Friday morning I received a typical post-grad Tulane Talk from Tulane President Scott Cowen. I usually click in, skim the subject line, and hit the trash icon, but today was different. Today was actual news: Our very own “Scotty C” was leaving Tulane, effective July 2014.
I came in after Katrina, so I won’t pretend I knew what it was to literally weather that storm, but I do know what I came into: school desperate to recruit students of the same, and higher caliber, that they had before the storm; an academic and extra-curricular structure that had a lot of holes due to cuts made in the aftermath of Katrina; a wonderful, vibrant city just re-acquiring its post-storm sea legs, and a university chomping at the bit to help.
Despite missing Katrina, I didn’t go un-hurricaned in NOLA. I was a guinea pig of sorts to Scott Cowen’s post-Katrina communication methods and implementation of new evacuation techniques in the wake of Hurricane Gustav, which ended up being not as bad as the subsequent Hurricane Irene. Go figure we evacuated for one and not the other, and ironically on the anniversary of the Katrina evac. But I have a worrier for a mother and I know she felt as comfortable as she could have been with her little girl leaving a strange new place because of a hurricane, and that was due in large part to the transparency provided by Cowen and his staff during that time.
Nothing is perfect – and that goes for Cowen’s 15 years as President. As is the case for most leaders tasked with making tough calls in times of crisis, Cowen received blow back for his decisions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to reduce the School of Engineering and to co-opt, and thus eliminate, Newcomb College, into Tulane University.
Now, I’ve never been a science girl and engineering was never in my cards, but the choice to take apart an entire sub-sect of Tulane academia is never really a good thing. Tulane’s academic casualties due to Katrina in this department were: mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, environmental engineering, and computer science, and also a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. The university’s recovery plan also outlines that the cutting of twenty-seven of its forty-five doctoral programs and suspended eight NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletic programs.
I have, however, always been a girl’s girl. What I mean by that is, I like the idea of Newcomb College and I like the idea of women helping to push, support, and foster the growth of other women. I’ve long denied the label of “feminist” but hey, maybe this is the time to call a spade a spade. Regardless, the merge and elimination of Newcomb College as an entity separate and parallel to Tulane was never something I had an opinion on, possibly because I never knew Newcomb as a separate entity as I know it was designed to be. I used Newcomb lunches as ways to learn and grow outside the classroom and enjoyed the gorgeous cottage that the program called home. Changing old traditions and vestiges of the past is difficult. But then, Katrina was a hurricane that devastated New Orleans in ways that many in America had never seen. New challenges require new, sometimes difficult, solutions. Scott Cowen made those choices in the Renewal Plan. While I understand the fight against the changes, I do not feel Tulane – from a student perspective – suffered for them. But then I only knew the “after” side of things.
In 2006, Cowen wrote:
For Tulane, Katrina has taught us to plan for the worst even as we pray for the best. It has taught us as an institution to stay focused on our mission and goals even in the face of financial and physical crisis. It has taught us the responsibility that comes with our role as the largest employer in our home city — a responsibility to help rebuild our city and heal its people.
I can only assume that it was this responsibility that spurred Cowen to found The Cowen Institute in late 2006 to benefit public education initiatives in New Orleans. I always loved how much Tulane stressed action in the community, and I appreciated being forced to interact outside the classroom in places and with people I may not have sought out on my own.
He leaves behind students – both current and graduated (me!) – who are grateful to him in some part for their success – even if they don’t know it yet. He brought Tulane back from what could have been a far-reaching, and long-term devastating event and he brought it back, to go all Thrones on you, harder and stronger.
My years at Tulane are without a doubt the best four years of my life. Words don’t do justice in describing the people I met, connections I forged, lessons I learned – both in and out of the classroom, and the friendships I now cherish from this wonderful institution. I stumbled into Tulane by chance but my decision to stay was deliberate. Since leaving, the school has flourished. Our rankings are far higher than when I initially chose Tulane – what my friends and I have come to call our choice to get in while the stocks were low – and we are now watching them soar. We’re very happy shareholders, to say the least. And as shareholders and former students, I just wanted to say thank you, Scotty C, for doing what you thought was right, doing it even if it was hard, and making strong once more a little campus in Uptown New Orleans that has nestled itself deep into many of our hearts.
Read the full text of President Scott Cowen’s letter below. (And for those of you without microscopic vision, I’d recommend giving it a click to enlarge it to readable size.)