INFORMS News: In Memoriam — William W. Cooper (1914-2012)

Founding Father of Management Science

William W. Cooper

William W. Cooper

William W. Cooper, a high-school dropout and former boxing champion who went on to become a pioneer and academic giant in the field of management science and who served in 1954 as the first president of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS), died June 20. He was 97.

Professor Cooper’s academic career spanned nearly seven decades and included stints at the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard Business School and, since 1980, the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas-Austin (where he held the title of Foster Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus of Finance and Management at the time of his death).

Following are excerpts from an article by Corey Leahy, associate director of communications at McCombs. The article was originally published in McCombs Today ( Reprinted with permission.
“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,” says Thomas Gilligan, dean of the McCombs School of Business. “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.”

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.

“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.

Dissertation But No Doctorate

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.

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.

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.

Not the Retiring Type

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.

The Carnegie Mellon Years

William W. Cooper spent 30 years, from 1945 to 1975, at Carnegie Mellon University where he was the founding member of CMU’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA), now named the Tepper School of Business, and the founding dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs, now known as CMU’s Heinz College. Following are excerpts from a CMU press release:
“In his 30 years as a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon and throughout his career, Bill’s contributions have been many, very significant and lasting,” says Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon. “He was a founding faculty member of the Tepper School and the Heinz College, both of which became leading institutions in their fields and essential contributors to Carnegie Mellon’s excellence.”
Joining the CMU faculty in 1945 with a background in industrial engineering, Cooper became a catalyst for combining academic disciplines into research and teaching that generated a new, more scientific, way to examine problems and ultimately to improve management decisions. In the 1950s Cooper teamed up with Abe Charnes, a mathematics professor at CMU, and together they developed new mathematical models for problem solving that became the foundation of a new field called management science. In 1982, the pair would be honored with 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.
His work with other visionaries, including Lee Bach and Herb Simon, created a radical shift in business education that emphasized scientific and mathematical rigor and collaboration instead of traditional trade-school instruction organized within a strict academic department framework. Their work created a rare type of institution and generated an approach toward research and curricula that remains the focus of top education programs around the world today. In 2010, Cooper was inducted into the Tepper School’s Wall of Fame.
“Bill Cooper was among those most instrumental in the revolution of business education that took place in the 1950s and ‘60s,” says Robert Dammon, dean of the Tepper School of Business. “Starting here at GSIA, he helped to develop an academic model for research and teaching that emphasized rigor and interdisciplinary collaboration. This management science model has endured, and business schools around the globe owe a debt of gratitude to one of the pioneers who had a vision for how management science would change the world of business.”
Cooper’s vision when he established what is now the Heinz College was to educate “men and women of intelligent action,” and he developed a curricular framework and experiential learning activities that are at the core of what the college continues to do today. Cooper also saw the college as a place to try untested ideas in the marketplace. Knowing that more African-Americans were moving into urban centers, he and Otto Davis, an associate dean, realized that a pressing need for African-American managers lay ahead. Minority representation soon became one of the school’s striking achievements.  
“I had the pleasure of working as Bill’s research assistant during my first years as a doctoral student at the University of Texas,” says Ramayya Krishnan, dean of the Heinz College. “He was a wonderful person and a brilliant scholar who truly cared about his work and the people around him. I, along with other faculty at Carnegie Mellon, have directly benefited from his mentorship.”
In addition to his accomplishments in higher education, Cooper was the founding president of The Institute for Management Science, which later became part of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, the leading operations research society in the world today.
In 2006, Cooper was inducted in the International Federation of Operation Research Society’s Hall of Fame, where his contributions are described as follows: “Throughout his career, Bill Cooper has espoused the need for problem-driven research. He recognized the need for management researchers to be closely connected with the problems faced by managers in contemporary organizations. To Bill, this did not imply simply applying existing models to solve problems that fit those models. Rather, the objective is to identify new and challenging problems that require original solutions, motivating new basic research and the development of new models to address these problems observed in the field. Such research not only results in improvements in existing management practice but it also substantially enriches intellectual inquiry with the introduction of new problems, models and solution methods to the research literature.”
In his own words, Cooper once described his career in saying: “We’ve tried everything to improve the human condition: religion, political systems, 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.”