Scott Cowen led Tulane through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now he has ideas on how to fix higher education.

by Jeffrey J. Selingo | The Washington Post

I first met Scott Cowen in Houston a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, flooding much of the city. Cowen was president of Tulane University, which had just canceled the fall semester for its 12,000 students. The senior leadership of the New Orleans university was operating from a hotel suite some 350 miles from home, and I went there to write about how the 171-year-old institution with an $810 million endowment would rebuild.

But first, Tulane, like other colleges in New Orleans, had to fight just to survive. Its students had scattered to other campuses across the country for the fall semester. There was no playbook for how to do this. Most of the decisions that Cowen and Tulane would be forced to make in the subsequent weeks were unprecedented in the history of American higher education.

Tulane reopened the following spring. Nearly 90 percent of its 6,400 undergraduates returned. A vast restructuring plan eliminated more than 200 faculty jobs and suspended 14 doctoral programs and five undergraduate majors, plus eight athletic teams. For years afterward, Cowen, a management professor by training, was a regular on the lecture circuit about how to lead in a crisis.

“A bona fide crisis like Katrina requires choices and decisions in the heat of the moment,” Cowen, who retired in 2014, told me recently. “But not every leader leads during a crisis. Good leadership is also needed in the day-to-day life of an organization.”

Such “transformative leadership,” as Cowen called it, is missing at too many U.S. colleges and universities these days. “The hardest thing for me to understand after Katrina was the breadth and depth of what was really happening,” he said. “The same thing is true now for many higher-education leaders. The reality is that the financial sustainability of many institutions is in danger. The first step in fixing that is for those leaders to understand what is really happening, and many don’t.”

Cowen is the author of an engaging new book, “Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education.” The title refers to an incident that occurred soon after he became president of Tulane in 1998. After an undefeated football season, Cowen was unable to keep the coach from leaving, even with a big raise. The coach said Tulane would never have what he wanted: a football program so big that fans would line up in their Winnebagos on Wednesday for a Saturday game.

If not for Katrina, athletics would have defined Cowen’s presidency. A few years before Katrina, Cowen considered moving Tulane from the ultracompetitive (and expensive) Division I to Division III athletics. One of the most revealing chapters in the book is about the underbelly of American higher education: big-time college athletics. Tulane was running annual deficits of $7 million to $10 million in sports. “The huge drain of resources raised an inescapable question,” Cowen wrote. “Why are we doing this, and who are we doing it for?”

As a college student, Cowen had been a scholarship football player at the University of Connecticut. If anyone had the credibility to curtail the role of athletics, it would be someone like him. But when word leaked out to alumni and the campus, “all hell broke loose,” Cowen wrote. “I couldn’t leave my office without first passing a dummy-me hanged in effigy on a campus lamppost.”

Tulane decided to stick with Division I, and even after Katrina, remained committed to big-time athletics, although it would have been easy to change course in the face of a crisis. Cowen seems to regret the decision. “I still have considerable ambivalence about Tulane’s athletics program,” he wrote. “To this day I second-guess myself about the final decision.”

Since then, of course, the professional nature of college athletics has only grown, as illustrated by new television networks and palatial stadiums. So, too, have the scandals. Cowen has become more pessimistic about the ability of college leaders to clean up the mess many of them caused. “We’re too beholden to the fan base,” he said. “Change is likely to come from outside of higher education,” through the courts (with rulings that athletes have certain rights) or through the government (with taxes on the big business of athletic programs).

On other issues facing colleges and universities, Cowen strikes a more optimistic tone in the book. He praises several campuses, including his own, for providing students hands-on learning opportunities as undergraduates that give more meaning to their education and help them find meaningful work afterward. “Despite all the problems, all the criticism, college still represents tremendously high benefits for those who go,” he said.

Throughout the book, Cowen profiles several colleges that have found unique strategies to survive in the midst of financial pressures. One of them is Paul Quinn College in Dallas, which has developed a national model for allowing students to work to pay tuition.

If he worries about any sector of higher education, it’s the vast middle — institutions that neither have the endowments of Harvard nor are on the brink of going out of business. They seem to think that either the current pressures they are facing will pass or that incremental change to the status quo is good enough. “In recent decades, we seem to have lost sight of our fundamental goals in a distracting sideshow of arguments and crusades,” Cowen wrote.

His book is one of several in the past couple of years to question the direction of an industry that has survived for centuries and remains one of the United States’ best exports. What makes his book on higher education different from others that I have read is that Cowen has been in the belly of the beast rather than just a casual observer. And he had the challenge of reimagining his institution after a natural disaster. The question is whether anyone will listen to him before it’s too late.

Selingo is the author of There Is Life After College, about how today’s graduates launch into their careers. He is former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, a trustee of Ithaca College and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.