Nov. 18, 2021
The late Clara Cooper’s passion was teaching the humanities of her native India and introducing students to a country many people in the U.S. didn’t know much about.
“She was a wonderful teacher, and the students just loved her,” said Sara Deats, a close friend and USF distinguished university professor emerita.
Cooper was born in Secunderabad, India, in 1936. She came to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Florida State University, earning her doctorate in 1969 before joining the faculty at USF.
Cooper’s scholarship was centered on the humanities of India, and she wrote the definitive study of Hindu mystic Swami Vivekananda.
“She loved writing that book, but mainly she was a teacher,” said Deats.
Daniel Rutenberg, another friend and USF professor emeritus echoed Deats’ sentiment.
“If a student felt a little lost, a little ill at ease, Dr. Cooper was the person to see,” said Rutenberg. “There was always a stream of students coming by her office. She was as good in her interpersonal relationships as she was in her classroom.”
When planning her estate, Cooper wanted to leave a significant legacy for both her students and the university that had given her so much. When she passed away on Jan. 29, 2019, Cooper left the bulk of her estate — about $1.1 million — to create the Clara Cooper Endowed Fund for the Humanities Institute at USF.
The institute was established in 2003 to help promote scholarship and educational engagement across the humanities disciplines. Eric Eisenberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences where the institute is housed, said the institute is the one unit in the university whose sole purpose is to explore questions of meaning and value in society.
“This extraordinary gift from Clara Cooper gives us the freedom and ability to dream bigger about how we might expand all of these critical conversations throughout the Tampa Bay region,” said Eisenberg.
Today, the Humanities Institute, led by director Liz Kicak, supports public events that bring outside experts and thought leaders to campus to share their knowledge with the USF and Tampa Bay communities.
The institute also promotes faculty scholarship, each year providing summer research grants of up to $5,000 through the Office of Research to 10 faculty members.
Fittingly, Cooper’s endowment will make the biggest impact on the institute’s efforts to engage both graduate and undergraduate students in research.
Kicak said the institute funds travel for graduate students who have had original research accepted at national or international conferences.
“That’s a huge, critical piece of their educational experience and really important when they go out on the job market,” said Kicak.
The endowment also supports an annual undergraduate humanities conference. This year’s event in January saw 53 students present (up from 23 the inaugural year). Five of the students from the conference were accepted to the Richard Macksey National Undergraduate Humanities Conference at Johns Hopkins University. The Clara Cooper Endowment was used to pay their registration fees, so students had no out-of-pocket expenses.
Though she never had a chance to meet Cooper in life, Kicak enjoyed meeting her friends and colleagues at her memorial, where she learned how deeply invested Cooper was in the success of her students.
“Her gift is going to continue something that was important to her and is important to us — forever,” said Kicak. “To think that five years from now we will have hundreds of students that will have been touched by her gift is humbling and wonderful and just speaks to such vision and generosity.”