Tulane President Stood Up to Hurricane Katrina—and Won

by Claire Hall | University of Connecticut School of Business Website

When Tulane University President Scott Cowen bid farewell to the Class of 2005, he had no idea that in just four months, everything the then-171-year-old university embodied would be in jeopardy.

When Hurricane Katrina, the historic and catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, made landfall in New Orleans, and the levees could no longer contain the water, parts of the Tulane campus became a lake. The Big Easy was in shambles. More than 1,500 people died in Louisiana alone. The school’s 13,000 students, and nearly 7,000 employees, packed up and left.

“I don’t think I’m up to the task,” Cowen recalls telling his wife, Marjorie, in a discussion about rebuilding the university just a week after the disaster. “I don’t know where to begin.”

“Somehow I searched for the internal fortitude to help guide the city, and the university, back on the right path.”

Ten years after the Aug. 29, 2005 disaster, Cowen recalls the frustration of not having any experts to turn to for advice.

“There was no book to read, no one to consult who had been through this before,” he recalled. “Somehow I searched for the internal fortitude to help guide the city, and the university, back on the right path.”

UConn Gave Him a Start

Cowen earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from UConn in 1968. When he looks back on that experience, Cowen said, UConn is the place where he grew up. As a student in Metuchen, N.J., Cowen liked school, but had trouble learning. He was later diagnosed with dyslexia. At UConn, he left that struggling-student image behind.

“There was something about my experience at UConn that made me feel I had to serve my country”

“It was a wonderful learning experience, both academically and socially,” he said. “I changed from an immature 18-year-old to someone older and wiser. I played football, until I had an illness that ended my playing days; I got involved in student government, I even started my own political party. All those things were very helpful to me in my career. Having the freedom to do them changed my life in a very positive way.”

After leaving UConn, Cowen turned down a graduate-school deferment, joined the U.S. Army and went to Officer Candidate School.

“I can’t really put my finger on it, but there was something about my experience at UConn that made me feel I had to serve my country,” he said. The experience was grueling, but because of it, Cowen learned that “nothing will ever break me.”

After Katrina, First Decisions Were Key

“Katrina was a horrific event, a tragedy of enormous proportion,” Cowen said. “It was surreal. For four years afterward, we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to rebuild. It was unlike anything you could ever imagine,” he said. “But out of that disaster, we have a New Orleans, and a university that is better and stronger than ever. It was the most transformative experience of my life—and I thought I’d seen everything. I feel blessed to be part of the rebuilding, to be able to make a difference.”

“I feel blessed to be part of the rebuilding, to be able to make a difference.’”

One of the biggest decisions that Cowen made, a week or two after the storm, was to request that other universities, which had been gracious enough to accept Tulane students for the Fall 2005 semester, not allow them to transfer permanently. To lose those underclassmen would surely spell the end of the university, he said. He also boldly asked that the other colleges not charge Tulane students any tuition, as long as the students paid their tuition to Tulane. This request helped to keep the university afloat, and almost 600 colleges and universities agreed to honor it.

Tulane reopened in January 2006, but not before Cowen traveled to cities where students had relocated for the semester, telling them: “If it is not in your DNA to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans, don’t come back.” The response was phenomenal. Some 85 percent of the full-time undergraduates returned to Tulane when classes resumed.

But Cowen’s accomplishments don’t end there.

It was some time after the rebuilding began that it dawned on Cowen that the survival of the university in no small part required the revival of The Big Easy.

That’s when this adopted son from New Jersey became one of the region’s most ardent advocates, serving on revitalization commissions, spreading the word of New Orleans’s recovery in cities across the country and creating a think-tank to improve the public schools. Those who know him say he tackled the project with unflagging determination.

In the process, a bond between the university and the city became stronger than ever.

“New Orleans was always proud of Tulane, but sometimes it was a love-hate relationship,” Cowen said. “The residents loved the economic benefits, but sometimes had the feeling that our students didn’t care about the city. Now I would say it is a ‘love relationship.’ We are the only major research university that integrates public service into the core curriculum. Our students are actively involved in New Orleans. After nine years, that cumulative effect is very powerful.”

In the aftermath, Cowen has received a dozen honorary awards and several national awards, but he is quick to credit the many people who also did the heavy lifting. “I was fortunate to work with a great team,” he said. “For every award with my name on it, there are a lot of people who deserve a big piece of it.”

UConn friends say he’s exactly the same

Cowen still keeps in contact with his friends from UConn and when they see him at his most jovial, as in recent years when he dyed his hair green to rally Tulane fans before a football game, they tease him.

“Despite my chronological age, I’m still 19-years-old at heart,” he said. “They said, ‘You may be a University president, but you’re exactly the same as you were at UConn.”’

“They said, ‘You may be a University president, but you’re exactly the same as you were at UConn.”’

In 1998, the Tulane football team won its first four games and Cowen promised that if the team went undefeated all season, he would buy a white linen suit and stand on the quad and allow the students to paint it.

“I stood there for three hours and had 2,000 students paint me, from head to toe,” he said, laughing. “I think the students appreciate the fact that you’re willing to do various things and have a lot of fun.”

Cowen worked at several universities before becoming president of Tulane in 1998. After his service in the Army, Cowen went on to earn his masters and doctoral degrees in business administration at George Washington University. He taught at Bucknell and the University of Virginia. At Case Western Reserve University he was dean of the Weatherhead School of Management. At Tulane, he excelled on many fronts, particularly fundraising.

‘If Everyone Loves You…’

During the revival of Tulane, Cowen made a controversial decision to lay off 230 faculty, merge its Newcomb College (the undergrad liberal arts college for women) with the rest of the university, and eliminate three engineering departments and eight sports.

“During my tenure as president, I had to make some difficult decisions and some were very controversial. They weren’t without sacrifice and pain,” he said. “But when you’re in a position of leadership, if everyone loves you, you probably didn’t make any hard decisions. My job was to prepare for the long-term vitality of the university.”

“I had to make some difficult decisions and some were very controversial. They weren’t without sacrifice and pain”

For his courage, Cowen was named one of the 10 Best College Presidents in the country by Time magazine in 2009. “I was a little skeptical of the process,” Cowen said, with a chuckle. “But it was nice to be recognized.”

Cowen retired as Tulane president in July 2014, but remains active on the faculty. He is in the midst of a two-year sabbatical and spending as much time as he can with the four children and five grandchildren from his blended family. When he returns to Tulane, he will teach part-time.

He will continue to be involved with the Cowen Institute, which seeks to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans, and the nation, and to serve on several university, foundation and corporate boards.

Last year, he published a book titled The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America. The book takes leadership lessons from New Orleans’ recovery and offers examples of urban renewal that are applicable to communities across the country.

Cowen knows his legacy as Tulane’s 14th president will be as the man who helped save a prestigious university and aided a city in recovery.

“Right before I stepped down as president, we built a new, amazing football stadium on campus. That was a very proud moment,” Cowen said. “But it doesn’t come close to the sense of accomplishment I feel from how we survived and reimagined New Orleans, and Tulane, after Katrina.”