Successful university presidents transform their institutions. Some leave lasting legacies as well. A few even transform their communities. Tulane's Scott Cowen, who announced last week that he will retire on July 1, 2014, did all three during his tenure as Tulane University's president.
Cowen would be enshrined at Tulane just for successfully steering the university through Hurricane Katrina, which devastated many academic and other institutions in southeast Louisiana. He did much more than that, however.
Like a lot of good New Orleanians, Cowen recognized opportunity in the crisis, particularly in the area of local public education. As citizens clamored for reform at all levels, he put the resources of Tulane behind an institute that now bears his name and made it a driving force in the transformation of K-12 public education in New Orleans. The Cowen Institute, launched in 2007, is no navel-gazing think tank. It takes on big challenges, dispels myths and pushes for action at all levels.
The 66-year-old Cowen, a native of New Jersey, also "gets" New Orleans. He will have led the university, which also is New Orleans' largest private employer, for 16 years when he retires. He agreed to serve 10 years when he arrived in 1998, but Katrina changed that.
"If it is not in your DNA to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans, don't come back," he said to a group of students and parents after the storm. He meant it. He not only led the drive to rebuild Tulane (which sustained more than $600 million in storm damage), but also made it the first university in the country to require public service of all undergraduate students.
That requirement, along with the Cowen Institute, transformed Tulane as well as New Orleans. In the years since Katrina, Tulane's applicant pool has swollen, and its national reputation — already very good — has soared. At the same time, Tulane has become a more integral part of New Orleans than ever. Gambit named Cowen one of its New Orleanians of the Year for 2011.
"Scott is one of the most gregarious and take-charge guys you'll ever want to meet," says local businessman Bill Goldring, Gambit's 2003 New Orleanian of the Year and a longtime member of Tulane's Board of Trustees. "He takes over a room when he walks in, and when he starts to talk, everyone listens.
"Scott demonstrated one of the greatest examples of leadership I have ever seen when he resurrected Tulane after Katrina. Tulane's board has always had 200 percent confidence in Scott's judgment and would follow him to the end of the world."
No doubt even Cowen's biggest fans at Tulane would quietly admit that the time might be right for him to step down. No one serves forever, and it's possible to stay too long. Having completed his mission — several times over — Cowen has decided to make his exit.
In a letter to the Tulane community last week, he noted that the university will face big challenges in the coming years and added, "As Tulane embarks on this next journey, it would be best served with presidential leadership prepared to guide it for another decade or more."
It will be interesting to see whom Tulane selects to take Cowen's place. His successor will have some big shoes to fill — but he or she also will find an institution and a city much better off for Scott Cowen's tenure.