Scott Cowen’s ‘Winnebagos on Wednesdays’ shares hard-won leadership lessons

by Missy Wilkinson | The New Orleans Advocate

In “Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education,” (Princeton University Press), Scott Cowen acknowledges that in many ways, he fits the mold of the typical university president. He’s a white male baby boomer with a Ph.D. — like the vast majority of university presidents, according to a 2016 study by the American Council on Education.

But Cowen also points out his major points of difference — differences that may have engendered his innovative approach to leadership.

“It’s a rarity for a business school dean to ascend to the presidency,” said Cowen, who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in business administration.

Rarer still is the university president who attended a public school (University of Connecticut) on a football scholarship, then enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer and did a tour of the Middle East.

“A master’s degree didn’t provide the skill base to contend with (Hurricane Katrina),” Cowen said. “What did … was the time I spent in the military … and having responsibility at a young age. The lessons you learn as an athlete can be helpful when you’re in a leadership capacity and in a difficult situation.”

Though Cowen doesn’t delve deeply into his experiences spearheading Tulane’s recovery strategy in this book (read “The Inevitable City” for that story), he does impart wisdom hard-won during his 1998-2014 presidency — a tenure that spanned some of New Orleans’ most challenging years.

Between autobiographical anecdotes, the book tackles major issues facing higher education today: diversity, financial sustainability, governance, how to pick presidential leaders and the role of athletics among them.

“Each chapter … offers stories and practical commentary on good things happening, as well as some problems,” Cowen said. “I thought those problems would be around for a while, and everybody needed to be knowledgeable about them.”

The title of the book, “Winnebagos on Wednesdays,” refers to the goal of a Tulane football coach who desired a sports program so successful that fans showed up for Saturday games midweek in their RVs. Cowen laments the “arms race” that has taken over college sports, and he believes strong leadership is needed in other areas of higher education.

It would be hard to find an academic more qualified than Cowen to explain “visionary leadership.” During his presidency, Tulane became a first-choice destination school focused on service learning. Applications quadrupled, retention rates skyrocketed, and the university spearheaded a successful $700 million fundraising campaign. TIME magazine named Cowen among the top 10 university presidents in the U.S. in 2009.

To an extent, Tulane’s post-Katrina recovery was New Orleans’ recovery, too, as the university is the city’s largest private employer. And the school has a longstanding history of civic service.

“Tulane started in the early part of the 19th century in response to a (yellow fever) crisis — doctors got together and formed the college,” Cowen said. “We were born out of a crisis in New Orleans, and that’s an important part of our narrative.”

In “Winnebagos,” Cowen describes his deliberate attempts to cleave to this mission of service and winnow Tulane’s pool of applicants.

“I said, ‘If people don’t share our mission and our vision for our institution, perhaps they should go someplace else,’” Cowen said. “The admissions officer used to flinch every time I said it.”

A father and grandfather, Cowen remains on Tulane’s faculty. He’s a distinguished chair of the university, and he is also involved with the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. With these endeavors, he seeks to further Tulane’s mission to solve almost intractable problems in communities worldwide.

“It was beneficial to Tulane to shape the institution more around the needs of New Orleans — understanding that the needs of New Orleans are the needs of many cities,” Cowen said. “If we could solve the problems of New Orleans, we would be a guidepost for others confronting those issues around the world.”