Many Tulane undergrads last heard their president speak at a student orientation session they won’t soon forget: on August 27, the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Scott Cowen, pictured above, introduced himself to hundreds of freshmen and then promptly told them to get the heck out of the city. The whole affair lasted 10 minutes.
Since then, roughly two-thirds of Tulane’s 13,000 students have migrated to colleges and universities across the United States, most enrolling on a temporary basis. Cowen, who toughed out the storm at Tulane and participated in the first wave of rescues, now is asking his students to return when Tulane reopens January 17. As part of a series of town hall-style meetings he is holding around the nation, Cowen will meet Tulane students, parents, and alumni, at 5 p.m. tomorrow, December 1, at the Track and Tennis Center at 100 Ashford St.
“My message is that there is no better place to study in America right now than Tulane if you want to make a difference in the world,” he said in an exclusive BU Today interview. “Not only will you get a first-class education in the traditional sense — as Tulane will be a smaller, more-focused institution than it has ever been — but you will get the opportunity to help rebuild a city.”
Recovery to renewal
Rebuilding is something Cowen knows a bit about. In fact, he was among the few devoted New Orleans residents who stayed in the city during the storm by choice: camped out in the university’s recreation center for several days following the storm, he helped rescue people by boat and guarded against looters until finally being flown out by helicopter.
Today, Cowen is a member of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s 17-person commission for rebuilding New Orleans, and is in charge of creating a vision for the city’s new public school system.
Cowen’s passion for helping put New Orleans back on its feet, he says, is grounded in his belief that the city’s future and that of his institution are integrally linked: Tulane, which is the city’s largest employer, won’t rebound fully unless New Orleans does, and vice versa. “New Orleans and Tulane are interconnected in a way that is rather unique,” he says, “and our university will create programs that will serve as national models for rebuilding and sustaining urban communities.”
Still, students have lots of questions about what life will be like at Tulane next semester, and Cowen says he’s eager to address them candidly. “The most important questions involve safety,” he says, “and New Orleans is safe, both from the standpoint of physical safety and environmental safety.” He points out that students should be careful to test off-campus apartments for mold, but that all university buildings that endured water damage have been thoroughly restored. Moreover, by next June, the government expects to have all levees rebuilt to the Category 3 level, and made more reliable than before. (Cowen points out that Tulane’s elaborate hurricane evacuation plan successfully shuttled all students to safety in August.)