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Dr. Sammie W. Cosper, a former vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of Southwestern Louisiana who later served as the state’s higher education commissioner, died Tuesday, Sept. 19. He was 83.

Cosper was chief academic officer from 1973 to 1989, a period that “witnessed the University’s growth from a regional college into a research institution,” said UL Lafayette President Dr. Joseph Savoie.

Soon after Cosper became vice president, he convened a committee of faculty and administrators to assess the University’s goals. The panel suggested expanding the University’s existing computer science and nursing programs, and strengthening its ties to the area’s oil and gas industry. It also recommended making the preservation of South Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole cultures a priority.

Cosper’s tenure also saw the University assume a role in the restoration of Louisiana’s coastline.

The legacy of the committee’s recommendations remains evident at UL Lafayette today, Savoie said.

“Sammie worked with then-President Dr. Ray Authement to change how the University saw itself and how others perceived it. Under their guidance, it became nationally recognized for its groundbreaking research and scholarship.

“He was a tireless advocate for this University and, as commissioner of higher education, for colleges and universities statewide,” Savoie said. 

“On a personal note, Sammie was a valued mentor and a good friend.”

Then-Louisiana Gov. Charles E. “Buddy” Roemer III asked Cosper to serve as higher education commissioner in 1990. During his four-year tenure, Cosper was an early advocate for the creation of a statewide community and technical college system. 

Cosper grew up in Ville Platte and Eunice, and graduated from Eunice High School in 1951. After a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy, he enrolled at Southwestern Louisiana Institute. SLI became USL before his graduation in 1960, and then the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1999.

He graduated first in his class with a bachelor’s degree in physics.

Cosper then pursued a doctorate in nuclear physics at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. After his graduation in 1965, his postdoctoral research at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley resulted in the discovery of four previously unknown isotopes – Helium-8, Lithium-11, Boron-14 and Boron-15.

Cosper returned to USL in 1967 as chair of the newly created Department of Physics, which was then under the guidance of the College of Liberal Arts. He became the college’s dean in 1971 until his promotion two years later as USL’s vice president of Academic Affairs.

As vice president, Cosper was the chief liaison between the University and the Louisiana Board of Regents, which the 1974 Louisiana Constitution created as a centralized governing body for publicly funded higher education institutions.

Cosper represented USL at Regents’ meetings, and later joked he could count on one hand the number of meetings he had missed. His intimate knowledge of the board’s workings led to his appointment in 1990 as interim higher education commissioner to replace Dr. Sally Clausen, who had resigned.

Asked by the Regents to take the job permanently, Cosper initially demurred, he revealed in a 1990 interview with La Louisiane, UL Lafayette’s magazine.

“I did some soul-searching. I didn’t need the money, the headaches or the glory – and there’s really no glory associated with the job anyway. But I also understood that there weren’t too many people in the state who could walk in and do the job. Ultimately, the state of Louisiana has been good to me for the past 22 years. Higher education is in a bind, and I think I can help get it out of a bind. So I applied.

“I told the board if they wanted somebody to sit in a chair and hold it down, I wasn’t their man.” Cosper said he “was prepared to hit the ground running.”

As commissioner, Cosper worked to stabilize the Board of Regents, which was emerging from a period rife with internal disputes and a series of court cases that challenged the board’s legitimacy. He opposed cuts to higher education funding and advocated for faculty pay increases. Cosper pushed for the creation of a combined community and technical college system, which occurred in 1999, after Cosper’s tenure as higher education commissioner.

Cosper retired as commissioner in 1994. He then worked as an educational consultant and later served as interim chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College.

He and his wife, Shirley, established a student scholarship and endowed professorship in UL Lafayette’s Department of Physics. The couple also created the Cosper Family Endowed Scholarship at South Louisiana Community College. It’s awarded annually to a married student attending SLCC.

“I completed much of my education while I was married with kids,” Sammie Cosper said at the time. “I know the struggle firsthand, and I want to help someone.”

Cosper and the former Shirley Aguillard married in 1955. The couple had three daughters: Caprice, Michelle and Renee. Survivors include his wife, daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Wisdom Catholic Church on UL Lafayette’s campus. Interment will follow in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Eunice.

Visitation will be held from 4-8 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. until the time of services Saturday. A rosary will be recited at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Martin & Castille Funeral Home-Downtown, which is in charge of arrangements.

Photo: Dr. Sammie W. Cosper, early in his tenure as USL’s vice president of Academic Affairs. He died Tuesday at age 83. Credit: University Archives & Manuscripts Collection/University of Louisiana at Lafayette