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Part 2

Cooper's Town


Cooper was not born to academe or sophistication. "I never had sushi until I was in my 20s," he says, "My daughters have it regularly." Growing up in Lancaster, Pa., he was the only child of a shoe salesman. His mother had jobs with federal and state agencies and more recently, as a popular tour guide of Amish country. But to hear him tell it, he's been in training all his life for what he's doing. Neither of his parents were college graduates and since he'd attended what he calls an average public high school, Cooper convinced himself while still in his teens that he was way behind in his quest for academic achievement. He learned to type really fast and to speed read. "Those little skills have helped me to be more effective." But Cooper also understood early on the advantage of strong mentors. At Franklin and Marshall College where he played football with his buddies on campus Cooper observed students and faculty working "side by side." During high school he also served as a page in the Pennsylvania legislature for John Pittinger, a legislator and a Franklin and Marshall professor who became his mentor. "I shadowed him and observed him in both the academic life and the public life," says Cooper. "He never tackled small challenges. Watching him up close and personal was fascinating. But I had seen how frustrating it was for Pittinger to get done the things that were obviously right. I wanted to do something where you could have a cumulative record of achievement." Cooper graduated from high school in 1969 and he interned that summer in Congress. "I learned a lot of interesting lessons in Washington, " he says. "I was there when Teddy Kennedy was involved in Chappaquiddick. I heard impassioned speeches on the House floor in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille." Cooper entered Brown University in the fall of 1969, one of the nation's most tumultuous times. Richard Nixon had replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White House. Universities were erupting over Vietnam and the Brown campus was no exception. "There were candlelight vigils and exams were optional that spring semester," he recalls. "But I had mixed feelings. I wrote my congressman [against the war], but I was deeply concerned my education would be interrupted. There was so much to learn that I wouldn't learn if I was in some jungle somewhere." Cooper had what he calls a "generational clash" with his father, a World War II veteran, over Vietnam. "It was a very, very emotional time. Our generation had the Vietnam War — an 800-pound gorilla — as such a looming issue. We didn't know whether we were going to live or die." Like millions of young men, Cooper watched on television as General Lewis Hershey pulled draft numbers from a drum on live, national TV. "My homeroom buddy in junior high school, Barry Cunningham, was killed," says Cooper, growing somber. "Cherubic Barry Cunningham. No one could imagine him picking up a gun. But he got a low number and I got a high one." After college, Cooper stayed on to receive a masters in psycholinguistics. "I happened to have professors at Brown in cognitive science who were in their early 30s and I was 19. We bonded." In 1976 he received his Ph.D. in psychology and brain science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Innovation in my field was blossoming. Again, I bonded with people who were making remarkable discoveries. "In the cognitive sciences you study some of the things like judgment, decision-making and planning," he says, areas that serve him well as a college president. "I encourage students to pick a few good professors and bond with them," he says. Does he see sharp contrasts between his contemporaries and today's college students? "They are not compelled by world events," he says of UR students. "This is not a revolutionary time." "Materialism has grown in importance and careerism has grown in importance. But they understand the emptiness of materialism as a value — that materialism is a means and not an end. They learn that there is a good deal more. Their lives as individuals are what matters. They should be a fountain and not a drain." "It's a cushy time, but it's a deceptively cushy time. We face hidden dangers instead of things like guns and war. Materialism is a wonderful thing if used to noble ends. Instant gratification is easier than ever before, but one cannot live by excitement alone. You have to do things patiently and for the long haul."[image-1]Photo by Steven SalpukasLisa Madonia, a psychology major from Midlothian, discusses with Cooper a project she is developing with UR professor Craig Kinsley. Promoting mentorships is a key thrust of Cooper's administration. Cooper points out proudly that 50 percent of the Richmond student body volunteers — voluntarily. He also stresses that UR students, who often are viewed in the Richmond area as upper-middle class Northerners— only 17 percent are from Virginia — are a diverse and vibrant group. ("I think we've gotten past the point where there is a 'typical' UR student," says admissions dean Spence. "We've made a conscious effort to build diversity.") The feel-good glow from face-to-face encounters by such things as tutoring a child or building a house can be inspiring and carried over into the lab or classroom, he says, "but it doesn't take a college degree to serve a Thanksgiving meal to the homeless. "It's ideas that have worldwide impact," he says. "You have to have the best ideas on the block. That's a hard thing to get across. But it's the extra leverage that the academy can offer. We have a greater obligation and opportunity to work for long-range solutions to complex issues. "Students have to find what they're going to do. They have to develop their passions. You cannot learn passion. But we can give them the tools to help them discover their own." One of Cooper's more visible initiatives is "The Richmond Quest," a program that encourages positing a broad, cross-disciplinary topic and making it the focus of perhaps lengthy, involved, intra-departmental inquiry. The first Quest project was: Is truth in the eye of the beholder? The question was submitted by undergraduate Larina Orlando and selected anonymously by a committee. She received about $25,000 worth of tuition for her efforts. The idea of encouraging people to regularly ask incisive questions is aimed at positioning the University of Richmond as a leading place for asking what the school calls "daunting" questions and answering them by linking all schools and colleges in the process. "There was some skepticism at first — 'It's just another idea,' some thought," says the SGA's Hillbish. "But now students are getting into it and becoming more and more excited as academic programs are becoming increasingly involved." The project has gained national attention and has been picked up by high schools and such service organizations as the Cub Scouts. Cooper says such attention will make students from across the globe who are approaching their college application years increasingly aware of Richmond. "Ideas have world-wide impact," repeats Cooper, his eyes dancing under his thin-rimmed glasses. "You don't need to be the biggest institution — you need to have the best ideas." And this brings Cooper back to his frustration that if students were partying on Thursday nights and either feeling dull-headed on Fridays or beginning a three-day weekend, they were missing out on discussions and opportunities to find the next Big Thing. Not only does he call it fiscally wasteful not to use the buildings to higher capacity, but he says students should be thinking and studying seven days a week. "I'm not depriving them of a life," he says drolly. "It was a co-conspiracy between faculty and students, but I said, 'No, we're not going to do that.' We got a lot of flak on that, but we also made some friends." The alumni seem delighted at the pace Cooper has set. "My degree is worth a whole lot more now then when I graduated," says Carl Outen, a 1973 grad and prominent Richmond ophthalmologist. "One of the strengths of the school in the past was that many of the alumni stayed in Virginia and supported the school. But the school is a lot more diverse now. Will the new alumni [who are far broader nationally and internationally] pay the same amount of attention after they graduate?" Cooper sees one of his roles as communicator of what UR has to offer and says he enjoys the frequent spurts of travel: "We need new friends, deeper friends, friends all over the world and old friends seeing the place afresh. ... "I'm selling, selling, selling. That's my job. You have to use a lot of shoe leather." But this salesman believes in his product: "It's for the welfare of civilization," he says with no hint of pretense. "Do you know when you've made it?" he asks with a grin, "When you see that 'R' emblazoned on a cap someone is wearing in Brussels and everybody knows it stands for University of Richmond." Jump to Part 1, 2,

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