2011 Convocation Address

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
August 27, 2011


Being a Tulane Student


It gives me great pleasure to officially welcome the class of 2015/16 to Tulane University.

The academic community you join today was founded in 1834 as the Medical College of Louisiana. In 1847, the Medical College merged with the University of Louisiana, a public university, and finally, in 1884, the University of Louisiana was privatized and named for its 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 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.

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.

Still, Tulane never forgot Princeton's refusal. After his death, he was buried in Princeton but with his back turned to the university and his face pointed toward the South.

There are many lessons 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.

Yes, I was born and raised in the Garden State but now the Bayou State is my home. It’s your home now, too. And let me tell you what it means to be a member of the New Orleans and Tulane communities.

New Orleans is the only American city I know of that can lay claim to its own music, language, architecture, and food. In New Orleans you will hear music you’ve never heard played before, speak words you’ve never heard spoken and eat food you never thought could taste so good. You will fall in love with a city steeped in history, with old world architecture you thought only existed in the capitals of Europe and with characters you thought only existed in books.

And you may even find your soul mate for life here, too, if Travel and Leisure Magazine is correct in recently naming New Orleans “America’s Best City for Singles.”

You may also grow in physical stature in the next few years because you eat too much. Trust me on this point because I was 5 feet, 9 inches and 170 lbs when I moved to New Orleans 14 years ago.

But there is a lot more to your new home than that. Here in New Orleans and at Tulane, we are in the midst of a renaissance, the likes of which this country has rarely seen.

Six years ago, a historic and unprecedented storm named Katrina made land fall in Louisiana.  As I make this statement, I am very mindful that the east coast is being assaulted by Hurricane Irene, and I pray and expect that its impact, while likely to result in damage, will in no way reach the absolutely devastating proportions of Katrina.

In our case, Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. An area seven times the size of Manhattan was underwater for 57 days.  Katrina resulted in many deaths, homes destroyed, and people left without jobs.

The storm caused $650 million in losses to Tulane alone.  We became the first major university to close for an entire semester since the Civil War.  Most people thought New Orleans and Tulane would never recover and if they did they would never regain their stature and reputation.

They were wrong. Today, New Orleans is becoming a model city for the rest of the nation in areas such as public education and community health.  Likewise, Tulane has become one of the most lauded, distinguished, and sought-after universities in America.

Before Katrina, the uninsured had few options when it came to health care. Their medical issues went untreated until they became emergencies. Now, a network of neighborhood health centers run by Tulane provides primary and mental health services to thousands of New Orleanians regardless of their ability to pay.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was an iconic city but one that tended to be stuck in the past. Today New Orleans is a hot bed of innovation, an incubator for new ideas and new industry in the areas of bio-science, film making, video game design, and green technology.

You may wonder how this all happened and how this progress relates to Tulane and you.  In fact, a lot of this progress occurred because of Tulane and its exceptional faculty, staff and students.  It happened because of the students who preceded you and it will continue because you are now here.

After Katrina, Tulane became the first and still only major research university to integrate public service into the core curriculum.  This change has had a profound impact on our academic culture, and how we and others perceive the university.

It changed the profile of our student body, and how the university views its role locally and around the world.  It has been instrumental in the transformation of New Orleans and the collegiate experience of our students.

Tulane has always had a stellar reputation for academic excellence in its educational and research programs.  Our faculties are outstanding scholars and educators who genuinely care about students and have a passion to help them grow personally, professionally, and intellectually.  That academic reputation is now enhanced by our commitment to civic engagement which gives students the opportunity to use their knowledge and talents to help others less fortunate while providing students a unique leadership, learning, and civic experience.  

Tulane’s community engagement commitment is embodied in Tulane Empowers.  The vision for Tulane Empowers is powerful and noble—It is to make Tulane the leader among research universities  in mobilizing its expertise to build stronger and healthier communities—locally and around the world while also developing the next generation of engaged citizens and leaders.  

Your classmates are making this vision a reality.

They are establishing debate clubs in the public schools to teach young people how to think, communicate, work together, and compete.

They are tutoring public school students, helping them not only to read better but dream bigger. They are designing and building safer and stronger homes to replace those destroyed by Katrina.  They are sponsoring science and engineering events to develop the next generation of innovators and problem solvers.

They developed software that tracked damage from last summer’s BP oil spill. And the list goes on and on.

What will be your contribution to this list? You have the opportunity to have a truly unique and transformative educational experience if you embrace Tulane’s empowerment ethos and avail yourself of the intellectual and professional opportunities Tulane offers you.

Your experiences and accomplishments will look great on a resume but, more importantly, it will help you become an engaged citizen and leader capable of positively and thoughtfully addressing society’s most pressing problems.

College is not just about getting a job and building a resume.  It is about developing the habits of the mind and heart so you will be remembered for what you have done for others not just what you have done for yourself. That’s what being a student at Tulane all is about.

So I ask you:  Are you ready and willing to take on the responsibility and privilege of being a Tulane student?

Let me hear you say, “Yes.”

Let me hear it one more time.

One day, I know I will tell the story of the great Class of 2015-16.  It is now time to start writing the first chapter.  

One more thing before I let you go.  When you exit through the front doors of this building you will see the Tulane Victory Bell. This bell has a long and storied tradition of being rung after each Tulane victory. Today, I want to start a new tradition. As you leave, give the bell a good rub. In doing so some of the tradition and pride of Tulane’s 177 years will rub off on you and, in the process, you will rub some of your energy, enthusiasm and spirit into the bell for future generations.

Welcome to Tulane University!


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