Heroes of the Recovery

by Laura Claverie | New Orleans Magazine

It is often said that in the darkest of times heroes emerge. Through wars, economic downturns and natural disasters, Americans have learned this harsh lesson well. No city knows more about dark times and the heroes that are spawned than New Orleans. Every person who came home after the Hurricane Katrina diaspora and rolled up his or her sleeves and rebuilt this city is a hero. Every family member who cared for evacuees is a hero.

But it took the innovation and courage of some local residents to take charge of our citizen-led recovery. These New Orleanians are some of the heroes who saw a need and filled it with energy, vision, selflessness and unsinkable spirit. Today, New Orleans is more galvanized and nimble than ever in its history. If the adage “out of bad comes good” is correct, these are some of the extraordinary local heroes who represented all that was good in this city’s darkest moment.

Scott Cowen, D.B.A.

Former President, Tulane University; Public Education Chair, Bring New Orleans Back

It wasn’t until five days after Katrina hit and the levees broke that Dr. Scott Cowen, then president of Tulane University, understood how bad the situation in New Orleans was. During the days after the storm, he stayed on campus and surveyed the university. There he found what eventually became $650 million in damage. Trees were downed along with electrical wires, rooftops were ripped off of buildings and the Howard-Tilton Library was inundated. Eighty percent of the Uptown campus was flooded, and every Tulane building downtown was damaged as well. Then he evacuated to Houston.

“While in Houston I watched television for the first time and saw the images of the city. I’d been so focused on Tulane. Would it ever come back? Would it ever regain its stature in the academic world? Then my focus shifted to New Orleans. Would our city come back? Tulane and New Orleans are inextricably linked to each other. One couldn’t survive without the other,” he says.

Three months after the storm – all Tulane students evacuated to colleges and universities across the country – Cowen was immersed in rebuilding the school. Then Mayor Ray Nagin asked Cowen to chair the public education subcommittee of Bring New Orleans Back, a blue ribbon organization of community leaders. Cowen jumped at the chance.

“I moved to Cleveland in the 1970s when it was near bankruptcy and called ‘The Mistake by the Lake,’” he says. “I saw that city’s renaissance and knew how important the private sector was. I knew this was New Orleans’ time to create a new city, a new university culture and a new public education system.”
With characteristic determination and gusto, Cowen made difficult but necessary changes at Tulane. He eliminated long-standing studies – like some engineering programs and Newcomb College – which proved controversial. He instituted a campus-wide program of public service required of all undergraduates. At meetings he told students, “If it’s not in your DNA to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans, don’t come back.” That year, 80 percent of students returned to Tulane. For the next four years applications dipped, but today Tulane receives an average of 30,000 applications for 1,600 first-year students, making it among the most selective universities in the country.

And the public school initiatives Cowen’s committee recommended? Many have been implemented and the results are stunning. Before Katrina, 65 percent of students in New Orleans were in failing public schools; in 2015 it was 5.7 percent. “We’ve exceeded many expectations,” he says. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Cowen has since retired as president of Tulane but continues his public service in the city he loves. He is chairing the advisory board of the Cowen Institute, an organization to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond. He is working to improve the lives of disconnected youth ages 16 to 24. He is concerned about affordable housing and finds that the city’s next challenge. He knows his work isn’t finished.

“I’m proud that the city has recovered from Katrina and that we’ve created a culture of social innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity,” he says. “The trajectory is going in the right direction. The silver linings are everywhere.”