Katrina, Community, and the Classroom: An Interview with Former Tulane President Dr. Scott Cowen

When you think of Tulane, many things come to mind: warm weather, Howie T, Satsuma, The Boot, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and more. Anyone who goes to Tulane knows how much love there is for this place. But we often don’t give enough credit to the people that make Tulane University the wonderful place that it is today. I had the privilege of interviewing my teacher, Dr. Scott Cowen, who also happens to be the previous president of Tulane. From this interview, I realized how impactful he was in making Tulane an extraordinary institution and home for all of us, especially after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Scott Cowen grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Connecticut, where he majored in accounting and finance, and played football for two years. After he graduated from college, he joined the military for three years and then continued his education, receiving his masters and doctoral degrees in business administration from George Washington University.

Dr. Cowen started his academic career as an assistant professor at Bucknell University, but soon found a permanent home at Case Western Reserve University, where he would eventually be appointed dean of the School of Management and become the university’s second youngest dean in history. Following that position, he served as Tulane’s president from 1998 to 2014.

Dr. Cowen currently teaches an undergraduate course titled “The Mythology and Reality of Leadership” for SLAM and SISE minors at Tulane. The class focuses on different leadership styles, skills, and role models, helping students discover their leadership potential and inspiring them to lead. I took this class and was truly inspired by the advice he had to offer, which is why I knew he would be a perfect interview subject.

Dr. Cowen and Hurricane Katrina

On August 29rd, 2005, a category five hurricane—which we all know as Katrina—devastated New Orleans. When I brought up this topic to Dr. Cowen, he made it very clear to me that this storm was a defining moment of his presidency at Tulane. He was extremely open about his experience and the difficulties that he faced prior to, during, and following the storm.

Q: Tell me about your experience with Hurricane Katrina.

A: “Before the hurricane, I believed the university was well prepared in the event that a hurricane occurred. Unfortunately, the size and scope of Katrina was much larger and more complicated than we had every planned for. So, there were some very unpleasant surprises that we had not clearly thought through when we were planning for the storm.”

Q: Did you feel you were prepared as a leader to take control of the situation?

A: Dr. Cowen described how at first he was very overwhelmed with the situation. However, he realized that he was, in fact, more prepared than he thought: “after I had a couple of days to digest what had happened, I realized that prior training I had, particularly in the military and in athletics, in a strange way prepared me with a set of skills, an emotional will, to make sure that we succeeded. Those automatically kicked in and it helped me get through the crisis.”

The skills, determination, and motivation he learned in these settings stuck with him throughout this difficult period. His leadership skills truly showed when he successfully brought all of his students and faculty to safety in a time of crisis. In addition, he was extremely proud of the fact that Tulane University recovered from the storm at a much faster pace than expected, and much faster than any other large institution in the New Orleans area. For five months, around 13,000 students and 8,000 employees were dispersed. For an entire semester, the campus was closed to students and faculty. Many doubted that Tulane would ever be able to recover, but they were wrong. Cowen described the three stages of rebuilding the university: survival, recovery, and transformation. In January of 2006, Tulane’s doors officially opened.

Q: How has this experience shaped who you are as a person and as a leader? 

A: Cowen explained that he learned the importance of community engagement growing up through religion, his experiences as a college student at the University of Connecticut, and living in Cleveland, Ohio, for twenty-three years where he witnessed both its decline and resurgence. “You know, I have always been committed to community engagement and trying to help build healthy communities and institutions. It’s always been a part of my ethos, community engagement, and that has grown even more after Katrina, where I have really focused my attention on youth success here in New Orleans and across the country.”

In 2014, Dr. Cowen published his book, The Inevitable City, in which he describes the journey of rebuilding Tulane and the city following the devastation of the storm. Writing that book had helped him come to terms emotionally and psychologically with what happened. 

Q: What was the hardest decision you had to make as president during Katrina? 

A: “There were three. The first was to close the University for an entire semester. No one can recall any university of our size having closed for a semester and surviving. So, that was a very difficult decision. The second one was when we enacted what we called the Renewal Plan to jettison eight hundred people to be able to financially survive. That was a very difficult decision. The third was closing down some departments, and some other activities, and each one of those decisions was difficult to make.”

Dr. Cowen mentioned that Katrina had a transformative impact on Tulane University and the city. Despite the destruction it caused, there were silver linings. As bad as it was, it forced the university, it forced all institutions in the city, to take a hard look at themselves and decide, what do we stand for? What is most important to us? What do we have to preserve? How can we make ourselves stronger and better after Katrina?”

Cowen made sure to state that he would never have wished for the tragedy, but that it did force many institutions to answer those questions and focus on improving. He believes that Tulane is a much better institution today than it was prior to the storm. In addition to rebuilding Tulane after Katrina, he found a way to begin rebuilding New Orleans.

The Cowen Institute

The Cowen Institute, started in 2007, is named after Scott Cowen himself. He says that “the mission of the Cowen Institute is to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond.” I was eager to learn about his experience in creating the institute and what impact Hurricane Katrina had on this.

Q: What inspired you to start the Cowen Institute?

A: “Right after Katrina, the mayor at the time appointed me to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Eighteen people were appointed commissioners. Our task was to develop a plan to rebuild the city. I was then asked to chair the committee overseeing the rebuilding of the public school system, and it took me and a team of people about seven or eight months to develop a plan for public education. That plan is pretty much the plan that they follow today.”

One of the things I admire about Dr. Cowen is the fact that he always gives credit to the other people he works with. He made it clear to me that there were a lot of people involved in rebuilding New Orleans’ public school system, not just him.

“When I stepped down from that job, people kept saying what are YOU, Scott Cowen, going to continue to do to see that the plan gets enacted?” So he created an institute, originally called the Institute for Public Education Initiatives, but now simply known as the Cowen Institute. This institute had a single purpose: to chronicle the evolution of the public school system. The institute has since expanded its mission in response to evolving community needs and has also grown from a team of five to about twenty-four staff members.

Q: What influence did Katrina have on starting the Cowen Institute? Do you think you would have created it if it weren’t for the storm? 

A: “No, we would not have because it was an unusual role for a major research university like Tulane to be deeply involved in the public education system.” Cowen explained how Tulane went through a major cultural change after Katrina by integrating public service into the core curriculum: “this was part of a much larger movement. Not just for the students to be more engaged, but for the entire institution.”

Q:What are the key factors that create successful public school systems? 

A: “The most important thing is to have outstanding talent. Teachers, principals, and staff. If you don’t have dedicated and talented teachers, principals, and staff, nothing else is going to follow. I think the second ingredient is that you decentralize decision-making down to the school level and give more autonomy to the schools because talented people will do the right thing. With autonomy comes accountability. The whole premise of the school system we have is based on that investment in human talent. Give them more autonomy, and hold them even more accountable for student outcomes.”

Q: How has the Cowen Institute changed today?

A: “When we first created the institute, it was focused on chronicling the evolution of the public school system and issuing reports about it. We still do that. But we have two other sorts of strategic pillars now that are very important. One is college and career readiness. These programs are geared to enhancing a student’s ability to go to college or pursue a career. And then the third thing we do is opportunity youth. We work with students that are sixteen to twenty-four years old who are not on a pathway to a job or education and try to get them on a pathway to one or the other.” 

Teaching Leadership at Tulane

Q: Why did you decide to teach this leadership class? How long have you been teaching it?

A: “This is my third year. When I stepped down as president I was deciding what I wanted to teach. And for so many years I had taught finance, accounting, and strategy—I felt that I didn’t want to go back and do that again.”  Cowen mentioned that he has been interested in the topic of leadership his entire life. When he was at Case Western Reserve University, he had developed a course based on leadership. He also wrote about leadership in his early career, so he had a lot of background knowledge and a lot of interest in the topic. “If I had my way, every single student who comes to Tulane would be required to take a leadership course.” Coincidentally, the SLAM and SISE programs both require a leadership course, which presented a perfect opportunity for Dr. Cowen to teach on leadership.

Q: How would you describe yourself as a leader?

A: “I would describe myself as an authentic leader. I also think I have attributes of servant and transformative leadership. My style has always been very collaborative and transparent. I never consider myself the smartest person in the room, so I always spend a lot of time listening and learning. But I am decisive when the moment comes. So, it sort of is some blend of all of that.”

Q: Why do you think it is important to teach leadership to millennials?   

A: “I think leadership is what makes the world go round to be honest. I think that when you can begin to talk about this topic when students are at a younger age, the likelihood that some of the lessons will be absorbed and hopefully applied are much greater. I think it is a very important topic to talk about directly with students.”  

Cowen mentioned that if there is one thing that the world needs, it would be more effective leadership. He stated that leadership is not a science, it is an art, but if students learn enough about it, it will increase their self-awareness about their leadership skills.

Q: How important is public service to you?

A: In class, Dr. Cowen made it clear that if you aren’t interested in public service, Tulane is not the right place for you. “I think all of us at Tulane, students, faculty, and staff, are privileged. And not privileged because we necessarily come from wealthy backgrounds, or we’ve had an easy life, but because we have the opportunity to be at one of the great institutions in America, that’s a privilege. And I think part of that privilege is to say, how can we pay this forward and help others have the kind of opportunities we have? I think giving back to the community is very important in that regard. Also, I am a great believer in emotional intelligence. By engaging the community and working on problems with people that you normally wouldn’t interact with, you’ll learn a lot about other people’s lives. And hopefully that will give you greater perspective of the societal problems we have and make you think about solutions. I feel very passionate about our responsibility to repair the world.”

Q: Did you know you wanted to be President of Tulane University?

A: “No. That’s an interesting story…”

Dr. Cowen describes that in the 1990s, he had been offered two other presidency positions but turned them down. He had no interest in being a university president. However, the position for Tulane University President opened in 1997. At the time, a large donor at Case Western Reserve University that he had known for many years was an alumnus of Tulane. She asked Dr. Cowen to interview for the position as a favor to her. “And I said to her, ‘Out of respect for you I’ll interview for the job, but they are not going to pick me anyway because I am a business school dean and business school deans don’t become presidents of institutions like Tulane. Plus, I don’t want to be university president.”

Fifteen people were interviewed for the position. After those interviews, it was narrowed down to two people, and Dr. Cowen was one of the two. Then the process got even more competitive. The two candidates had to go to campus for three days each and interview with the students, faculty, and staff. Cowen admitted that at the end of the process, there was a very strong pull towards him.

“They offered me the job. I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to turn it down, I don’t want to be a university president.’ My wife told me that was a big mistake. ‘If you are ever going to be a university president, this is the ideal place for you,’ she said. When I asked her why she responded, ‘Well, because they have outsized expectations but hardly any financial resources compared to other highly respected private universities. And that is the kind of challenge that motivates you, where you do your best.’ She talked to me about it and I changed my mind. And of course, it was the best professional decision I have ever made in my life.”

Q: Do you enjoy teaching students post-presidency?

A: “I so enjoy being back in the classroom. I say this from the bottom of my heart. I got into the profession because I love teaching and being with students. Nothing pleases me more than having a class like we did yesterday where we were all standing up, making these crazy and provocative statements to get you thinking. My students give me hope for the future.” 

In addition, Dr. Cowen described that he loves learning about his students. Every semester he hosts one-on-one meetings with students to get to know them better. Students are also able to ask him about his life and experiences: “the Tulane students, I’ve really gotten to know them very well in the last three years because of my teaching. I learn so much about the University and the students that I wish I would have known while I was president.”    

Dr. Cowen’s leadership class is very interactive. Anyone who has taken his class knows that it is nearly impossible to get bored because he is always making you think. Everything taught is relatable and could be used outside of the classroom, which is why it’s my favorite class I’ve taken at Tulane. It honestly inspired me to put myself out there and be a better and more efficient leader.

Q: Do you ever miss being President?

A: “There’s not a day that I miss the presidency, but I miss the people. I was fortunate to work with an extraordinary group of people. I have tremendous respect for everyone that was at Tulane during the time of Katrina and what they did for the school and city.”

Q: Do you have any advice for students trying to get a job/ internship, and be leaders in the world?

I wanted to hear any advice Dr. Cowen had to offer, especially because his professional career went in a completely different direction than he ever thought it would.

A: “Don’t over-plan your life. Allow serendipity to guide you sometimes…and passion. I believe our students today have too much anxiety about what to do and when to do it. They try to over-plan and my advice is don’t. There’s no expectation at twenty-two years old to know what your life is going to be. And to the extent you can, use instinct, what feels right, and what you’re passionate about to guide you, not just the expectations of others about what you need to do in any particular moment in time.”

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: “I am so at peace with myself doing what I’m doing now with students. My hope is that I can still relate to young people. You men and women are the future… [if I] help you, I know that I am making an investment in the future of the world, and that is a great feeling.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Talia Berman

When she’s not writing for The Crescent, Talia Berman plays goalie for Tulane Women’s Soccer. Talia is a fitness guru from New York, and she studies Psychology and Communications.

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