George Mason University Commencement Remarks

Tulane University President Scott S. Cowen
May 20, 2006

Expect the Unexpected

Mr. Chairman, President Merton, Trustees, and distinguished graduates and guests.

Thank you for inviting me to speak on this special day in the life of George Mason University. I lived in Northern Virginia in the 1970s and this is my first visit back to Fairfax in 35 years.  It is wonderful to see how this university has grown and flourished-academically and physically- since that time. 

As an avid browser of the internet, I was delighted to learn that GMU is now the largest university in Virginia, and one of the most (if not the most) diverse universities in the country.  If that were not impressive enough you have more Nobel Laureates at GMU than any other university in Virginia and in most other states for that matter.  And on top of all of these academic accomplishments, you went to the Final Four in March!  What an exciting place to be!

By the way, I do want to congratulate you on reaching the Final Four, even though it pains me to do so. I find it painful because you beat my beloved UConn Huskies to get there.  But I got over it and enjoyed seeing your success.

If I had been asked to speak to you a year ago, I probably would have talked about achieving success, about being responsible citizens of the world, or about continuing to learn throughout your life.  But something happened on August 29, 2005, that altered my thinking on what’s best to say to new college graduates.

On August 29, 2005, a major hurricane hit New Orleans, causing multiple levee failures and resulting in the largest disaster to befall a major American city in this country’s history. Here are a  few facts for you to ponder:

  • More than 1,400 people died;
  • More than 220,000 homes were destroyed and many more hundreds of thousands damaged;
  • More than 1 million people in the metro area were displaced.
  • Over 70% of the Parish’s land mass was flooded, and
  • One of American’s major and great cities became a ghost town within days and approximately 40%  remains so even today. 

It is difficult to believe something like this could happen in the U.S., but it did and the aftermath is still being felt around the country, including within the beltway.

Tulane University was not immune to this trauma. I rode out the storm on the Tulane campus and found myself stranded for days in a campus building surrounded by floodwater with no food, drinking water, workable sewer or means of communication.  Two-thirds of our main campus was underwater as was all of our medical campus, including our hospital.  I survived in an isolated, island-like building amidst great despair.

But, adhering to my own belief in lifelong learning, I acquired  a new set of skills as a few staff members and I struggled to survive through those days.  I learned to forge for food in very creative ways, to siphon gasoline from parked cars to fuel boats we commandeered, to hot-wire golf carts, to “borrow” an abandoned dump truck, and to send and receive text-messages—the only form of communication that was working. Except for text-messaging I hope to never use those new skills again nor do I recommend them to you.

Finally, I learned how to flag down a helicopter as part of my escape from New Orleans five days after the storm. Eventually, I wound up in Houston with nothing but the same clothes I had worn for about a week.

Here was the situation for Tulane University five days after Hurricane Katrina, which forced us to close for the entire fall 2005 semester.  By the way, the last time our university was forced to close for an extended period of time was during the Civil War.

  • Our 12,000 students and 6,000 faculty and staff members were scattered across the country and we didn’t know where they were;
  • Our IT system was inoperable, and our student and personnel records were trapped in New Orleans;
  • Our entire communications system failed us, and
  • Armed looters were everywhere and our beloved city was under martial law.

At that point, Tulane University consisted of 30 people working out of a Houston hotel suite and, in reality, we were on the brink of extinction. Tulane was founded 172 years ago and is considered one of the great major research universities; but, within 12 hours of Hurricane Katrina we were on life support, fighting for our very survival.

Yet, despite the odds and obstacles, Tulane came back from the brink of that disaster, reopening in January and giving a major boost to the ongoing recovery of New Orleans. When we reopened on January 17th, the population of the city increased by 20 percent; 88 percent of our full-time students returned, as did virtually our entire faculty and the vast majority of our staff. In fact, George Mason hosted 12 of our students and I am forever grateful to this university for its compassion and generosity.   Today, Tulane is the largest employer--public or private-- in New Orleans and as we rebuild ourselves we are playing a major role in the recovery of New Orleans. 

Even though the worst is behind us, we still have many obstacles to overcome to get back to anything that seems normal. Yet, we have survived, we have recovered, and Tulane and New Orleans will thrive again even stronger and more vibrant than we were prior to the Hurricane.

So, interesting story, you might say—but what does it have to do with you who are graduating today from George Mason University?

Only this, and it is my message for you today: Sometimes,  life takes twists that you never thought possible and you are tested to your limits just to survive and cope. Sometimes your best-laid plans get sidetracked. Sometimes you get blown off-course by the unexpected. Sometimes you take a wrong turn, or someone takes it for you. It’s a part of life. Perhaps nothing as drastic as the worst natural disaster in the history of the U.S. will come your way—I sincerely hope it won’t—but almost everyone must at some point deal with adversity.

It’s how you deal with the unexpected crisis or severe bump in the road that shows your strength of character, that tests your mettle as a leader, that provides you with skills that are hopefully more useful in the long run than the ability to hot-wire a golf cart.

The unexpected will happen. So what do you do when it does?

First, stay focused on the light at the end of the tunnel of darkness, even when you get overwhelmed and everything seems hopeless. After Katrina, it was hard not to watch the devastation and see only the problems that faced us in our attempts to reopen the university. But if we had been unable to focus on the light and work our way toward it, Tulane University would have been one more casualty of Hurricane Katrina. We pledged to one another that we would overcome every obstacle in front of us no matter the odds because this is what people expected of us and the consequences of failure were too immense to fathom . Remember, even in times of crisis and disaster there is opportunity and hope.  Remain hopeful and stay focused on the opportunity.

Second, control what you can and don’t let the uncontrollable be an excuse for failure. Our motto was always: “Tell us what you can do, not what you can’t.” We had no control over when New Orleans’ electricity would be restored, but we could hire a remediation team to begin the cleanup of our campus. We couldn’t control how quickly destroyed housing in the university area would be made livable. But we found a way to lease a cruise ship and buy an apartment complex to house students in the spring. We couldn’t control when the public school system would reopen, but we could hire our own teachers and restart our own neighborhood school. So, in a crisis, focus on what you can control and don’t let what you can’t control immobilize you.

Third, in times of crisis stay flexible and adapt quickly to changing events.  For example, we quickly found out that our traditional organizational structure would not work and a few of our senior level staff were unable  to respond to the crisis regardless of their position in the university.  As a result, we rapidly moved to identify and empower people who could step up in to help.  Some people just handle the stress of a crisis better than others. So we flattened our organizational chart and reassigned duties. Job titles meant nothing, only results mattered.

I could write several books about the unsung heroes of Tulane University, starting with our physical facilities staff that performed miracles to reopen our campus in January and students who spent the semester raising money or working in the community to start the rebuilding process. What characterized all of these heroes was their flexibility in a time of crisis and their ability to achieve results.

Fourth, do not be afraid to reach out to others for support and assistance in a time of need. You will be amazed what people will do for you. My favorite story was when we had to return to New Orleans shortly after the storm amidst the lawlessness and sheer chaos in the city to retrieve our IT files. This required a rescue mission worthy of any first-class spy thriller. We planned and executed the mission by reaching out to friends around the country who provided air transportation, armed guards, technical know-how and connections. In other examples, we were able to partner with corporations and universities to provide advice and assistance when needed. Reaching out is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength and practicality. Let others help you when you are in a time of need.

Fifth, believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid to take risks and do the right thing. We had to make some tough decisions after Katrina in order to reopen Tulane and keep it going with strength-academically and financially. Some of those decisions were not popular. But if you aren’t willing to take the risks to do what you believe is right, your rewards will be limited and your payoff small. Leadership is a contact sport requiring a thick skin and singular focus and determination to succeed regardless of the odds.  

During my darkest days, when I was being criticized and second-guessed for decisions that no university president had ever previously faced, someone sent me an excerpt from a speech President Teddy Roosevelt once gave. I would like to share this excerpt with you because it so eloquently describes what it is like to be at the center of leadership:

“The Man in the Arena”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt

In closing today, I wish you success. I wish you the joys of being a responsible citizen, a doer of good deeds, great and small,  in this world.  I wish you the rewards of living a life filled with learning. And, above all, I wish you the ability to steer straight through the bumps in the road you’ll hit along life’s journey. We learn much during bad times and from our failures.  The unexpected will happen in your life. Never let it defeat you, always learn from it, and remember what the great philosopher Nietzsche once said, and I am paraphrasing: “what does not defeat me, makes me stronger”.

May you always be strong!

Thank you.

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