Case Western Reserve University Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Case Western Reserve University Commencement
Cleveland, Ohio
May 15, 2011


Weathering a Storm

It is truly a pleasure and and an honor to be back at Case Western Reserve University, where I spent 23 years as a professor and dean of the the Weatherhead School of Management.

When President Snyder asked me to speak today, I was absolutely delighted to do so.  But since we are good friends she disclosed to me that some really famous person had originally been scheduled to speak today. However, when circumstances beyond his control forced him to cancel, the student speaker selection committee had to reconvene to select a new speaker. 

As I understand it, the final selection process was quite competitive and fiercely debated in discussing the candidates but in the end the choice was between me and one other person.

President Snyder told me I won this vote hands-down. “Wow,” I said, “What a thrill. I am truly humbled. But, just out of curiosity, who was the other choice?” She said, “Lebron James.”

But, with all due respect to any other possible speakers, I do believe I have more in common with the graduates than most. First, we are all receiving degrees from CWRU today. For most of you it probably took 4 to 8 years to earn your degree.  In contrast, it took me 36 years.  Obviously, you were much faster in meeting the academic standards of this university then I was. Then again, there may be one or two of you who were also on the 36-year-plan. Or maybe it just seemed like that to your parents.

Another thing we have in common is that we have both experienced the emotional highs and lows of living in Cleveland.

Most of our highs and lows are associated with the success or lack thereof, of the Browns, Cavaliers and Indians. Despite their records, we all love them and believe each new season will be the big one. I just hope the big one happens before I have the big one and pass from this earth. 

My motto is to never give up no matter what; I live in New Orleans now, home of the Who Dat Nation and the New Orleans Saints, formerly known as the “Aints”, a team that for many years seemed to have elevated losing to an art form. And yet even now people there are still celebrating their victory against the Colts in the 2010 Super Bowl.  So it CAN happen and right now the Cleveland Indians have their best shot at the big one.  Go Indians!

CWRU and Cleveland have shaped your life as it has mine. In my case, it also prepared me to confront challenges I could never have imagined. It is this topic, how to cope with a challenge that either destroys you or makes you stronger, that I want to discuss for a few minutes.

For me this test came when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29th, 2005. Katrina's impact on the New Orleans area was horrific and unprecedented. More than 1,800 people died, 200,000 homes were destroyed, over 400,000 people lost their jobs, and 80 percent of the Parish's land mass was flooded for 57 days, an area equal to seven times the size of Manhattan.

The storm caused $650 million in losses to Tulane.  Our Health Sciences campus, including our hospital, was flooded with an average of 3 ft of water for weeks, and two-thirds of our main campus also sustained significant flood damage, including 84 buildings.

We became the first major university to close for an entire semester since the Civil War.  Most people thought we would never recover and if we did, we could never regain our stature and reputation.

You now understand the impact of Katrina on Tulane and New Orleans but let me tell you how it felt in the aftermath for all of us impacted by the Storm.

Have you ever been in a situation where one day your life is fine and the next it is chaos. Where everything that gives you comfort and joy disappears into despair, hopelessness, and anxiety that makes you feel like your heart is about to burst and your life as you knew it is gone. This is what it felt like after Katrina for weeks and months on end.

Yet, despite everything that happened to us six years ago, I have never been more optimistic about the future of New Orleans and Tulane.  This optimism is not just wishful thinking; rather, it is grounded in the well-documented progress we have made. 

As I reflect back on my Katrina experience,  I learned a few lessons that may be helpful as you leave the safe confines of campus and find your way in the world.  

The first lesson is that “Hope is not a Plan.” 

A tragedy the scope of what we have seen in New Orleans, Haiti, Japan and now Alabama, and the Mississippi Delta often overwhelms and paralyzes everyone affected by it, especially in the immediate aftermath.  In the days and weeks after Katrina people just hoped that someone, especially the government, would come in and make things better.  Unfortunately, this did not occur with the speed and relief needed or expected.

Hope is a wonderful thing but it must be balanced with reality.  Hope inspires us while reality can often overwhelm us.  Yet, a dose of both is needed to overcome what we face and to achieve what we dream.

I know you have invested much hope in your dreams. But you will fulfill these dreams not by merely hoping they come true or counting on someone else to bring them about but by committing yourself day in and day out to their realization.

The second lesson is “Face your Fears."

I was on the Tulane campus in New Orleans during the storm and for five days after.  During that time, I existed on adrenaline and survival instincts. 

I like everyone else searched for food and water and stood guard around the clock as looters roamed our neighborhoods.  We had no power, communications, sewer, or water supply in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The temperature was in the 90s with humidity to match. The circumstances were surreal. 

Once I evacuated to Houston, Texas and finally saw on TV the magnitude of the disaster, my fears immobilized me.  The fear of failure and incompetence brought me to tears one evening because I had no idea what to do and I feared I was not up to the task.

I remember calling my wife at 3 a.m. from a hotel room in Houston, and telling her that I felt completely helpless.  As she so often does, she asked me what I had done in the past when I found myself overwhelmed and afraid.  I told her that:

•    I try to control what I can, as opposed to what I cannot,
•    I try to focus on the most important tasks that allow me to move forward while not being distracted with things that can wait for another day, and
•    Finally,  I rely on those closest to me for support and guidance, knowing that we all need help at certain times.

We ended the conversation by her telling me to stick to these tried and true methods to cope with what I feared.  

Is there any graduate sitting here today who can claim to have absolutely no fear of the future?  I suspect not.  
It is normal to be overwhelmed and afraid in the face of uncertainty. Once you realize this, self-doubt becomes secondary and problem solving becomes primary, which leads me to my third lesson—Know Your End Goal.  
As you work through any seemingly impossible situation it is always wise to determine the end goal you are trying to achieve.  For us, the ultimate goal was renewal - a total re-envisioning of what the university could become in the future. 

In the immediate aftermath of any disaster the initial priorities are survival and recovery.  Yet, these are not enough.  We, as survivors, have an obligation to those who suffered and sacrificed so much to learn from what  transpired, to renew ourselves and to help others in need as others have assisted us. This is why my university is so actively involved not only in New Orleans but around the world.

You too have a responsibility. Yes, you have worked hard and have earned your place of honor today. But your success is also the result of the sacrifices made by others who instilled in you the value of learning and the means to achieve your dreams.  Your responsibility as you go forward is to reach out to others in need so you can do for them what others have done for you.

Every Fall convocation I remind entering students that when people pass from this earth they are never remembered for what they did for themselves, they are only remembered for what they did for others.

There is one final lesson I learned during Katrina, and you’ve heard this before but It bares repeating—we are each defined more by how we handle adversity than we are by our successes. 

I wish you all many successes and little to no adversity in your lives, but the truth is, while you may not face a hurricane, you will have your own storms to survive. 

When that moment arrives, you will find your own path to renewal, as we did. 

In closing, let me share with you the first message I sent to the Tulane community after I was airlifted out of New Orleans. 

"It is difficult to describe what this situation feels like. For those involved, it is surreal and unfathomable; yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our focus is on the light and not the darkness." 

Six years later we are still focused on the light.

As I close I would only ask one thing of you:  Please, please use your knowledge, your skills, your passion and your degree to become engaged citizens and leaders, and to help others find the light.  If you do, you will truly make a difference in the world.

Congratulations to the graduating Class of 2011!

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