By Leslie Ridgeway
For his contributions toward the conduct of ethical behavior in public service over a nearly 50-year career, Terry L. Cooper, Maria B. Crutcher Professor in Citizenship and Democratic Values, is the recipient of the 2019 American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) Public Integrity Award.
Cooper, who has written numerous research studies and books on administrative ethics, citizen participation in government and neighborhood organizations, will receive the award in a ceremony on March 10, during the annual ASPA conference in Washington, D.C.
“I was delighted to get the news,” said Cooper, whose career in public service began in the 1960s as a Methodist preacher. “I’m humbled to receive this honor from my colleagues and appreciate it greatly. It’s wonderful to get this at the end of my career. It means I accomplished something.”
The award is one of several accomplishments and honors Cooper has garnered over the years, including being elected a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in 2010. At the Price School, Cooper created the Citizenship and Public Ethics course (240), which is required for public policy undergraduate students, and teaches a course every summer for masters and PhD students on public ethics, which he will continue to teach after retirement at the end of the 2018-19 academic school year.
Cooper has authored or co-edited several books including “The Responsible Administrator: An Approach to Ethics for the Administrative Role” (6th ed.), and “An Ethic of Citizenship for Public Administration.” His research has appeared in peer-reviewed journals including Public Administration Review, Administration and Society, International Review of Administrative Sciences, and International Journal of Public Administration.
“This well-deserved honor is a testament to the impressive work Prof. Cooper has done throughout his career to promote the study and practice of ethical leadership,” said Price School Dean Jack L. Knott. “With the myriad challenges to ethics in public administration in these times, Terry’s work is especially significant. I congratulate him on this important recognition from ASPA, and his stellar career in teaching and research.”
Cooper, raised in Little Rock, Ark. in the 1940s, said his interest in ethics began with his family, especially his politically involved father, who had strong opinions about the issues of the day and frequently debated them at the dinner table with Cooper and his sister while Cooper’s mother tried to keep the peace. The racial injustice that Cooper witnessed or heard about in the socially turbulent American South became a foundation for his values and political engagement.
The family eventually moved to the San Fernando Valley. Cooper earned a bachelor’s degree in history at UCLA, and both graduated from seminary and earned a master’s from the School of Theology in Claremont in the early 60s, when the civil rights movement was near its peak.
As an ordained Methodist minister, Cooper was assigned to the North Hollywood Methodist Church on Tujunga Boulevard, later moving across the country to East Harlem, N.Y., where he learned about community organizing. In 1964, he returned to Los Angeles, assigned to a church in the Pico-Union district of the city. The area, populated mostly by Latino immigrants, was under scrutiny from the City of Los Angeles redevelopment agency, which worried about crime as the Los Angeles Convention Center was being built. Cooper helped lead a movement to stop the city from displacing the nearly 12,000 low-income residents and to improve police-resident relations amid violence from two competing street gangs.
In 1965, Cooper walked in the last leg of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., at the behest of Rev. Martin Luther King, who had called on members of the clergy to participate. Months later, he was in Van Nuys, watching the Watts rebellion unfolding on TV.
“As I drove over the Sepulveda Pass, it looked like a war zone,” said Cooper. “I could see a column of smoke on Central Avenue, all the way south to Watts.”
At the request of a civil rights organization he worked with, he wound up ferrying food and prescriptions to and from trapped residents in a succession of city blocks on Central Avenue, where businesses where burned to the ground. The National Guard escorted him when there were reports of snipers.
The deteriorating relationships between law enforcement and urban communities troubled and motivated Cooper. These relationships came once again into shocking focus four years later when Cooper was supporting Latino activists at a demonstration at St. Basil’s Catholic Church on Wilshire Boulevard in 1969. Violence broke out, and Cooper was smashed over the bridge of the nose by a police officer wielding a billy club. By this time, Cooper had decided to leave the clergy and enrolled at USC to study for a Ph.D. in social ethics and urban policy. His dissertation, completed in 1973, covered trends in value systems among police officers and their implications for working cooperatively in society – a subject as relevant today as it was in the 60s and 70s.
The relevance of ethical scholarship is constantly on Cooper’s mind. As he progressed through his career, he recognized the challenge that students face when returning to the workplace, where the organization may or may not embrace the ethical lessons the students have learned.
“This has led me to something I call the ‘design approach to ethics decision-making,’” he said. “You don’t stop with deciding what a good decision is. You ask, ‘What is it about the organization that I’m part of that would encourage or impede this conduct I’ve decided on? What kind of management intervention strategies would I develop to encourage ethical conduct or fight against what impedes it?”
This attitude goes a long way toward developing oneself as the kind of ethical leader who inspires trust, Cooper said – a pursuit that students respond to with enthusiasm in the current environment where mistrust of leadership runs high.
“I find that students, and practitioners, are reacting to the lack of integrity on the part of many of our leaders in government,” he said. “They are outraged at the conduct they’re seeing. In some ways it makes them more open to talking about and learning ethics, because they see what happens without it.
“An important part of leadership is being a person of integrity,” Cooper said. “People will not trust you if you are inconsistent in your conduct and don’t have a set of core principles that govern your conduct.”
Professor Emeritus of Public Policy