ve seen more than individual mastery at work; I’ve noticed a simple, clear pattern of behavior that drives the success of both companies. I call it “The Jobs Doctrine.”

This doctrine can be used to understand how Apple became the most influential company in computers, phones, music and consumer electronics, and how Pixar simultaneously became one of the most influential company in movies. The Jobs Doctrine can also be put to work in any company, or used to make any career more successful.

So what is The Jobs Doctrine? It isn’t a lengthy set of rules or a mathematical formula. It is simply a disciplined approach to making things that delight us: Design fewer, simpler, greater things.

This recipe would seem so obvious that it’s barely worth mentioning; except that it is so little understood as the driving force of Jobs’s creativity and it is ignored by most corporations and individuals.

Let me demonstrate the doctrine in action. In 2010, a Businessweek survey named Apple the most innovative company in the world. While that may be no big surprise, most people associate innovation with constant change and multitudes of innovations. But Apple’s only major new product for the year was the iPad® and its last major new launch was the iPhone®, released in 2007, three years earlier. And to get to the launch of the iPod®, you have to go back to 2001. The point is that while Apple’s products are inarguably innovative, their releases are much less frequent than those of their competitors.

Take a quick look at the phone lines available from Samsung, Nokia or Motorola and you’ll see dozens of models with a wide variety of features. Even the more selective BlackBerry® brand has seven current models. Apple has only two: the new iPhone 4 and the earlier 3GS model. Both come only in black. They are currently only available from one carrier. The remarkable truth is that Apple gives consumers far fewer options than all of their major competitors, yet they sold an astonishing 16 million phones last quarter.

Think of the dilution of effort that a company experiences when it has dozens of phones to design, manufacture and support. Imagine the focus that would come if it decided to scrap their massive product lines to instead focus on designing a single, beautiful phone.

Jobs’s genius is that he fully understands the power of simplification. Go to the site of any competitor, from Microsoft, to Google, to HP, to Samsung, to Dell, and you’ll find they all have larger product lines and operate in more categories. Jobs presides over a company that prizes simplicity not only in its product line but in every feature that appears on every product. This allows the company time for meticulous development, which in turn leads to superior products. Jobs fundamentally believes that consumers are more interested in perfection than variety. And this is plainly evident at his other company, Pixar.

It seems unlikely that a technology mogul could succeed in the movie business but Jobs has been more than successful. He bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986 for $10 million and sold the company to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion, 740 times what he paid for it. But what is more remarkable is that at the time Jobs sold Pixar to Disney, it had released only six movies.

As with Apple, Jobs revolutionized the animated film industry and made a killing doing it, following the identical recipe: design fewer, simpler, greater things. While the studio had made only six films at the time of its sale to Disney, each had been released to become number one at the box office. And the streak continues today, several years after Jobs stepped down as CEO. Its most recent film, Toy Story 3, was the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

The company continues to release fewer films than its competitors and it takes longer to perfect the films, but each of Pixar’s 11 movies is listed among the 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time and each has been acclaimed by critics.

So, the successes of Apple and Pixar are based more on a consistent formula than on individual genius. If this successful formula can continue in the absence of Steve Jobs, as it has with Pixar, than maybe we can all take lessons from it.

Let’s break down the formula a bit. I’ve used the term “design” because Jobs considers Apple to be in the design business. The evidence is printed on every package. The words “Designed by Apple in California” suggest a company that is concerned with design. But what if your business has nothing to do with design? Perhaps you should alter your perspective.

Webster’s has several definitions for design. They are:

• to create, fashion, execute or construct according to plan

• to conceive and plan out in the mind

• to have as a purpose

• to devise for a specific function or end

These definitions can apply to anything you do, whether it’s creating a research report that might change the direction of your company, perfecting a smoothie to make your restaurant famous, developing curriculum that will really get through to your students or building the finest website for adopting puppies that anyone’s ever seen. When you think of your role as that of a designer, rather than just someone who performs a routine job, it liberates you to build your project from scratch. You are not just executing or refining but are creating something new and better. But of course, you can only do this if you’re focused on a few things.

Designing fewer things may be hard to do if you’re an employee and someone else is setting your priorities, but it is still possible. Think of an advertising designer who must work on a dozen projects every week. If she looks at each project as equally promising, she will have her efforts divided with little hope of perfecting her work. But if she works to identify projects with the potential for greatness, she can focus most of her time on those and fight to get them approved. Many famous advertising creatives have built their reputations on a few, brilliant campaigns. So look for these opportunities, and concentrate your skills on making brilliant work.

One last piece of The Jobs Doctrine is the quest for simplicity. This is where Steve Jobs may be at his best. Almost everything he makes has fewer features than almost everything his competitors make. Fewer buttons. Fewer menus. Fewer cables and ports. Fewer options. Steve Jobs is absolutely fanatical about designing products with simplicity. There are trade-offs, of course. The MacBook Air® has no CD/DVD drive, but that allows it to be smaller, lighter and more elegant. The remote for Apple TV® has only a few buttons, but this eliminates confusion.

We live in a complex world, where simplicity is a rare commodity, and like all rare things, it is valued. Take a look at your work. Can you make it simpler? Can you eliminate confusion? Can you edit out the excess until only the essential ingredients are evident? If you’re like most people, the answer is “yes.” But it takes time. Mark Twain famously commented, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Most of us fall into this trap. We would make things simpler, but we just don’t have time for the needed refinement. And this comes back to doing fewer things.

One last point about the doctrine: Designing fewer, simpler, greater things doesn’t just make the products better, it makes them easier to sell. Jobs is considered a masterful showman, and he is. We can all learn from watching his keynote presentations, but what enables him to be so persuasive is two things: He has only a few things to talk about, and each has been refined to make them better than the competition. We all know the feeling of going into a meeting with great work in our hands. We almost can’t wait to show it off. Our excitement and confidence are palpable. Selling a few great ideas is considerably easier than selling a lot of mediocre ideas. We have the time to romance each idea and we gain power from knowing the work is good.

Steve Jobs will be remembered as a remarkable individual who reshaped every industry he entered. The fact that much of that genius has been concentrated on designing and perfecting a small number of things does not diminish his accomplishments; it is the source of them. Applying this formula to our own efforts may not make us a billionaire or a celebrity, but it will make our work stronger and our efforts more purposeful, and that’s a good idea.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in Grosse Pointe

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in Grosse Pointe

I was seven years old on March 14, 1968, when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. came to my hometown. As I sat in my living room, Dr. King drove to Grosse Pointe High School with the police chief in his lap. When the chief heard the car might be shot at on the way to the speech, he insisted on sitting on the reverend’s lap to protect him. [Why don’t any of the articles about this event mention his name? A guardian angel in a long black Ford.]

At the high school, protesters surrounded the building and hecklers frequently interrupted the speech. Dr. King said later that, “ [it was] the worst heckling I have ever encountered in all my travels.” A number of people, however, welcomed the Reverend with enthusiasm. Dr. King received an ovation several minutes long when he entered the hall and the audience interrupted his speech not only with jeers, but with applause – a reported 32 times.

Reading about the event as an adult, I’m saddened, but not entirely ashamed of my neighbors. It was members of the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council who invited Dr. King to speak. They were part of a growing movement of local residents who were committed to racial equality.

I realize now that I was one of the lucky ones. My father was active in city politics, where he worked for civil rights with the Access to Justice campaign and helped elect the first black mayor of Detroit. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I came to understand the significance of that day and the events that surrounded it. I think about how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

(see comment for an update)

For more information:

Transcript: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Grosse Pointe Speech


Painting by the River

After all the heightened emotions experienced in the final days of the presidential election, it was wonderful to slow down and enjoy the great outdoors with an art exhibition along the river. Five artists were featured in the show hosted by Lazare Gallery. A handful of students and chatted with the artists as they worked, then ducked inside for wine and cheese and more art. It was an enriching way to spend the afternoon.


Inside Lazare Gallery


Aaron Pavelis Completes A Portrait


Ronald Renmark Captures A Landscape



The first writing assignment in our Cultural Exploration class was to read David Renmick’sKing of the World” about the life and career of Muhammad Ali. The book takes us beyond his career as a boxer to portray his life within the context of the turbulent cultural tapestry of the 1960s.

We are confronted with Ali’s role as a civil rights advocate, a Muslim and a draft resister. A flawed husband to several wives, a conflicted friend of Malcolm X and a constant fascination of the press and public. Ali pursues peace, while thriving at violent sport. He speaks for the rights of blacks, while ignoring those of women.

He begins the book a near-perfect athlete – strong, fast, intelligent and intimidating. Yet as he deteriorates physically, his character grows. Ali’s story is really a dozen stories woven into the life of one man. A cultural potluck with a little something for everyone.

Most of all, Ali is a hero.

Like all heroes, from Hercules forward, he is not without his flaws, but the strength of his conviction and the triumphs of his life will long outlast the frailties of the man.

As we near the end of the school year at the VCU Brandcenter, I held my final Strategic Brand Concepts class in the school’s outdoor classroom, a large patio overlooking Downtown Richmond. Our special guest was Brandcenter professor, Charles Hall, a gifted creative director with experience at places like Wieden + Kennedy and Nike.

In the session, the students discussed their own assessments of their successes and failures with remarkable candor. The ability to follow any effort with an objective review of what went right and wrong is a talent that the best people in the business have cultivated. Let’s hope they take these lessons into their work going forward.

Special thanks to Scott Witthaus for the photographs!

Recently my Strategic Brand Concepts class at the VCU Brandcenter welcomed a fantastic guest speaker, Elizabeth Talerman, who was recently the VP, Senior Director of Marketing, Merchandising for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Elizabeth walk the students through the art and science of crafting a brand platform and bringing it to life, using her recent launch of a new Martha Stewart line at Macy’s as an example.

Elizabeth’s combination of words and images to build a compelling manifesto set the tone for creative executions to follow, which included both traditional media and unconventional acts like changing the awnings at Macy’s 34th street flagship, Martha Stewart blue.

I’ve collaborated with Elizabeth for many years on the VCU Brandcenter board and I’ve seldom met anyone who brings more creativity to the art of brand building. Her strategic work has helped shape powerful brands like IBM and Yahoo! But her real gift is to simplify complex subjects and demystify the sometimes-murky world of brands. This talent made it easy for students to grasp the steps involved in the process of building a great strategy. A special gift to our students, wrapped up in a tasteful blue ribbon.

Landscape Painting by Conor O\'Keefe

Landscape painting with my son, Conor O’Keefe

Each fall, I get a welcome reminder of the vital role that cultural inspiration plays in the work of communicators. I teach a graduate course on cultural exploration at the VCU Brandcenter. The curiosity to seek out culture, from opera to hip-hop, Rembrandt to graffiti artists, is a trait that most successful marketers exhibit. A grounding in culture provides the context for communication. Besides, it’s a fun course to teach. In past years our explorations have covered topics like homelessness, russian painting, truck drivers, carnies, army wives, NASCAR, and many other topics from high culture to popular culture.

In each case, the course is built around direct immersion. So when we learned about homelessness, we spent time with homeless people in a city park. (Instead of PowerPoint, the student presentation was scrawled on pieces of scrap cardboard.) 

Keep an eye on this space come September to see what we’re up to.