On a recent, nippy January morning, blinding sunlight bounces off University of Richmond's textured, mostly neo-Gothic walls. Each brick building pops in vivid relief against the enveloping forested, lavender-hued hillsides. The grounds exude a deceptively warm glow. But then, the place looks great in all seasons: The current Princeton college guide, no less, calls it America's prettiest campus. Being a Saturday during winter break, things are quiet today. A few weeks ago, however, the campus was super-charged when it was the picture-perfect no, make that motion picture-perfect setting for a "Dawson's Creek" TV shoot. Trouble is, Richmond sat in for ultra-prestigious Harvard: Westhampton Lake became the Charles River, replete with collegiate oarsmen rowing thin-hulled shells across the water's surface. If William E. Cooper has his way, however, one day UR will play itself in the flicks. The role? The best little university in the world. Although it's been less than a year since Cooper, 48, was inaugurated as UR's eighth president, the psychologist, cognitive scientist and veteran administrator of Iowa, Tulane and, most recently Georgetown universities is moving quickly to propel the private, former Baptist-affiliated, highly endowed university ($751 million) with 3,400 full-time students from also-ran, to highest national, if not international status. "He's ambitious for the university, he wants to make us the best small college globally, not just nationally," said Pam Spence, director of admission, who has worked at UR since 1973. "It's been a wake-up call. He's come in and energized a lot of people." Named president in the summer of 1998, Cooper hit the ground running. He endorsed academic house-cleaning and cost-savings by axing the health and sports science department and eliminating the education department's graduate programs. He streamlined administration by eliminating the lofty position of provost, traditionally a university's top academic spot: Deans now report directly to him. "That was a surprise," said one top official who previously reported to the provost. "When we asked him how long that policy would be in effect, he replied, 'Until I say ouch.'" When sexual orientation was included in the university's new non-discriminatory personnel policy, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, which had long appointed four trustees to the UR board and endowed ten full scholarships, pulled out to "redefine" its longstanding relationship. And howls erupted when Cooper suggested that widespread student partying, both on and off campus on Thursday nights, was making Fridays a wash-out for teaching and learning. Maybe more Friday tests were in order. Besides, it was costly to keep buildings up-and-going if they were under-used. "He says he wants to take the school to a new level," grumbles a senior fine arts major, "but it's a conservative approach clamping down on rules and giving more tests on Fridays. Some seniors say they're glad they're graduating now." Perhaps most importantly, the new president immediately launched an ambitious long-range strategic planning process to provide a tight framework for direction and growth. University honchos are now huddling to review final ideas that should be announced by early spring. Although the strategic plan will probably call for additions and improvements to the school's already handsome infrastructure, an expanded science center, updated athletic and fitness facilities, greatly enhanced library and a conference center don't expect pyrotechnics. "The guiding design feature for our efforts will be the primacy of student learning," Cooper told his investiture audience last April. "Our classes will remain small to facilitate active learning. We will strive to admit students who are dedicated to building lives, not merely accumulating credentials, students whose values guide their behavior and whose behavior is not merely respected but admired." The crowded university chapel was noticeably lacking in students since classes weren't suspended for the occasion: The new president reportedly balked at undue pomp and circumstance. One of the programs Cooper introduced to engage students was "The Richmond Quest." It is designed to pose broad questions with applications across curricula. In his own way, like a 21st century Horatio Alger, Cooper embodies what sharp focus, hard work and intellectual achievement can accomplish. As a child growing up in Lancaster, Pa. near the Franklin and Marshall campus, Cooper used the college library and established friendships with faculty members and students there. He pushed himself hard while attending public school and went on to an Ivy League school. At Brown University, he discovered the power of strong mentors and the rewards of collaborative research. After receiving his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he taught at Harvard. Later, while teaching at the University of Iowa, Cooper found his wife, who was equally motivated intellectually. Although it's 9:30 on a Saturday morning, Cooper enters the cozy library in the Jepson Alumni Center looking not weekend casual, but Wall Street conservative dark charcoal suit, white shirt, black patterned tie and sensible wing-tips. A gas log in the fireplace warms the room and he sheds his jacket. "Please call me Bill," he tells his guest, before settling into a red leather chair at a gleaming conference table to discuss his first semesters as a rookie university president.[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasHaving eliminated the position of provost, all deans now report directly to Cooper, shown here with Karen Newman, dean of UR's E. Claiborne Robins School of Business.
It's the tail of winter vacation and Cooper appears relaxed. He and his wife, Clarissa Holmes, (who is on the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University where she teaches graduate courses in clinical psychology and conducts research in juvenile diabetes), spent New Year's Eve with their two daughters, Ashley, 13, and Courtney, 7. Ashley invited six friends over for a sleepover to celebrate her 13th birthday at the official president's manse on River Road. "We were up until 3 a.m.," Cooper says with a smile, "but it was fun." When asked about the challenges of being a university president, he admits, "It's a hot seat. There are multiple expectations on a college campus. There are opinionated, highly talented people. ... There are very clever people. If people want to make trouble, they can. "And there is a natural American distaste for authority," he adds philosophically. "The challenge of any university president is to create a blend of creative chaos and academic discipline." Cooper says he found it "a happy surprise" that there is less bureaucracy at UR than at his previous administrative posts. He should know. He was executive vice president for the main campus at Georgetown University prior to coming to UR. Before that, he was dean of the liberal arts and sciences faculty at Tulane University and associate dean for research and development in the liberal arts college at the University of Iowa. "Iowa was the toughest job I've had in my life," he says. "The inertia is always the greatest at large, public universities." "But Richmond has a lean and effective administration. And we've taken measures to keep it that way. We want to stay nimble." Nimble. It's is a word he uses repeatedly, repeatedly, in his conversations. "You don't get to be a great university by being a great administration," he says, explaining his decision to eliminate the provost position. Cooper's formula for taking UR to higher achievement is simple: attracting more students who are national scholars and increasing the number of endowed chairs to snare prominent faculty. "That's how we're going to get where we're going." And that takes money. His conservative, workday attire on a Saturday morning can be attributed to a previous early morning meeting with some of the university's continuing education faculty. Cooper obviously delights at folks returning to campus for further, formal studies. "Many people really want to come back to continue their learning," he says while indicating little patience for people who crawl toward retirement, never having enjoyed their careers. "They obviously didn't trust their own personalities and passions," he says. "We've got to help our students find what drives them." Of his current post, he smiles, "It's not a job, it's a feast it's a learning feast. Learning every day is one of the fascinating things about any job. "And you've got to have fun or people won't want to follow you. You try to project enthusiasm." Cooper does that exceptionally well, according to the man who led the search to hire him. "We did a profile of all the things you'd expect in a university president academic excellence, excellence as an executive and the ability to relate to people and to the community," says UR rector Robert L. Burrus Jr., a 1955 UR grad and chair of the McGuire Woods Battle & Boothe executive committee. "We think we got all these things in Bill Cooper. He has an extremely acute intellect and a quickness in understanding issues. The community is fortunate to have him." Another UR official says she asked two colleagues who had worked with Cooper at other places what Richmond might expect: "They both gave the same reply brilliant and concerned about people." Donald Hillbish, a senior from Reading, Pa., majoring in leadership studies and president of the Richmond College Student Government Association, says that although Cooper was coolly received by students at last year's commencement, that is changing. "The graduates didn't have a good perspective of him: He's one to throw out a lot of ideas, to run a lot of things up the flagpole. That took a lot of people aback. But Dr. Cooper is really trying to stretch us like a rubber band." Cooper says his major factor in choosing UR was "the quality of the people" but that he also sees the university well-situated geographically. But he's concerned that the metropolitan Richmond and Northern Virginia regions are not working closely enough together on urban issues, economic opportunities particularly in the high-technology areas. "As long as there is a stand-off, the longer we wait, the worse off we'll be." He says he's worked with and has high respect for Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine and City Manager Calvin Jamison and Henrico officials. He admires the direction Eugene Trani, Virginia Commonwealth University's president, is taking that cross-town institution. But Cooper has been bemused by both UR's and the community's conservatism. "My biggest surprise," he says, "is how much attention the public pays to the pace of change. There's value in tradition and heritage, but this area cannot afford to miss grand opportunities." Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2