University of Rochester

University of Rochester Honors Two Equal Rights Champions with The Frederick Douglass Medal

September 15, 2008

The University of Rochester and its Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies will award Frederick Douglass medals on Sept. 23 to two men who have continued the famed abolitionist's battle for equal opportunity.

Those honored will be David Kearns, retired CEO of Xerox Corp. and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush, and Walter Cooper, retired research scientist at Eastman Kodak Co., one of the founding members of the Rochester chapter of the National Urban League and Action for a Better Community, and New York State regent emeritus.

"Walter Cooper and David Kearns are men who have spent their professional careers advancing the ideals for which Douglass stood," said University President Joel Seligman. "Like Douglass, they have fought to open opportunities for all people in corporate America, in classrooms, and in the world."

"Frederick Douglass set the standard for African-American intellectual achievement and progressive political leadership," adds Jeffery Tucker, Institute director and associate professor of English. "By invoking his name, we acknowledge our commitment to scholarship and civic engagement that honor his legacy."

The medals will be presented on Sept. 23 at an inaugural Frederick Douglass Dinner in the Sarah Flaum Atrium at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Created in 2008, the first two Frederick Douglass medals were awarded on April 18 to Lani Guinier, professor of law at Harvard University, and Gerald Torres, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin, who presented the 2008 Frederick Douglass lectures. For more on the medal, visit:

About Walter Cooper

Walter Cooper was the first African American to earn a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University. "I became a scientist," says Cooper, "because I did not see any black scientists. I looked around and I saw black doctors, black lawyers, but no black scientists. I chose that as a challenge."

Joining Eastman Kodak Co. in 1956, Cooper rose from research scientist to manager of research innovation and of technical communications. He published more than 25 scientific papers and obtained three patents in polymerization during his three decades with the company.

In the 1960s, when race riots rocked the city of Rochester, Cooper became a key African-American leader, respected across divisions in the community. He wrote the original proposal that secured funding for Action for a Better Community and became the organization's associate director in 1964. The following year, he served as associate director of the Rochester and Monroe County Anti-poverty Program and was a founding member of the Urban League of Rochester. In recognition of his engagement in civil rights, Cooper was asked to serve on the New York State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

To open opportunities for African-American students, Cooper in 1973 helped found the city's Urban-Suburban transfer program, which still operates today. From 1988 to 1997, he served as a New York State regent and today continues to lend his expertise to regent committees, including the Interstate Migrant Education Council, which advocates for the educational rights of migrant workers' children. In 1999, he chaired the planning group that restructured troubled Benjamin Franklin High School and established the city's only public Montessori school. Cooper currently serves on the mayor's commission on literacy, and on the board of trustees for the Norman Howard School, Nazareth College of Rochester, and Washington and Jefferson College, his alma mater located in Pennsylvania. Cooper is also in the process of donating his papers to the University.

"The worst form of child abuse is not to educate a child," declares Cooper. "It's a lifelong handicap, particularly now that labor has been replaced by knowledge in the economy. A person is not going to get a job if that person is not educated."

Through the years, Cooper experienced his share of discrimination. He recalls working on a history paper during his senior year of high school in 1946. "In many of the history books, if you wanted to find information about blacks, you looked in the index under 'social problems.' " Later, when seeking employment, he was flatly dismissed by a national chemical company. He was informed by interviewers that they did not hire blacks in research positions.

"I lived through lots of historical processes," concludes Cooper, "but I always kept my eye on the ball." And he says he was "morally compelled" to help others struggling against even greater odds.

About David Kearns

A 1952 graduate of the University with a degree in business administration, David Kearns is legendary in the world of business for his efforts at Xerox to encourage the development of African-American business leaders.

In the 1970s while head of U.S. marketing for Xerox and as CEO of Xerox from 1982 to 1990, Kearns worked closely with the Black Managers' Network to support the upward mobility of African-Americans within the company. He introduced an innovative career development program targeted to black and female Xerox professionals. The program analyzed the type of jobs taken to the top by company executive and identified similar career paths for minority staff. He encouraged black employees to gather to discuss the challenges they experienced and to seek help from other managers. A passionate champion of the importance of diversity throughout the workplace, Kearns set specific goals for the numbers of minorities and women at every level and tied the performance evaluations of managers to those goals.

During Kearns' tenure, Xerox emerged as the "undisputed leader" in equal employment opportunity. "He proved that fairness in the workplace is an achievable goal," noted Earl G. Graves, founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine. "[H]e mentored and appointed more African Americans to leadership positions than any other CEO of record."

Following Xerox, Kearns turned that commitment to fairness toward public education. He served as the deputy secretary of education from 1991 to 1993 during the first Bush administration and founded the nonprofit New American Schools to promote reform and encourage best practices in the nation's classrooms. An outspoken advocate for innovation, school-based autonomy, competition and choice in education, Kearns expanded on those themes in his 1999 book Legacy of Learning, coauthored with consultant James Harvey.

In honor of his commitment to diversity and excellence, the University in 2002 established the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity in Science and Engineering to expand the pool of individuals who pursue undergraduate and graduate careers in the sciences and engineering. A member of the University's Board of Trustees for almost three decades, including five years as chairman, Kearns also co-chaired Rochester's Campaign for the '90s.

Looking back, Kearns credits his innovative approach to lessons learned during his 25 trips to Japan, when he worked on a Xerox partnership with Fujifilm Corp. "They ran their businesses very, very differently," he explains. "They went through and listened. They took longer to make decisions, but once they made them it went faster."

"I was a good listener and that really made a difference," says Kearns. At 78, he's still honing that skill. Having lost his sight to cancer, Kearns now hires a young man to drive and assist him each year; Kearns, in turn, provides mentoring. But, he adds, "I learn from them too."

About the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies

Established in 1986, the Frederick Douglass Institute ( is dedicated to furthering teaching and research in the field of African and African-American Studies. The Institute offers numerous interdisciplinary courses, mostly in the social sciences and humanities, and awards an undergraduate major and minor in African and African-American Studies. A major center of multicultural academic programming at the University, the Institute organizes film and lecture series and supports pre- and post-doctoral research fellows at its campus center.