Cleveland Town Hall

President Scott S. Cowen
Cleveland, Ohio
November 13, 2006

Tulane University: Recovery to Renewal

It’s an honor to be here—both at this forum, the oldest public lecture series in the country, and in the city of Cleveland. As many of you know, I lived in Cleveland for 23 years before moving to New Orleans in 1998, going from my post here as dean of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western to the presidency of Tulane University. A part of me will always consider Cleveland to be home, and this city will always have a place in my heart.

I remember when my wife Margie and I made that move; I thought the shock of moving from the Midwest to the unique culture of Southeastern Louisiana would be my biggest challenge. New Orleans had its own language, music, architecture, pace of life, and food. The food was the easiest part for me to get used to, by the way.

But adapting to this new culture was not my greatest challenge, as it turned out. Instead, I find myself working to save it. Being part of the process trying to keep that culture intact after it was decimated by the greatest urban disaster in U.S. history—that has become my greatest challenge and the focus of my life. In a strange way, I consider myself fortunate to be at Tulane University in New Orleans at this historic time.

Despite the wide coverage on CNN, NBC and other news outlets I often wonder how much people outside New Orleans really understand the impact of what happened on August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and subsequent levee failures inundated 80 percent of New Orleans in salty floodwater and changed life as we knew it.

Until this past year, I could never have imagined how much Cleveland and New Orleans would have in common. But as my colleagues and I struggle to help a deeply wounded city back to its feet, the lessons I learned from observing and participating in Cleveland’s revitalization in the mid-1970s until my departure came back to me and continue to be things I use to this day.

But before I get to the lessons of the past year, let me take you back to early 2005, before the hurricane. Both Tulane University and New Orleans were enjoying a period of forward momentum. Tulane had just finished another record-breaking year for applications, enrollment, student quality, research grants and fundraising. The university’s stature as a major research institution was clearly on the rise, and we were making great strides to ensure its future both academically and financially through a highly successful major capital campaign. We even had an athletics team consistently ranked in the top 10.

In the city, while the tourism industry had created a reputation of hospitality and cultural uniqueness that drew millions of visitors each year, there was recognition of the need to diversify the city’s economy. The film industry had established a firm footing in the city, and plans were underway to bolster the city’s strengths in medical research and biotechnology. Tulane was a major player in those areas.

Then came a monster of a hurricane that just missed us. The eye of the storm actually veered 30 miles to the east of downtown New Orleans, obliterating the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In the campus rec center, where I rode out the storm with other senior administrators, we breathed a sigh of relief after the storm passed, thinking we could deal with whatever damage the winds had brought us. Then the levees broke and our world changed forever.

Now, I have a story of my own escapades as I was trapped on a flooded campus—a story that includes hot-wiring a golf cart, raiding vending machines, commandeering a dump-truck and a making a bizarre escape by helicopter. Of course, I thought to myself… why was I on campus?  A year later, I can look back at it and laugh at my own exploits, but I was not laughing at the time.

Actually, laughter was a rare commodity throughout the fall of 2005 as we dealt with the largest natural disaster to befall a major American city in this country’s history. Here are just a few facts for you to ponder.

  • More than 1,500 people died in the Greater New Orleans area, most of them drowned in their homes or expired in their stifling attics in 100-degree heat.
  • More than 160,000 homes were destroyed and many more hundreds of thousands damaged.
  • More than 1.5 million people—80% of the greater metro area—were displaced for at least six weeks, many of them for months, and still others who are to this day unable to return for lack of a place to live.
  • More than 80% of Orleans Parish, or county, was flooded. This is a land mass equivalent to seven times the size of Manhattan.
  • One of America’s major and great historic cities became a ghost town within days and parts of it remain so even today, more than a year later.
  • 22 million tons of debris have been generated so far—enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome more than 13 times. This amount of debris is equal to four times the amount realized in the 9/11 tragedy, and debris collection is far from completed.

Tulane University was not immune to this trauma. Eighty percent of our main campus and our entire health sciences center were underwater. Our physical facilities suffered more than $400 million in damages. A few additional facts:

  • Our 13,000 students and 8,000 employees were scattered in the evacuation and we didn’t know where they were. The city would remain under mandatory evacuation orders for more than six weeks—much longer for harder-hit areas.
  • Communications were non-existent. No phones—including cell phones—with the New Orleans area code worked. All the cell towers had been destroyed. Only text-messaging worked, for reasons I still don’t understand to this day. When Katrina hit, I didn’t know how to use text-messaging. Believe me, I do now.
  • Our IT system was inoperable, and our student and personnel records were trapped in New Orleans, including vital payroll and enrollment information.
  • Tulane became the first major research university to close for an entire semester since the Civil War.

Five days after the storm, when I was finally rescued from New Orleans and had traveled to Houston to join others in the administration, Tulane University consisted of 30 people working out of a Houston hotel suite. We were—and this is no exaggeration—on the brink of extinction. Tulane was founded 172 years ago and is considered a great major research university, yet within 72 hours of Hurricane Katrina we were on life support and fighting for our very survival.

When we closed the university in anticipation of Katrina, we planned to resume work and classes in five days. Obviously, that didn’t happen. After the magnitude of the disaster was realized, we knew that Tulane University would not be able to reopen anytime soon.  Even getting the university reopened by January seemed daunting .

But that January opening date became our rallying point, and we began to work long days and nights toward that goal. We knew if Tulane could not reopen in January for the spring semester, we would never reopen at all.

In the short term, we had to find our students, let them know that Tulane would not reopen in the fall, and find a place for them to study for the semester. This was done in an amazingly short time through an emergency Tulane website we were able to set up in Houston and with the cooperation of hundreds of colleges and universities. We began establishing a registry and publishing regular information. And still it would have been impossible without the incredible support of the entire higher education community. Universities across the country stepped up and took our students in for the fall semester, while in many cases allowing Tulane to keep the students’ tuition monies, which we needed in order to stay alive.  In fact, Tulane students attended over 600 colleges and universities last fall, including all of those located in Cleveland.

Our other immediate need was to re-establish contact with our employees and reconstruct our payroll. We felt it was imperative that we continue to pay our employees during the period the university was closed so that they could devote their time to their own homes and families that had been impacted by this hurricane. Again, this was accomplished through our emergency website and the tireless work of our Houston staff that began re-creating the payroll from one campus phone directory we were able to scrounge up.  By the way, this decision cost us $40 million a month at a time when we had very little cash coming into the university.  This decision also turned out to be a wise one.

With the immediate issues somewhat in hand, we looked to January. Our challenges to reopening centered on people and place.

In terms of place, there was the sheer physical destruction to contend with. Even while the city was under evacuation orders, as soon as the water receded from our main campus, we hired remediation teams to go in and begin the laborious process of ripping out floors, walls and even ceilings that had molded as they sat in water for several weeks in nearly 100-degree temperatures. Working without electricity and relying on generator-powered equipment, the remediation teams tore down and rebuilt, while other workers were brought in to repair everything from roof damage to felled trees. Many long days of work for hundreds of workers were required to get the campus ready for students in January. 

In terms of people, we had a number of concerns that had to be addressed in order to ensure that our employees and students returned.

First, the New Orleans school system was decimated by Katrina and there was no timetable established for when public schools would reopen. We knew we could not expect employees to return if their children had no schools to attend. Before the storm, Tulane had been in discussions with the Orleans Parish School Board about forming a charter-school relationship with a K-8 school located near the university—a fine public school in a city known more for its school failures than successes. At that time, the school board wasn’t interested.

After Katrina, I remembered an old business school lesson about the best way to get someone to do what you want: throw a lot of money at them and give them 24 hours to make a decision.

And that’s exactly what we did: we threw $1.5 million at the cash-strapped school board and gave them 24 hours to agree to transform the school into a K-12 charter facility partnered with Tulane—a school that all children of our faculty and staff could attend. And they agreed. Our faculty and staff would be able to return in January knowing there was a great school available for their children.  I am proud to say that school opened in January 2006 and has approximately 1,200 students in attendance, many of them the sons and daughters of Tulane faculty and staff.  The rest of the students are from the surrounding neighborhood.

We also had to face the issue of housing—we didn’t know how many of our faculty and staff members had lost their homes, but we knew there were many. We also knew much of the rental units around the university that housed most of our off-campus students had been damaged or destroyed. Because of insurance delays and other issues, it was unlikely that the student rental housing would be available by January.

To meet those needs, we arranged for modular housing to be set up on university property to house students, faculty or staff. We purchased an apartment complex and made those apartments available to students and employees. And—necessity being the mother of creativity—we leased a cruise ship and docked it on the Mississippi River near campus. Students and faculty members lived on the ship and had access to all its amenities—except the bars and casino, of course. There are some limits, even in New Orleans.

Another “people” issue we had to address was how to re-recruit our students, who we knew would be leery—and their parents downright afraid—about returning to New Orleans after the frightening images they’d seen on television. The Tulane campus was in a part of town that, like the downtown area and the historic French Quarter, was not as heavily damaged as highly publicized areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview. But most of our students are from outside New Orleans and Louisiana, so we needed to begin early the process of re-recruitment.

We did this in a number of ways. Through our website, which was updated several times a day, we re-established the Tulane community and held it together throughout the months we were closed. Our admissions teams and school administrators established and maintained personal contact with current and prospective students. Once we were able to re-enter New Orleans in October and make serious headway on our campus cleanup, we began a series of meetings inviting students—particularly our first-year students who still hadn’t attended their first day of classes at Tulane—to come back with their parents so they could see that everything was okay.

I’m proud to say that Tulane University reopened for business on January 17 with 88 percent of our pre-Katrina students and our entire full-time faculty.  The week we reopened, the population of Orleans parish increased by 20%.

I wish I could say that the challenges ended in January. But we knew going into our first semester back that there were two serious issues that would have to be addressed—one within our control, and one over which we had little power to change.

The issue we could control was how Tulane would move forward as an institution in response to the impact of Katrina. Rather than sit back and wait to see what happened with New Orleans and our university in the coming year and the years ahead, the Tulane Board and I decided to address our financial issues head-on by restructuring the university in order to save costs, maximize efficiency and at the same time ensure that the university would continue to grow in academic stature and quality.

It required some tough decisions from all of us, and in early December we unveiled the “new” Tulane—a university reinvented to build on its strengths, to be smaller and more focused but stronger, and to take an active role in the rebuilding of New Orleans. According to higher education experts, our renewal plan represents the largest restructuring of an American university in more than a century and was designed not only to help us address foreseen budget shortfalls in the coming few years but to help us emerge from this experience stronger and smarter.

Here are some of the highlights of what we called our Renewal Plan:

  • A realignment of our undergraduate education, creating a single core undergraduate experience for our students and eliminating duplication of efforts among our schools and colleges.
  • A reconfigured academic structure, with the elimination of some programs and the movement of others into different areas.
  • A downsized menu of graduate degree programs, eliminating some of the weaker programs and diverting more resources toward the stronger ones.
  • A public service requirement for graduation—all Tulane students now must complete public-service work in order to receive a degree.
  • Ongoing cooperative programs with three other area universities—two historically black universities, Xavier and Dillard, as well as Loyola University.
  • A new partnership with New Orleans, which positioned the university to play a major role in the city’s renewal.

There were many who didn’t like or understand all the decisions we made, but I believe we took the difficult steps necessary to secure Tulane’s future so that it can continue to excel in the future.

I mentioned earlier that there were two major concerns in moving the university forward and that the second concern was something over which we had little control. That is the recovery of the city of New Orleans. We were able to grasp early on that the survival of Tulane as an institution is intimately and inextricably tied to the survival of our city, its way of life, and its people. Just as New Orleans needs a strong Tulane—we are the city’s largest employer—Tulane also needs a strong New Orleans so that students will continue to want to come there, and faculty and staff members will want to continue living there. It is a major challenge in the university’s ongoing recovery.

It was heartbreaking to watch a city I have come to deeply care about knocked to its knees by Katrina and the flooding. It has been even harder to watch the excruciatingly slow pace of its recovery.

The city’s problems have been well publicized, and the media coverage has been both a part of the problem and a part of the solution. On the one hand, we need people to realize the magnitude of the destruction in New Orleans; on the other hand, we want people to know that the parts of town that our visitors see—and that Tulane students see—are back in business and as great as ever.

But because the problems have been so well documented in the media, I won’t go into much detail here except to point out a few of the most obvious challenges:

  • Lack of housing is the city’s single biggest roadblock to recovery. An estimated 60 percent of the city’s population remains displaced, and there is no available, affordable housing—rental costs alone have risen 40 percent in the past year. Federal rebuilding monies have yet to make it into the hands of homeowners who want to return, and ongoing insurance disputes have hampered renovations and rebuilding.
  • City planning. The city has thus far been unable to present a rebuilding plan based on sound planning principles. The result has been haphazard rebuilding by individuals, often with one rebuilt home surrounded by blocks of destroyed and abandoned properties. Hopefully, we have now turned the corner on this challenge with the emergence of a unified planning process and the creation of a parish-wide redevelopment authority to oversee the rebuilding effort.
  • Crime and the Court System. There was hope immediately after Katrina that New Orleans’ notoriously out-of-control crime problems had dissipated but, unfortunately, they have returned and are exacerbated by a decimated court system that has been slow to rebound. With the assistance of the state and federal governments, the city is now directly addressing these issues and we are seeing the positive results of these efforts.
  • Health Care. There are 50% fewer hospital beds in Orleans Parish now, than prior to Katrina. I am pleased to say that Tulane University Hospital was the second one to open in the city and has played a major role in addressing indigent care issues and in the reinvention of the state’s antiquated healthcare system. Still, there is an acute shortage of emergency, specialty and mental health practitioners in the city.
  • Levees. No discussion of the city’s future can leave out concerns over the levee system that proved so inadequate during Katrina. New Orleans is a city surrounded by water—Lake Pontchartrain to the North, and the mighty Mississippi River curving around east, west and south. Four key levee failures caused the post-Katrina destruction. What shape is the levee system in now? What strength of storm will the levees be able to withstand? How long will it take to build them to withstand stronger hurricanes? We do not know the answers to those questions, and that lack of certainty understandably makes people uneasy.

New Orleans will come back—I have no doubt about that. But it will take patience, time and resources. It cannot happen in a year, or two, or even five. We’re a nation of people who like a quick fix, and there is no quick fix to rebuilding New Orleans or, for that matter, the entire Gulf Coast region.

But two things New Orleans has going for it—and they are big things—are its historical significance and its port.

The port is almost back up to its pre-Katrina capacity and remains at the center of the world’s busiest port complex—Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi River. The port has a tremendous economic impact on the city and state.  This fact seems to have been lost on many members of Congress and the White House. 

The oldest part of the city, the French Quarter, with its 18th-century buildings and old-world charm, was built on high ground along the river and did not flood. There was very little damage in that area, the downtown area or the Garden District. You can drive through those neighborhoods now and never know there had been a Katrina. The tourism industry should rebound and give the city the economic boost it needs to continue its recovery.

But a key for New Orleans will be to retain its historical uniqueness while addressing its historical problems centered on crime, race and poverty. They were displayed for the entire world to see during the days after Katrina, and they must be addressed. That, too, will be no easy or quick fix.

All in all, my belief is that New Orleans will emerge over the next decade as a smaller city, but one that is more livable and economically healthier than in the past. And I am committed that Tulane University will be a part of that process. At the mayor’s request, I am deeply involved in the rebuilding of the city’s public education system as well as the city’s redevelopment. In the aftermath of the storm, I chaired a community-wide effort to develop a new vision and long-term plan for K-12 public education, and just recently I also assumed the role as a commissioner of the Redevelopment Authority. Katrina has certainly given new meaning to my presidency!

So, after all that, what did I learn from the experience of Hurricane Katrina?

Lesson No. 1: Never underestimate the resiliency of the human spirit. I remember sitting on the helicopter, making my escape from New Orleans and headed to Houston a few days after Katrina, and I thought there was no hope, no way that we could survive this. But along with a strong group of people in Houston, we all took a deep breath, regrouped and began to look for ways to survive. I saw that same thing happen in different circumstances, with different people, all across the city. People find a way to be strong when they need to, and they find a way to survive.

Lesson No. 2 is closely related, and it is this: Leadership can be found in unexpected people and places. People never know how they will respond in a crisis until the moment comes—some of the people who needed to take charge in the aftermath of Katrina simply could not do it. In other cases leadership was manifested by the most unlikely individuals. I learned that, in a crisis, job titles mean nothing. Strength of character makes itself known and the best thing you can do is throw out your organizational chart, recognize the talent around you, and use and nurture it.

Lesson No. 3 is paradoxical. On the one hand, you need to be as self-reliant as possible. If Tulane had waited for the city, the state, the insurance companies or FEMA—especially FEMA—to begin its recovery, we’d still be looking at moldy buildings instead of a vibrant, active university. You need to provide for yourself in a crisis as best you can. Politicians and political systems are well-intended but they are not built to address urgent matters of significant magnitude when timeliness and efficiency are demanded. So some degree of self-sufficiency is needed. Paradoxically, you have to recognize when you need help, and be willing to take it. If the higher education community had not stepped up and offered to take in our students for a semester after Katrina with no expectation of payment, we would not have survived.

Lesson No. 4 is a twist on the old saying, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Out of every tragedy comes opportunity if you just step back and look for it. I would never have wished a catastrophe like Katrina on Tulane University, but thanks to our board’s leadership and strength of character, we were able to take a step back, assess the situation and make the changes that, I firmly believe, will bring the university through this as a stronger institution.

Likewise, New Orleans has an unprecedented opportunity to redefine itself for the 21st century.  From the experience of Katrina and the struggles of the city of New Orleans to rebound, I have learned what I think are the four ingredients of a great city. The byproducts of culture—the food, the architecture, the music, the traditions and diversity—these things will come back better than before and many already have. This culture will always define the city of New Orleans, and it will take more than a hurricane to destroy it.

But for any city to be great, including New Orleans—especially New Orleans right now, as well as a city like Cleveland—it must have these four things.

First, it must have a reliable infrastructure and vibrant neighborhoods where the quality of housing, schools, retail, and other amenities make sense and are an attraction. Are the neighborhoods in a viable area? Do they have ready access to city services? Is there sufficient population to support them? Those elements must be addressed in a well-functioning city with a good standard of living.

Second, a good public education system is mandatory for world-class cities. Before Katrina, New Orleans’ public education system was one of the worst in the country. The storm has given us a chance to remake that system and I hold out hope that it will be turned around dramatically. If we cannot provide our young people with a solid education and an appreciation for learning, we have no hope of breaking the cycles of poverty and crime and hopelessness that prevail in so many of our inner cities.

Third, crime must be dealt with in a culture that does not tolerate or accept it. New Orleans had the unhappy distinction of leading the nation in homicides before Katrina and, I’m sad to say, it has regained that distinction in the past few months. A city must have the leadership, the willpower and the manpower to say, “We have zero tolerance toward crime” and to stand behind those words.  Our population must feel safe.

Finally, a great city must have people willing to provide principled and courageous leadership. Despite the colorful and sometimes humorous history of Louisiana politics, the fact remains that the stain of past corruption at all levels undeservedly taints the state and the city of New Orleans today even though great strides have been made to undo this storied past.

So, in the end, can New Orleans get past its challenges and become the great city it once was and that we need it to become again?  There is no doubt in my mind that New Orleans will be a better and stronger city in the future as a result of what it has suffered.

New Orleans is an icon city that is both a place and a state of mind.  Whether it can realize its full potential after Katrina lies in the vision, determination, dedication, and perseverance of public and private leaders to make it so by rising above partisan politics and divisiveness. When this occurs, greatness is possible. Without it, mediocrity will prevail. My hope for New Orleans is that it does have the burning desire to be great.  It deserves no less.

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638