Orientation Deja Vu Convocation Address

President Scott S. Cowen
President's Convocation for New Students and their Families
Tulane University
January 12, 2006

A New Beginning

I can’t begin to tell you what a pleasure it is to finally—and formally—welcome the classes of 2009 and 2010 to Tulane University. This is the most satisfying day in my professional life. I am overwhelmed with emotion and sheer pleasure.

You have spent less than a day at the university since last fall, yet you have already become one of the university’s most historic and heroic classes. As a matter of fact, you are probably the best-known entering college class in America in the last century. You have experienced more in the last five months than most students experience throughout all their years in college.

As I look across the audience I sense that while most of you are genuinely excited about returning to Tulane and New Orleans, some of you may also feel conflicted and even upset at the same time. This range of feelings is natural given what has happened to all of you. Those feelings are shared by New Orleanians across the city, including those who work here at Tulane. Katrina took its toll on everyone who lived and worked here, and has changed us all in fundamental ways, each according to his or her own experiences.

As for me, I am older, wiser and stronger as a result of the Katrina experience. In an odd way, I am thankful that I find myself at this place at this moment to help rebuild this great city and university. Despite the challenges and unrelenting responsibilities, it has been an honor and privilege to serve with so many of my extraordinarily dedicated university colleagues during this historic time. No one will ever know what each one of them has been through professionally and personally to get us to this glorious day. And this is truly a glorious day!

As I look again across the audience I see a single group of people—students, parents, faculty, staff and administrators—who are forever linked because of three common bonds we share.

First, we are all Tulanians! What has brought us together at this moment and in this place is Tulane University. Our university was founded 172 years ago as the Medical College of Louisiana as a result of disaster. In that case, it was the 1834 outbreak of yellow fever. From that disaster came the creation of what would become one of the country’s leading universities, a university that attracted you with its academic reputation as well as its unique location and culture. Another disaster has befallen us, but Tulane will again turn its response to that disaster into an advantage, giving it an even more promising future.

The thousands of Tulanians that have preceded you have gone on to stellar careers in every imaginable field, and I expect no less from all of you. From what I have heard from my presidential colleagues around the country whose institutions you attended this fall, you are an extraordinarily talented group that made your mark everywhere you went. I am extremely proud of each and every one of you, and you—individually and collectively—have inspired us to ensure that Tulane University recovers and thrives.

The second thing that bonds us is our experience with Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. It led to the largest metropolitan diaspora ever witnessed, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it almost destroyed the city of New Orleans, and it almost destroyed Tulane University. I was here during and after the storm, and I have never seen such devastation in my life, including my time in the military in the 1960s. Yet Katrina did not destroy us.

Every person in this auditorium has an individual story about how Hurricane Katrina affected them. They are stories of fear and of bravery, of faith and of duty, of devastation and of poignant moments. Taken together, these experiences will shape who you are and what you become in the years ahead. You have faced adversity and overcome it, you have witnessed disaster and learned from it, and you returned to Tulane to continue where you left off pre-Katrina despite the fact that it might have been easier to go somewhere else. Each one of you in your own way has shown courage, adaptability, and strength of character—all key attributes for a successful life. I would not wish on anyone the experiences you have had to start your college career. But I also firmly believe these experiences will make you stronger and better people and will help define who you choose to be and what you choose to do with your lives. As poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, we “rise from disaster and defeat the stronger.”

And that brings me to the third bond we all share—we have the opportunity of a lifetime ahead of us because of the disaster we have just come through. Out of adversity comes opportunity. Together, we who are in New Orleans at this time have the chance to participate in the largest recovery project in the history of the U.S. Studies show that about half of learning takes place in the classroom, the rest outside the classroom. The key to a great education is maximizing both halves of the learning spectrum. You are in a unique position among college students in America. You can use your learning time outside the classroom to participate in the rebuilding of a major American city at the same time that, inside the classroom, you are receiving a superb education at one of the finest institutions in the country. What an unbeatable combination!

One of the questions I was often asked in the last few months, especially by parents, is: “Why should I send my child back to Tulane when he or she can go to another university and not have to deal with the issues confronting New Orleans and Tulane?”

My answer to that question has always been the same. I am the father of four children, and I have been around college students for more than three decades as a professor, academic dean and university president. I have reminded them—as I remind you today—that you are among the best and brightest students anywhere in the world. As a result you have a special responsibility to give back to others who are less fortunate so that they may have the same opportunities. John D. Rockefeller once said that “every right implies a responsibility, every opportunity an obligation, every possession a duty.”

If you accept this responsibility, Tulane University in New Orleans is the best place in the country for you to be. Right here, right now, you are in the unique position of really making a difference in people’s lives. This experience will stay with you the remainder of your life and serve you well no matter what you do. No other student body in the country has this opportunity.

The last four months have been unbelievably challenging for those of us with the responsibility of helping this university to recover and to survive. No major research university has ever been confronted with the challenges we have faced. Yet, we have survived, we have recovered, and we have charted a path for the future that promises great things for this university we all love. Along the way we had to make difficult decisions that affected people’s lives in ways we wish had not been necessary. And for this I am sorry. But we did it with one goal in mind—the long-term academic and financial well-being of our university—your university. Some may second guess our decisions, that is a natural consequence of leadership, but there should not be a question about our motivation – it was all about the university’s survival and ability to thrive in the future in all ways.

As I have said, Tulane University has been in New Orleans 172 years and we have every intention of being here another 172 years. Today starts a new chapter in our story, one that I expect will be better and even more promising than what came before it. You represent that beginning and from what I have seen of you so far, there is nothing we can not achieve together!

Use the remainder of your time with us to learn, to have fun, and to make a difference at this historic moment in the life of this university and this city. If you do that, you will continue to build on your legacy as one of the most historic and courageous classes to ever attend Tulane University.

With that I say with great love, respect and admiration, “Welcome Home.”

Sights and Sounds from Convocation

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