William B. Cottingham

President 1976-1991

He came to General Motors Institute in 1975 as Dean of Academic Affairs and became President of the school a year later. On July 1, 1982, the Institute gained its independence from General Motors and became GMI Engineering & Management Institute, with Dr. Cottingham as President.

Born December 1, 1933, in Chicago, William B. Cottingham grew up attending public schools and the Lane Technical High School. He admits to an early interest in engines, working on them “from age eight or so.” His father was president of the Henry Pratt Corporation, whose primary product was large butterfly valves and boilers for power plants.

During summer vacations in his teens, he worked as a “re-tuber” for steam condensers for Consolidated Edison in Chicago and later “graduated” to building new boilers for the same company. He recalls with pride his hands-on approach to engineering and his status as a “card carrying member” of the Boilermakers and Steamfitters local union. Small wonder that he became a life-long advocate for cooperative engineering education.

Following graduation from Lane Tech, he planned to enter Cal Tech to study astronomy. Unable to meet all the rigid entrance requirements, he decided to join a buddy at Purdue. He entered the university in 1952, intending to major in physics. “After the first year, I was so bored with the slow pace of the physics program that I switched to engineering.” In 1955, he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. A year later, he earned his master’s degree and completed his doctorate in 1960. While attending graduate school, he found it necessary to supplement his income to meet expenses. He found employment with a professor who was working on increasing the firing rate of the army’s 50-calibre machine gun. The project was of interest and much to his liking. He pursued this research, and when called for service during the Korean Conflict, he was granted a “scientific exemption” to continue on the machine gun project.

Following completion of his doctoral degree, he became a member of the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. In 1963, he returned to Purdue as an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering. In July 1970, he was appointed to head the School of Mechanical Engineering. In 1972, he founded with four Purdue colleagues, Tec-Tran, Inc., an engineering consulting and publishing firm in Lafayette, Indiana, specializing in low volume technical books with a limited market appeal.

Dr. Cottingham served as a consultant to many companies and organizations including the National Science Foundation, the Commission of Engineering and Education, the U.S. Army Science Foundation, the Commission of Engineering and Education and the U.S. Army Scientific Advisory Panel. He also spent six months in 1970 as a guest researcher in the area of infrared radiation patterns from surfaces for Medisch Fysisch Instituet-Tno in the Netherlands. Cottingham is the author or co-author of more than 200 technical and educational publications and presentations and co-author of five chapters in a major work entitled Physical Design of Electronic Systems. He participated in the development of a design patent on a “Cryostat”, a vessel for containing super conduction magnets suspended in liquid helium. This resulting patent was later assigned to the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

He came to General Motors Institute in 1975 as dean of academic affairs and became president of the school a year later. On July 1, 1982, the Institute gained its independence from General Motors and became GMI Engineering & Management Institute, with Dr. Cottingham as President. Over the next several years he, in many ways, presided over the creation of a new institution. A member of his staff commented, “That is entrepreneurship on a big scale. The school went from having one corporate sponsor to over 400.”  He successfully steered the college through the troubled waters of transition, maintained its reputation as one of the country’s top engineering and management schools and established a solid base for GMI’s future.

Throughout his life, Dr. Cottingham was active in a number of professional and civic activities -- a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, serving at one time as Chairman of the Engineering Education Committee. Other professional associations included the National Commission for Cooperative Education, the Army Scientific Advisory Panel and the Distance Education and Training Accrediting Commission, on which he still serves.

His interest in music (mainly classical) goes back to his childhood when he took piano lessons for a while but did not retain any proficiency. While at Purdue, he served on the Board of the Lafayette Symphony and in Flint continued that service, serving as President of the Pine Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Flint College and Cultural Center and was founding member of the consortium of local colleges. He continues to serve on the advisory board of NBD-Flint Bank.

When asked his philosophy on administration, he said he preferred to “hire good people and get the hell out of their way.” He viewed himself as a coach or angel rather than a dictator. He recalled only twice during his tenure at GMI when he felt the coach type of administrator was not appropriate. The first time was when he arrived to find GMI in “disarray and its administration emasculated” following the cut-back of 1974-1975. He sensed that immediate and decisive action was imperative to the future of the Institute. The second time he resorted to “acting a lot like a dictator” was when GM “turned us loose.” But after the trauma settled down, he returned to his preferred style of administration.

Under Dr. Cottingham’s leadership, the Institute confidently advanced into its future, proud of its well-earned reputation as one of the nation’s foremost private colleges, yet mindful of the expectations inherited from the past to remain at the cutting edge of innovative, productive and meaningful education of young men and women in management and engineering.

Dr. Cottingham died Sept. 29, 2009, at his home in Florida.

Dr. William B. Cottingham

Dr. William B. Cottingham