Obituary: William Cooper / He put computers to work to improve businesses
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William Cooper, a former Carnegie Mellon University professor who pioneered the use of mathematics to improve efficiency in business and public policy, despite never graduating from high school, died Wednesday in Austin, Texas. He was 97.
As a founding faculty member at Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration, now the Tepper School of Business, he was one of the first to use math models to help businesses increase profits, peers and colleagues said, an approach known as management science, now standard at business schools around the world.
"The idea was to take a much more rigorous analytical approach to analyzing business and business problems," said Robert Dammon, current dean of the Tepper School.
Business educators had long been teaching best practices in management, rather than performing research to improve operations, Mr. Dammon said. Mr. Cooper and his colleagues, Herb Simon and Lee Bach, introduced a scientific approach to the field, proving that math models could increase productivity. His work earned him the John Von Neumann Theory Prize in 1982, the equivalent of the Nobel prize for his field, Mr. Dammon said.
Mr. Cooper also used a new invention to analyze data -- the computer. "He recognized that computers could be used to solve business problems," said Andrew Whinston, professor of information, risk and operations management at the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business, where Mr. Cooper worked for the final 22 years of his life.
But business was not the only area to which Mr. Cooper introduced the computer. He believed that the new technology could improve the efficiency of municipalities.
"The computer -- or data processing method -- doesn't solve the problem," he said, soon after his appointment in 1968 as the first dean of Carnegie Mellon's school of Urban and Public Affairs, now Heinz College.
"It simply supplies answers and alternatives from which elected public officials can choose," he said.
Mr. Cooper retired from teaching in 1993, but continued to work on research until just a week before his death, his brother, Leon Cooper, said.
"I think that [research] was the main passion in his life," Mr. Whinston said. "Instead of retiring and playing bridge, he retired and did what he liked to do. He liked the challenge of coming up with new ideas. That was his form of retirement."
But Mr. Cooper, who was born in Birmingham, Ala., but grew up in Chicago, had not always been free to pursue learning. In 1931, after his sophomore year, he dropped out of high school, becoming a boxer to earn money for his family.
"Growing up on Chicago's West Side, I naturally knew how to fight," he told a Pittsburgh Press reporter in 1989. "So, with no income coming into our family, I turned to boxing, did pretty good and turned professional."
He earned $15 to $20 a fight--important cash during the Great Depression. He fought 55 bouts, losing only one and drawing one, his brother said. But education soon became the focus of his life.
He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1938. Then Mr. Cooper headed to Columbia University for a doctorate in economics. He completed his work in 1942, but faculty there refused to accept his dissertation research, which focused on topics new to the field, according to a University of Texas obituary.
The lack of a formal doctorate degree did not halt Mr. Cooper.
In 1946, he joined the faculty of Carnegie Mellon. He worked there until 1976, when he left for a position at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
In 1980, he headed to the University of Texas at Austin, where he became Foster Parker Professor of Management, Finance and Accounting, at the university's McCombs School of Business, according to the university. He remained at the school until his death.
First Published June 23, 2012 12:00 am