Convocation Address 2008

Convocation Address
President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
August 24, 2008



It gives me great pleasure to formally welcome you to Tulane University as the class of 2012.

The academic community you join today was formed in 1834 as the Medical College of Louisiana. In 1842 we became the University of Louisiana, a public university, and finally, in 1884, we were transformed into a private university named after our initial benefactor Paul Tulane.

Now, for you trivia buffs, there’s an interesting story about Paul Tulane, who worked as a trader and cotton merchant here in New Orleans for many years but who was actually a native of New Jersey. In his later years, he approached his own alma mater, Princeton, and offered them a sum of money if they’d rename the university after him. Obviously, since Princeton is still called Princeton, they turned him down—something he took quite personally. After his death, he was buried in Princeton with his back turned to the university and his head pointed purportedly toward the South.

But Paul Tulane was persistent. In 1884, he offered the money instead to the state of Louisiana to name a university in New Orleans after him. The state was already stretched thin in the post-Civil War economy to adequately fund both the University of Louisiana and LSU, so they funneled the money to the University of Louisiana, privatized it and renamed it Tulane University.

There are many lessons hidden in this story but one of the key ones is to never disappoint or rebuff someone from New Jersey. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should add here that I was born and raised in the Garden State myself, and I can’t help but think Paul Tulane would be amused at seeing another Jersey boy at the helm of his university.

Since its founding, Tulane has produced graduates who have made their mark on the world in all walks of life. More than 100,000 Tulanians are living around the world today, and they include such luminaries as David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo!; Lindy Boggs, former congresswoman and ambassador to the Vatican in Rome; and 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright—he is our sixth Pulitzer winner, by the way. We recently lost one of our most famous graduates, the world-renowned heart surgeon and Congressional Gold Medal winner Dr. Michael DeBakey, who passed away this summer two months shy of his 100th birthday.

The profile and accomplishments of our alumni compare very favorably to any alumni group in the country, and we have no doubt you will add to that legacy of achievement and distinction.

On paper, you are the most qualified class to ever enter this university, and much is expected of you. You arrived here at Tulane with bedding and boxes of more “stuff” than you knew you owned—I’m sure your parents are already thinking about what they can do with that extra space.

But you also brought with you something far more valuable, though you might not know it. Each and every one of you brought unique talents and unlimited potential. I can assure you that the Tulane faculty, staff and administrators will work hard to help you discover your full potential and learn to share your talents with others. Never before have the stakes been so high, both for you and for society.

Consider this: You are joining the Tulane community at a momentous time in this country’s history. We are in the midst of a historic presidential election in an environment where terrorism, war, global warming and a domestic economic crisis, among other issues, are sorely testing our country’s position as leader of the free world. Unfortunately, these challenges are unlikely to disappear by the time you graduate, and the responsibility for resolving them will increasingly rest on the shoulders of your generation.

You might find that daunting right now, when your thoughts are focused on such immediate matters as who your new roommate might be, how to find your way around campus, where to find the best pizza, and how soon you’ll be able to enjoy the wonderful attributes of New Orleans. Believe me, there’s plenty of time for all of these things.

You might not be aware of it, but as you take classes here at Tulane, interact with the faculty, meet students from backgrounds and cultures different from your own, participate in clubs or sports or whatever hobbies interest you—all this time, you will also be learning and growing as a future leader in whatever path you pursue.


I have one single aspiration for you during your years at Tulane.

I want you to develop the Habits of the Mind and Heart that will allow you to become advanced citizens of the world while having significant success in your chosen field of interest and in your personal life.

What do I mean by Habits of the Mind and Heart?

Well, first, Habits of the Mind are developed when you always challenge yourself intellectually, stretch beyond your comfort zone, and make a commitment to a life of learning and inquiry. Knowledge is power; it is also the guidepost for success. If during your time here you develop a love of lifelong learning, you will have developed powerful Habits of the Mind that will be enduring.

In contrast, Habits of the Heart are developed by using your incredible talents to make the world a better place for those in need—those less fortunate than you. We take civic engagement very seriously at this university—for many of you that was a factor in your choosing to come to Tulane.

While you are here, we expect each one of you to allocate a portion of your time and commitment to making the campus and wider communities stronger and better.

In doing so, you will develop the passion for engagement, enhance your leadership skills while demonstrating empathy and understanding so necessary for our world. Just as knowledge is power, so is the development of the whole person for the betterment of society. These are the Habits of the Heart.

So, as you begin your journey of personal discovery here at Tulane be mindful of three things.

First, use your time well. From where you sit now, your college years stretch out in front of you and graduation seems a long way down the road. Believe me, it will pass more quickly than you can imagine. So don’t spend your time blindly following the pack; instead, be an effective leader in whatever you pursue. Learn to think for yourself and live your own life; be a team player, but make sure the team is one you believe in. Maintain a curiosity about life, an inquisitiveness that will lead you down new avenues and introduce you to new schools of thought.

Second, don’t be trapped by dogma. Keep your mind open to new ideas and experiences, and don’t assume that the way you’ve always done things is the best way or the only way. More than any time in your life, your college years will give you the most opportunities to explore new ideas, meet new people, and expand your horizons. Take advantage of it. Take classes in a wide array of subjects outside your immediate area of interest. Participate in all the vast activities available to you here at Tulane. Live a full and active college life.

Finally, have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition. Your presence here today shows that you already have a lot of heart. Three years ago, freshman orientation week was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. The storm changed both Tulane and the city of New Orleans in profound ways, both internal and external, both positive and negative. I believe it’s possible to take this great tragedy and turn into an opportunity, and you can be a part of that.

One of the positives, for me, is seeing the idealism, faith and heart of all of you in choosing to come here and contribute to the long rebuilding process still taking place in this historic, beautiful city. New Orleans is a complex and many-faceted place but I can tell you from my own experience, you will grow to love it. By coming here, you have shown your willingness to use your talents to enhance the quality of life for people and communities that are still in great need of assistance.

So, follow your heart and your instincts, you have already shown them to be trustworthy by coming here to New Orleans at this time.

By doing these things, you will develop the habits of the mind and heart that will prepare you to be a responsible citizen and a leader throughout your lifetime.

And to the parents who are here, I want to say thank you. Thank you for entrusting us with your child’s education and continued growth into adulthood. And while you might be sad at seeing your son or daughter leave the nest, I’ll tell you a truth that your children will deny—you’re still going to be among the most important people in their lives, even when they make you feel as if it’s only your wallet they love. They won’t tell you how important you are to them, so I will. So don’t be sad; just enjoy the extra space and time you will now have. And, from my own experience as a parent with grown children, don’t go out and get a dog to take their place.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with something the famous Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said about his own college years: “I was set on fire in my freshman year,” he said, “by reading the essays of Emerson.”

Now, you might or might not learn to love the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I truly hope that your own passion and imagination will be set on fire by the things you learn here, the people you meet, and the ideas you embrace.


Thank you, and a warm welcome to Tulane.


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