William Mansfield Cooper was born at Newton Heath, Manchester on 20 February 1903. Cooper left elementary school aged 14 and went to work in an accountant's office. At the same time he attended WEA classes where he came to the attention of Reginald Eastwood, Professor of Law at Manchester, who encouraged him in his studies. In 1931, Cooper went to Ruskin College, Oxford, where he took a diploma in economics and political science. In 1936 he took a degree in law at the University of Manchester, followed by LL.M. in 1938. He was called to the Bar by Gray's Inn in 1940.
In 1938 he was appointed assistant lecturer in law at Manchester, and was successively promoted to lecturer in 1942, senior lecturer in 1945 and professor of industrial law in 1949. His Outlines of Industrial Law , first published in 1947, became the standard text on the subject.
From 1945 he had also served as University Registrar, and continued to act as joint-registrar to 1952. In 1953-1954 Cooper was acting vice-chancellor during the period of illness of the incumbent, John Stopford. In 1954 he succeeded Stopford as vice-chancellor, a post in which he served until 1970. Cooper occupied this post during a period of great change at Manchester, with the expansion of staff and student numbers, and a complete administrative re-organisation. Cooper served as chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals from 1961-1964; his tenure coincided with the work of the Robbins Committee, to which he submitted evidence, calling for, among other things, a reduction in the gap in status between polytechnics and universities. Unsurprisingly, he became caught up in the student unrest of the late 1960s, of which he was a strong critic. Cooper believed that demands for 'participation' and 'relevance' concealed a political agenda inimical to true scholarship, and he did not hide his opinions on this subject.
Cooper was an active president of the European Committee on higher Education and Research in 1966-7 and was vice-president of the Standing Conference of European Rectors and Vice-Chancellors. He was awarded numerous honorary degrees and was knighted in 1963. He was a staunch supporter of Manchester's extra-mural department, and he also provided legal advice to the University on the building of Jodrell Bank radio-telescope, the merger with the John Rylands Library in 1972, and the University's assumption of responsibility for the Whitworth Art Gallery. In retirement Cooper was deputy chairman of the committee of inquiry into London University and continued to assist committees associated with Commonwealth awards. He died on 14 November 1992 at the age of 89.