Cooke's academic career began as a lecturer in the Department of Geography at University College London in 1961: he rose to the position of Professor in 1981 and Vice-Provost (1991–3) at the same institution. From 1993 to 2002 he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of York. Cooke was appointed chair of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in 2004. He was a Trustee of the National Museum of Science and Industry from 2005 to 2008.
He lives in York where he is active in city life, for instance in fund-raising for the restoration of York Minster, and in planning and restoration through the York Civic Trust. The York Civic Trust also published his monograph Why York is Special. and his 2016 book York, Changing the Face of the City.
He was awarded the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in 1994, and was President of the RGS from 2000 to 2003. In 2002, he received the Scottish Geographical Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. He was knighted for services to higher education in the Queen's 2002 New Year's Honours list. In 2006, he was made Honorary Freeman of the City of York.
The Ron Cooke Hub at the Heslington East campus of the University of York was named in his honour.
- Debrett's People of Today Sir Ron Cooke
- Professor Ron Cooke to retire as Vice-Chancellor in 2002, University of York Press Release, 1 May 2001
- Sir Ron Cooke, JISC Chair, JISC, accessed 26 January 2010
- Sir Ron Cooke to be trustee of the National Museum of Science and Industry, University of York Press Release, 6 June 2002
- Substantial donation from York Civic Trust, York Minster Development Office News, 8 November 2007
- Why York Is Special, York Civic Trust, York, accessed 14 January 2015
- Gold Medal recipients, Royal Geographical Society, accessed 26 January 2010
- Professor Sir Ronald Cooke - Honorary Freeman, York City Council, 7 March 2006
- Scottish Geography Medal, Royal Scottish Geographical Society, accessed 26 January 2010
- New Year honours in higher education, Donald MacLeod, guardian.co.uk, Monday 31 December 2001
| Vice-Chancellor, University of York