2014 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 17, 2014

Good morning everyone.

I am thrilled and honored to welcome our graduates, their guests and our trustees, faculty and staff to Tulane University’s 180th Commencement. 

In addition we are pleased to be joined this morning by Senator David Vitter, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

This commencement promises to be a memorable one for our graduates as we honor their achievements and promise for the future.  

Here are just a few reasons that make you and this day so special:

  • More than 2,800 of you are graduating.
  • The youngest graduate is 18 years old; while the most seasoned member of the class is 71 years young.
  • Eleven graduates are celebrating their birthdays today. I hope you enjoy the party we have prepared for you.
  • The states with the most students graduating today after Louisiana are: California, New York, Texas and Massachusetts. Illinois and my home state, New Jersey, are tied with 94 graduates each.
  • Today’s graduates represent all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 63 different countries.

When I welcomed our first year students to campus last fall, I told them that the time between them saying “hello” to Tulane and them saying “goodbye” would seem to pass in the blink of an eye.

I don’t know that they fully grasped what I was trying to say.

I sense that you, however, do know what I meant.

But none of you are saying goodbye forever.

Sooner than you think you will be drawn back to New Orleans and Tulane because both are now part of your DNA.

But all of you indeed, are saying goodbye to a chapter of your life, bidding farewell to a time and a place and also to an experience that has shaped, challenged and changed you. 

You are saying goodbye to one life and hello to another.

I suspect you have a lot of mixed feelings now ranging from relief to joy to anxiety about the future.

Trust me, I know how you feel because this in my 16th and last commencement as President of Tulane University and I am experiencing all the same things as you are.

The good news is that after your time at Tulane you have a degree from one of the country’s most distinguished universities plus your youthful energy and many years to figure out what and who you want to be. 

I, on the other hand, have 16 years of memories and adventures to carry me forward and just enough time left to enjoy an encore career returning to my first love – the classroom populated with extraordinarily talented and civically minded students just like all of you. 

No matter where you are headed next, I suggest your journey be defined by three commitments.

The first is: Life-long learning.

Telling people who have just dedicated four or more years of their lives to the exclusive and intense study of a particular field that they have a lot more to learn seems like a cruel joke.

But the truth is that any career worth pursuing, any endeavor worth undertaking, any dream worth dreaming and any life worth living is defined by the continual, lifelong pursuit of learning and knowledge.

It is through learning that knowledge is acquired and we grow in the understanding of our chosen field, our world and, ultimately, of ourselves.

Creating, communicating and conserving knowledge is the first line of Tulane’s mission statement.

Let it be the same for you, but don’t stop there.

Knowledge acquired simply for our own benefit is knowledge underutilized. 

Obviously, you should use what you learn to achieve your goals.

However, what you have learned at Tulane will have true value and meaning only if  the gifts you have been given, the knowledge you have gained, the effort you have made attain their highest meaning and purpose in the service of others.

This brings me to the second commitment: Make a difference.

People often hope to get involved with something bigger than themselves to find purpose in life.

But often the “something bigger” they are seeking turns out to be something or someone smaller than themselves – a child who has never been loved, an adult who has never learned to read, an elderly person who does not have a home, an ill person who needs to be healed.

Hopefully, you will never become so busy or so successful that you do not have time to engage in the lives of others – those closest to you and those faraway, whom you have never met.

Take time out of your busy day for others.

Or better yet, make others the reason why you are so busy.

As I have often stated to Tulanians through the years – no one will ever remember you for what you did for yourself, they will only remember you for what you did for others.

You can change the world no matter what you majored in or what your dream is.

If your dream is to start your own business, start one that not only employs people but also empowers them to make a difference in the world.

If your dream is to write fiction, then find words that speak truth for those who have no voice.

If your dream is to conduct research, then study the diseases that have been overlooked.

If your dream is to become a university president… we need to talk.

And if you don’t have a well-formed dream just yet, you are not alone.

This brings me to my third, and final, commitment: Find your passion.

This may come as a surprise to you, but I never wanted to be a university president. 

Yet, becoming one turned out to be the most rewarding and meaningful opportunity of my life.

My first dream was to be a professional football player.

An illness in college and an unbelievable lack of talent took care of that. 

Then I thought I would go to law school but instead I enlisted in the Army.  

After my time in the service, I thought I would be a management consultant so I got an MBA degree. 

While in business school a faculty mentor thought I had the potential to be an academic and convinced me to get my doctorate – and, though I never aspired to be a professor, an academic dean, let alone a president – here I am 40 years later having done all of these things.

It was a circuitous and at times seemingly nonsensical route, but by following my instincts and passions I finally ended up where I was meant to be.

And so will you.

You have probably been told not to be afraid to experiment, to try, to risk, to fail and to repeat the whole process over again.

In fact, be afraid not to do that.

And once you have arrived at a destination, be prepared to re-evaluate where you are and where you want to be and be ready to start all over again until you find that burning passion that gives meaning to your life.

And always, no matter where you are, remember you have a family here at Tulane, who cares about you very much.

I have no doubt that you will find your way.

You will live your dream.

You will become who you were meant to be and end up where you are needed the most. 

And the world will never be the same, because of you.

And with that I ask the audience to rise and join me in congratulating these world changers, the great Class of 2014.

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