Robert Bartow Cousins, educator, son of Isaac William and Mary Elizabeth (Bennet) Cousins, was born in Fayetteville, Georgia, on July 21, 1861. On the day of his birth his father, a surgeon in the Confederate Army, was serving under Gen. Francis Bartow in the first battle of Bull Run; Bartow was killed in that battle, and Isaac Cousins reportedly named his son in the general's honor. Since the family farm was in the path of William T. Sherman's devastating March to the Sea, young Robert spent his early boyhood in a world of near-poverty and limited schooling. At one time his mother had her own backyard school for area children, but after the county schools were finally reestablished, Cousins eagerly absorbed books and decided early in life on a teaching profession.
He studied at the University of Georgia and received his B.A. degree in 1882. Although he read law in the office of a prominent Florida attorney and passed the bar exam in Atlanta, he continued to pursue a teaching career. He moved to Texas and taught Latin and Greek at the high school in Longview. There he married Dora M. Kelly on September 5, 1885. Their first child, a daughter, died in infancy, but five more children were born to the couple. Cousins served for two years as school superintendent at Mineola, then for sixteen years at Mexia, where he gained a statewide reputation as a school administrator. In 1897–98 he served as president of the Texas State Teachers Association and in 1902 became an assistant to John L. Wortham in the business office of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
In 1904 Cousins was elected state superintendent of public instruction; under his leadership between 1905 and 1910, several important educational reforms were introduced, including state accreditation, public school taxes, and the upgrading of standards for teachers. Cousins helped organize the Texas Conference for Education in 1907, and in 1909 he became a member of the Texas State Library and Historical Commission. In 1910 he resigned his superintendency to become president of West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas State University) at Canyon, which he had helped establish. He carefully selected the faculty of the college and formulated the high standards for which it became noted. He and Joseph A. Hill coauthored a textbook, American History for Schools (1913), which was adopted by public schools in several southern states. Cousins's youngest son died of meningitis at the age of thirteen, and in his memory Cousins instituted the Gregg Cousins Loan Fund at West Texas State. In the summer of 1918 he resigned his presidency to go into business at Longview. At the ceremony in which he relinquished the position to Hill, Cousins placed on Hill's finger a gold ring symbolic of "the purity and permanency of the invisible values which this, our college, seeks to develop." This presidential ring has since been passed on to each succeeding WTSU president. The first women's dormitory at the college was built in 1920 and named in Cousins's honor.
Cousins remained at Longview until 1921, when he became superintendent of the Houston public schools. There he engaged in constructive reform until 1924, when he accepted the presidency of the new South Texas State Teachers College (now Texas A&M University at Kingsville). Although he tackled this new position with characteristic zeal, Cousins always regarded West Texas State as his "favorite child" and kept up with its progress. He took leave in 1926 to do graduate work at the University of Chicago and was given an LL.D. degree by Southwestern University at Georgetown in 1930. In 1929 he reorganized the curriculum of South Texas State College and changed its name to Texas College of Arts and Industries, seeking to provide a broader program worthy of greater financial support. However, the Great Depression reduced state funds, so that Cousins and the regents had to seek alternative sources of financing. In the long run his tireless efforts proved successful for the university. Cousins was a longtime member of the Texas State Teachers Association. On March 3, 1932, he died of influenza. He was buried in Kingsville Cemetery.