2012 Convocation Address

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
August 25, 2012


Welcome Remarks to the Class of 2016


By virtue of the authority granted to me by the Board of Trustees of Tulane University, I officially declare you as matriculated students of the university with all the privileges and responsibilities pertaining thereto.

With that formality behind us, you may now be seated.

On behalf of the entire Tulane community, I want you to know how delighted and proud we are to welcome you to Tulane University as the class of 2016.

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, we were transformed into a private university named for our benefactor Paul Tulane.

Now, for you trivia buffs, there's an interesting story about Paul Tulane, who worked as a trader and cotton merchant 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 Tulane 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 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 lessons is to never disappoint or rebuff someone from New Jersey. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should disclose that I was born and raised in the Garden State.

The second lesson from this story is that a single person can change the course of history if they have the vision, determination and perseverance to succeed regardless of the obstacles. Remember this lesson because it is key to your time at Tulane and beyond. Today, each of you becomes a member of a scholarly community that has evolved into one of the most respected and distinguished universities in the U.S.  One noted for its academic excellence and unprecedented commitment to community engagement-locally and around the world.

As Dean MacLaren stated in his remarks, the origins of your class are far-flung, but today we celebrate your common identity as Tulanians and New Orleanians -- an identity with an accompanying set of experiences and expectations that will forever change your life and shape your future.

What does it mean to be a Tulanian? I’ve spoken many times about Hurricane Katrina and how it transformed Tulane, ushering in a new era of community service and experiential learning. Seven years later we are still re-imagining ourselves, but in a spirit that looks not backward to the disaster, but ahead to the future.

New Orleans has food, music and culture you will not find anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, it also has all the issues and problems that plague other great cities throughout our country. But now it has you, who have joined in the effort to tackle these problems and improve the lives of those in need.

College is about involvement and growth—about opening your mind to different points of view and realms of experience. At Tulane you will not live in an ivory tower. Even though you will wrestle with issues related to moral hazard or the meaning of a Shakespeare sonnet or the historical forces that led to the Vietnam War; you will also live out there, in the city and sometimes farther afield, in foreign countries, clocking hours at community centers, drop-in clinics, urban gardens, construction sites, schools, and churches, meeting unforgettable people, changing their lives and having your own lives changed by them.

Let me tell you about one of our service learning courses that could serve as a symbol of all the various experiences you will have during your time at Tulane. The course is called “Aristotle in New Orleans.” Its subject is rhetoric, the skill of persuasion that originated in ancient Greece and is a cornerstone of a liberal arts education. “Aristotle in New Orleans” takes undergraduate students to intercity middle schools where they teach middle school children the art and science of debate. One of the young children, who participated in the debates, when asked about how the experience affected her, said this: “To me, the importance of debate is so much that I can’t fully describe it. Debate taught me that screaming is not arguing. Listening to the other side and saying your side is really what you should do.”

I couldn’t have said it better: Rhetoric is about listening, informing, reasoning and persuading, skills all of us need to lead a successful life.

The middle school debates have opened the minds of both the coaches and the debaters to different perspectives—which could be said to be the major aim of an undergraduate education. One of the coaches had this to say: “As much as we taught the kids about debate, they taught us about life.” Other coaches mentioned another crucially important effect of the program: the kids’ growing awareness that they, themselves, might do the unimaginable, --go to college. Doing the unimaginable is what Tulane is all about.

In bringing together intellectual analysis and “real world” application, “Aristotle in New Orleans“ embodies another concept from the classical period: that there are two types of life, contemplative and active. These two types of life are not mutually exclusive; you don’t have to—and really shouldn’t—choose one over the other. Since Katrina Tulane has modified how it approaches learning based on this belief. It has retained and enhanced the intellectual rigor, the scholarship, the research and the space for analytic thinking that is the traditional focus of a great university, but broadened its reach to include action, experience, doing. Minds grow through collision with ideas but also through interaction with people. Through our public service commitment and the TIDES seminars you will use the city as a lab to enliven and inform your classroom study. You will experience the rich intersection of thinking and doing that are critical for reasoned discourse and meaningful action.

While you are at Tulane my hope is that, in the future, your arguments will carry weight not because you’re the one who yells the loudest, but because you’re the one who can marshal the best reasons. My hope is that you will open yourselves to different ideas, different points of view, and different people. My hope is that you will not only be great thinkers, but great doers.

Though we celebrate this special day as a beginning, the truth is, you have already started your journey. In your years here, you will become Tulanians and New Orleanians, with the talent, determination, and integrity to change the world. Our world needs you. At a time when the American dream has dimmed for many, particularly in our inner cities, you will be on be on the front lines-now and in the future, lighting the way and helping the doors of opportunity swing open. You will help others achieve the unimaginable.

Finally, 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.

I’d like to close with something the notable 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 Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

Now, you might or might not learn to love the writing of 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.

Class of 2016, we are overjoyed to have you as part of our community, and we hope your years with us will exceed your expectations as well as those we have of you.

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