Professor William W. Cooper, Pioneer in Operations Research, Dies at 97
Professor Emeritus William W. Cooper, an academic giant widely considered to be a father of management science, died Wednesday, June 20, at the age of 97. A high school dropout and former boxing champ, he went on to revolutionize business education and research.
In a career that spanned nearly seven decades and included stints at the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, and Harvard Business School, Cooper was a prolific researcher who was at the forefront of a new way of studying business, emphasizing scientific rigor and integrating disciplines. In the words of one of his star doctoral students, Andrew Whinston, professor at McCombs: “The models Bill pioneered fostered a huge transformation of worldwide company operations. He has, as they say in today’s jargon, a big footprint.”
He was also a fixture on campus, coming to work nearly every day until just a few weeks before his death.
"William W. Cooper came to Texas in 1980 at age 66, already a giant in his field and at a time when many would be preparing for retirement. But as a man who began his work career as a prize fighter from Chicago, he had no intention of slowing down," said Thomas Gilligan, dean of the McCombs School. "I speak for generations of Texas business students, and many grateful colleagues, when I say that Bill was a cherished friend, a steady mentor and an inspiration to everyone who knew him."
A Rough Start with a Lucky Break
Born in 1914 in Birmingham, Ala., Cooper grew up in a rough neighborhood on Division Street in Chicago. Think Al Capone, Prohibition and street gangs. His father, who owned a string of gasoline stations, fell ill and couldn’t work anymore. His mother, needing her son to help with the family of five during the Great Depression, pulled him out of high school in his sophomore year. He never graduated.
Cooper did whatever he could to make money. He set up pins in bowling alleys. He caddied on golf courses. Then he found boxing. Professional boxing could earn you $35 for only nine grueling minutes: three rounds, three minutes each. Cooper was a natural. His record: 58 wins, three losses and two draws.
Professional boxing might have become his career had not fate intervened. One day while hitching a ride to his caddying job, he was picked up by Northwestern University professor Eric Kohler. Kohler, who was also a partner at Arthur Andersen, saw something impressive in Cooper and became a kind of father-figure, guide and mentor to the lad, persuading him to attend college and extending him the money to get started.
When You’re Too Advanced for a Ph.D.
“I was just amazed at what I found,” Cooper said of his first days at the University of Chicago in a 2010 interview. “I had never seen anything like that kind of intellectual life where I grew up.”
He initially studied physical chemistry but switched to economics after working on a patent infringement case with Kohler and discovering a significant error in a math equation. It was a windfall for the case, and Kohler hired Cooper part time for math and accounting work. That led to a job after graduation as Kohler’s research assistant at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), where he was put in charge of the internal audits.
After the TVA, Cooper completed the coursework for a Ph.D. in economics at Columbia in 1942. But the research in his dissertation was so advanced for its day that the committee did not fully understand it. They refused to accept or reject the work despite his careful explications and several changes. And so a man who would go on to win three honorary doctorates for his pioneering work didn’t actually receive his own doctorate.
But it wouldn’t matter a whit. World War II was on and Cooper headed to the White House, to the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), where he was in charge of all accounting statistics for the federal government, specifically those relating to war procurement programs, price control, production allocations and related economic studies.
Cooper wrote about coordinating these wartime accounting stats in an article for The Accounting Review in July 1945. The American Institute of Accountants was so impressed with his findings that they created an annual award to honor the most significant accounting article of the year and then named Bill Cooper and co-author Eric Kohler the award’s first recipients.
The Birth of a New Field: Bringing Science to the Art of Management
In 1946, Cooper joined the faculty of the newly formed Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now, Carnegie Mellon University). There he became part of a radical shift in business education that emphasized scientific and mathematical rigor over trade-school, hand-me-down instruction and professors teaching in departmental silos.
Cooper was not only a leader in these changes, but his own academic career thrived in this environment. He teamed up with Abe Charnes, a mathematics professor at Carnegie, and together they developed mathematical models that would radically change how we look at problems.
In essence, a new field was being born. Called management science, it was an interdisciplinary branch of applied mathematics whose aim was to optimize decision planning. It used rational, scientific techniques to improve management decisions.
Charnes and Cooper shared a legendary joint publishing record of more than 35 years. In 1982 they shared the John Von Neumann Theory Prize, an award given to individuals who have made fundamental and sustained contributions to theory in operations research and management science. In 2010, Cooper was inducted into the inaugural Wall of Fame at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon.
The contributions Cooper made to this field, now called operations research, are legion. Linear and nonlinear programming, goal programming, chance-constrained programming, manpower planning and multiobjective optimization are just some of the many lines of study that he created or strongly influenced. He is best known as the co-creator of data envelopment analysis, a method used worldwide to measure, evaluate and improve the performance of manufacturing and service operations.
The Business of Public Policy
In 1968, Cooper became the first dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Urban and Public Affairs (now known as the Heinz College at CMU). Pittsburgh was being hit hard by urban decay and the erosion of the steel industry. At the time, no one considered that engineering, operations research, the burgeoning computing world or even accounting had anything to do with public policy.
He helped to revolutionize public affairs education as he had done with business, using analytical models to solve broad, interconnected problems in the public interest. Under his leadership, the school brought on a sea change in how public policy was taught in the U.S.
His next appointment, from 1975 to 1980, brought him to Harvard Business School, where he was named the Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of Accounting.
At age 66 most people are thinking of retirement. At that age in 1980 Cooper started on a whole new leg of his career.
George Kozmetsky, then dean of UT’s College and Graduate School of Business, hired Cooper as the Foster Parker Professor of Management, Finance and Accounting. With a nod to Cooper's broad research interests, colleagues joked that his title naturally would encompass three departments.
"I decided in favor of the business school at Texas because of the persuasive arguments made by the late Dean George Kozmetsky," Cooper said in a 2008 interview. "Kozmetsky transformed the school from an old-boys club to a modern, high-ranking school — just as he said he would."
Cooper authored more than 325 articles while at Texas; and, as the late Professor Tim Ruefli noted in a 2002 Austin American-Statesman profile of the academic legend, Cooper's publication rate increased in the decade from 1992 to 2002, when he was between 78 and 88 years old. His most recent research was published earlier this year.
While Cooper technically retired in 1993, becoming a professor emeritus, in reality nothing changed in his day-to-day life. He led a structured life, exercising each morning, dining at the Campus Club at lunch, going to his office for e-mail and correspondence, and spending his evenings reading, studying and researching. One Thanksgiving Day the McCombs building was closed. He phoned up administrators to see if he could get the door unlocked. After all, there was research to do.
At his side for 55 years, from their 1945 marriage to her death in 2000, was his wife, Ruth Cooper, an attorney and human rights champion who achieved considerable renown in her own right. "She was a great force behind me," Cooper said in 2009. "Without her, I wouldn't have done any of it."
Just weeks before his 96th birthday in 2010, Cooper was asked what kept him working so hard. He replied by recalling the ending of a book he had read recently where a character remarks, “I don’t want to die from a cold or pneumonia or anything, I want to die from living.” He explained, “That’s the way I feel. My life revolves around work. I like solving problems, I like advancing knowledge, and I like helping people.”
William Cooper is survived by his brother, Leon, and his sister, Emilie.
Matt Turner, Rob Meyer, and Jamey Smith contributed to this article.
This article has been corrected from an earlier version. Cooper was born in Birmingham, Ala., and his sister's name was misspelled.