Yeshiva University Academic Convocation Speech

Scott S. Cowen
Yeshiva University Academic Convocation
Waldorf Astoria, New York City
December 9, 2007

Chairman Weiss
President Joel
Distinguished Members of the Yeshiva Board
And Honored Guests,

I am deeply honored to stand before you today as an honorary degree recipient of this great university.  It is also very humbling to be included with the four other degree recipients being honored this evening.   Their accomplishments and contributions are a wonderful tribute to humanity.

I have been asked to speak this evening about the Katrina tragedy and the effect it had on the people and institutions of the Gulf Coast Region, including its impact on Tulane University and on me personally.  I will briefly recount the facts of what occurred. In so doing, I want to tie my story with those of the other honorary degree recipients because I believe we are all bound together by a commonality of attributes and core values that account for why we are here this evening.

The media has covered New Orleans’ Katrina odyssey extensively so I won’t go into many details. But here are just a few points for you to ponder about what was the largest urban disaster in U.S. history:

  • More than 1,800 people died in the Greater New Orleans area. Most drowned in their homes or expired in the 100-degree heat of their attics.
  • More than 200,000 homes were destroyed, and many more damaged.
  • More than 1 million people—80% of the greater metro population—were displaced for at least six weeks, many for months. Even now, more than two years later, many have been unable to return for lack of affordable housing.
  • More than 80% of Orleans Parish, or county, was flooded. This was a land mass equivalent to seven times the size of Manhattan.
  • The hurricane resulted in 22 million tons of debris, four times the amount experienced in the 9/11 tragedy.  
  • Katrina is the most expensive disaster in the history of the U.S.

Tulane University was not immune to this devastation. 70% percent of our main campus—and all of our health sciences campus—soaked in water ranging from one to six feet in depth. The university realized losses in excess of $650 million.  Our 13,000 students and 8,000 employees were displaced for over five months, and our physical campus was badly damaged from both wind and water.  

I was on campus during the storm and evacuated four days later in an escape that involved a makeshift boat, a hot-wired golf cart and a commandeered dump truck before finally hailing a helicopter to get a ride out of the flood zone.

When I finally arrived in Houston four days after the storm, the university consisted of 30 people working out of a hotel suite.  Our campuses were decimated, and our personal lives were in shambles. Literally overnight, Tulane went from being one of America’s most selective major research universities with an exciting future to an institution on life support.

But as we gathered in our hotel suite, we realized that since its founding in 1832, Tulane had survived yellow fever, civil war, numerous hurricanes and two world wars. This would be its greatest challenge by far, but we were determined not to fail!

We rebuilt our community from scratch in the fall of 2005.  In essence, we built a Village, making sure our campuses were functioning as quickly as possible. We maintained our payroll so our employees could focus on their own families and homes and not worry about their financial survival. This decision alone cost the university $35 million per month at a time when no cash was coming in but we knew that keeping our people would be key to our survival.

We chartered a local school so the children of our employees as well as neighborhood children would have a place to go when they returned to New Orleans. We secured modular housing, an apartment building, and even a cruise ship (from Israel, I might add) so that faculty, staff and students who had lost their homes would have a place to live.

We opened our own health clinics on street corners to help those in need, and we re-recruited our students, whose parents were leery about sending their sons and daughters back to New Orleans given what they were seeing on TV.  We also reached our to the other New Orleans’s universities, especially the Historical Black Colleges, to form a recovery partnership important to all of us.

Finally, we had to do something to ensure our financial viability for the coming years, both to offset storm-related expenses and to accommodate an anticipated—and, we hoped, temporary—drop in enrollment. Backed by a courageous board of trustees, we announced in December of 2005 the largest restructuring of an American university in more than a century.

I’m proud to say that when Tulane University reopened in January 2006, 87 percent of its full-time students returned. Our students attended over 600 colleges and universities in the fall of 2005, including all of those here in NYC.  Yet, when it came time to return to Tulane they did so in large numbers, demonstrating their character and commitment. The week we reopened the population of the city went up 20%.  Tulane University is now the largest employer—public or private—in Orleans Parish.

Two and a half years after the storm, Tulane University is a more focused, distinctive and stronger university—academically and financially—than before the hurricane.  The university is also playing a major role in the recovery of New Orleans, with community involvement of a breadth and depth never before found at an urban university. In fact, there is no part of the city’s recovery where Tulane is not at the center of activity from public education to health care and neighborhood revitalization.

Out of this great tragedy, Tulane found a way to survive, recover and reinvent itself for the future.  In fact, I have never been more optimistic about the university’s future than at this moment in time.  I also feel the same way about the future of New Orleans. We will not only fully recover, but will emerge stronger and better.   Out of tragedy there will be a brighter future.
Ever since the storm I have repeatedly been asked two questions:  What is there about my background that prepared me for this moment?  What skills were most critical in this time of crisis and turmoil?

It is the answer to these questions that I believe links me to the other honorary degree-holders this evening. For me, the key descriptor is “resilience.” Resilience is defined in the dictionary as “the ability to recover quickly from illness, change or misfortune.” Yet, this definition does not do justice to the word.  Studies of highly resilient people often demonstrate that they possess three attributes:  a keen ability to understand the reality of a situation, an uncanny knack for improvisation, and an ability to make difficult decisions, often guided by a strong set of core values or beliefs born out of their life experiences.   

My life, like those of many other people, has been defined by a few critical incidents, which account for who I am and what I stand for. Looking at my own Katrina experience and how I responded to events, I can pinpoint three defining moments in my life that helped me cope and gave me the strength to persevere.

First, when I was a child, I had to overcome very significant physical and learning disabilities. I was not able to read or write until I was 7 years old, and it took me many years thereafter to catch up and regain my self-respect and confidence.  Yet, through the never-ending support of a few teachers and my family, I overcame my deficiencies and evolved into the consummate overachiever.  I learned how to deal with adversity, overcome any obstacle with hard work and to beat the odds with sheer determination and perseverance.  It also explains why I have dedicated my life to education.

The second major impact on my life came after college when I was drafted but subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army infantry. This was during the Vietnam War, and it was both a frightening and exhilarating time. Even though I was not sent to Vietnam, I did serve in the Middle East as an officer in the Army Security Agency—an assignment with its own risk and intrigue.

At the age of 23, I was responsible for the life or death of other people.  Holding in your hands the awesome responsibility for other people’s lives gives you clarity of purpose and focus that no other experience can possibly do.  In the service, I learned how to lead, to set priorities, to achieve objectives and to never give up. These skills have been invaluable in my professional life.   My military experience also gave me the confidence to confront difficult situations under extreme pressure.

The final chapter of personal transformation was my journey to Judaism.  I came to my religion later in life after being born into a home where Judaism and Christianity co-existed on a daily basis.  I ultimately decided to follow the path of Judaism.  

During my religious journey I have learned the true meaning of community, what it means to make a difference in the world, and how to give without expecting anything in return. The values and belief system that are the foundation of our faith has given me the strength to do what needs to be done for the sake of others. To pursue social justice, to value life and education, to persevere—these values shape who I am, as they shape who you are.   I learned many of these lessons from those of you in this audience, including from my dear friend and the chairman of the Yeshiva Board, Morry Weiss.

These events as I grew up—overcoming an early learning disability, learning leadership, responsibility and duty in the military, and absorbing the foundations of my faith—made me highly resilient. But little did I know that so many years later the resulting characteristics of heart and mind would be called upon in such great measure over the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina.   I never wished for or ever envisioned a tragedy of Katrina proportion, but I consider myself truly blessed to have been able to serve at a time of such great need.

I do not know all of the defining moments that shaped the character, minds and achievements of my fellow honorees today but I do know they had profound moments in their lives and have accomplished remarkable things.  I also know that we share the resilience born of experience, a set of core values built on our faith with a devotion to community, justice and caring, and a deep devotion to making the world a better place.

We are all called to give of ourselves in life.  It is how we respond to these moments that define who we are and what we stand for.  All of us have faced this test at one time or another.  I know the honorees have and as I look over this audience and its devotion to this great university and to your communities, I suspect all of you have as well.   This is why I am proud beyond words to be an honoree today and to become a member of an historic, proud and distinguished Yeshiva community that includes all of you.

Thank you for your recognition.

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