Scott Cowen's last day as Tulane University president has come to an end, but his footprint, befitting of the more than 6-foot-tall former football player and U.S. army service member, will always loom large over the university.
As a recent graduate of Tulane, President Cowen played a tremendous role in my college career. From the first days of freshman year when he invited 100 students to his home for a Friday evening dinner to waving hello as he walked his dog on campus, Cowen always made myself, and countless other students feel incredibly welcome on campus. That's priceless for the most geographically diverse school in the country where a vast majority of students travel more than 500 miles to attend school. From my conversations with friends at other schools, it is clear that this student-president relationship does not happen everywhere. My class, the class of 2014, had the privilege of graduating in Scott Cowen's final year after leading the university for the past 16 years, through its darkest hours and greatest triumphs.
To mark his tenure as President, Cowen has written The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America, a chronicle of his New Orleans experience particularly recounting the stories of rebirth and reconstruction in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Through clearly defined lessons of leadership, he takes readers through the vexing challenges and character-testing moments he encountered in order to sustain Tulane and the city of New Orleans.
When I went to my first information session about Tulane in the fall of 2009, the admission counselor remarked that after the storm Hurricane Katrina, Tulane and New Orleans became one in the same -- an education at Tulane was also an education in New Orleans. It seems that mentality started at the top.
"Before Katrina, I was involved in the city in what you would call minimal ways," President Cowen told me, "I had some questions about whether the city wanted to change in significant ways." It wasn't until after the storm hit that the city realized it had to change."
And change it has. Tulane closed for the fall semester in 2005 with students attending hundreds of different universities across the country and Cowen made it his central goal to re-open Tulane for the spring. At the time, Tulane was New Orleans' largest private employer -- if the school could welcome back students and faculty, it would give the city's at-risk economy an important emotional boost.
Tulane did come back in January 2006 with over 94 percent of all students returning for the spring semester. With the school's re-opening came a public service requirement, the first of its kind in the country, setting in motion a new institutional value and commitment to the city. Before graduation, each student now has to complete two public service initiatives usually tied into a course. For President Cowen's final year, Tulane set a goal of 750,000 community service hours -- a goal it was unsurprisingly able to surpass.
President Cowen himself engaged deeply in the community as an appointee on the Bring New Orleans Back Commission in addition to countless other organizations.
New Orleans had failed public schools and in turn failed students. It had a crumbling healthcare infrastructure, fractured neighborhoods and an obtrusively backwards, corrupt city government. Without ignoring the immeasurable human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, there remains little doubt that the storm allowed the Crescent City to press a restart button.
This restart did not sit well with all city residents with a clash of steeped New Orleans tradition versus a need for relative modernization. New Orleans' treasured, cultured past may be unsurpassed by other American cities, which makes change even harder to come by. Add in race and it makes sense that deciding the future of New Orleans would not be an easy discussion. The perception of wealthy, white "community leaders" capitalizing upon and redesigning a predominately African American city led to accusations of racial insensitivity. Race has always been an issue in the city, President Cowen notes in the book, but since the storm he believes "we probably have had more, and deeper, conversations [about race]." Along with a discussion of race, the book touches upon other visceral issues such as gentrification and urban violence.
In his retirement, Cowen will continue to focus on his true passion, teaching, and will return to the Tulane classroom after a year off. This passion for education extends outside the university campus. Through the Cowen Institute for Public Education, new approaches to the classroom are being actively sought out, applied, and studied. New Orleans has become a hot bed for education reform and has taken the lead on charter schools -- which nearly 90 perfect of New Orleans students attend. Although he admits charters aren't the answers to all of America's education woes, the evidence shows that New Orleans' post-Katrina turn towards charters schools has drastically improved a public education system once know for being the worst in the country. "You have to invest in human talent -- principals and high quality teachers," Cowen told me, which is something charters have allowed the city to do.
The book also will serve as a focal point of his legacy, which he admits he has no control over. Cowen has received his share of criticism like all leaders and decision makers inevitably do. Yet, it is impossible to reconcile the recovery of New Orleans without the leadership and dedication of Scott Cowen.
Cowen has spread himself far and wide throughout the city making it nearly impossible to not feel his impact as a Tulane student or a New Orleans resident. He is networked, deeply knowledgeable and certainly well known around town. At graduation, the university compiled a montage in his honor featuring cameos from New Orleans most recognizable names and faces from James Carville to New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton to the iconic chef Leah Chase.
When he looks back on his tenure, he knows he doesn't control what the history books will write. Yet, he wants to and should be remembered for at least two things "helping Tulane and New Orleans go through the hardest times in their respective histories" and "creating an environment of civic engagement."
"New Orleans," he says in closing, "is well on its way to becoming a model for American cities." Cowen passed down the presidency of the university to Michael Fitts, the former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, on July 1. The school, just like the city, has been left in arguably its best shape ever.
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