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William W. Cooper

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William W. Cooper

By Jamey Smith

If you have the good fortune to meet William W. Cooper, a true gentleman if ever there was one, “prizefighter” is probably not the first word that will come to mind. Yet that word and many more — prodigious author, innovator, philanthropist — apply to this professor emeritus in the McCombs School of Business. Well into his 90s, Cooper still comes to campus each day. His ongoing research demands it, he’ll tell you from his desk, encircled by books and manuscripts. There’s still so much to do.

About that prizefighting: Cooper boxed professionally for five years and it led, if not exactly directly, to a prizewinning life in academia. He was college-age during his time in the ring but had never finished high school. “This was Chicago during the Depression and I couldn’t get any work,” he says. “Everyone would ask me if I had a high school diploma, and that ended the interview.” Hitchhiking one day, he was given a lift by a man who turned out to be a renowned accountant and a partner at Arthur Andersen. “I had heard about psychology in boxing and so I was reading this book on psychology. But I had got the wrong kind of book; it was on physiological psychology and it was all about neurons and dendrites. The subject fascinated me though, and I was talking all about it to this man, so much in fact that soon he too was fascinated.”

Dendrites aside, the man, Eric Kohler, saw Cooper’s intellectual potential. He eventually persuaded him to enroll at the University of Chicago and advanced him the funds he needed to get started. Cooper was unconvinced the ivy-covered walls were for him, but he did see one advantage. “I thought maybe if I had a year of college nobody would ask me if I had a high school diploma anymore.” He was right. Not only did he go on to work his way through college and graduate Phi Beta Kappa in economics, decades later when Harvard and other institutions awarded him honorary degrees for his contributions to management, accounting, and related fields, they somehow neglected to ask about that high school diploma.

There have been countless such tributes — Cooper recently received UT’s highest award, the Presidential Citation — and for good reason. For six decades, he has been a catalyst for change in multiple disciplines. His insights have led to innovations worldwide in the way companies and governments are run, and those insights keep coming: he is co-author of a 2008 book on the Muslim world and its challenges. It was considered quite a coup for UT when Cooper was lured to the Forty Acres in 1980 after 30 years at Carnegie Mellon University and five at Harvard. At his side through it all, from their 1945 marriage until her death in 2000, was Ruth Cooper, an attorney and human rights champion who achieved considerable renown in her own right. “She was a great force behind me,” Cooper says. “Without her, I wouldn’t have done any of it.”

One of the honors that Cooper is most proud of is an endowment that was created by friends and colleagues in the McCombs School. Linda L. Golden and her husband, Patrick L. Brockett, both professors in the school, were instrumental in seeding and establishing the William W. and Ruth F. Cooper Endowed Presidential Fellowship. Their son, Russell Brockett, now in college, joined the effort by donating all of his high school graduation money. “We did that because of the high regard and strong impact both Bill and Ruth have had on us and many others,” Golden says. “Bill is a valued colleague, co-author, and friend, and we consider him to be part of the family. Ruth fought for people and their rights in strong and creative ways. She played a major role in my decision to attend law school.”

Cooper, who knows the importance of private support for public education, already had endowed the William W. and Ruth F. Cooper Fellowship in 2001, designating it for graduate students who are seeking a PhD in business. Now he has added to the newer endowment as well and plans to contribute more. Additional support is being sought among his legions of former students and well-wishers. When fully funded, the endowment will assist graduate students in both business and liberal arts.

“We’ve tried everything to improve the human condition: religion, political systems,” Cooper says. “But the thing I think we need to rely on, where we’ve made the most progress anyway, is intelligence. And that’s what universities do. They teach, and they develop new intelligence. This is the way I’ve spent my life, and it’s the way I’d like to see the world continue.”

If you would like to contribute to the Cooper Endowed Presidential Fellowship, please send development officer Doug Duke an email or call him at 512-475-9611.

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