Cowen leads his final commencement at Tulane

2,800 graduates say farewell

He boogied to the soulful notes of Michael White’s Liberty Jazz Band, teared up at a tribute from Tulane’s a cappella group and snagged a short pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Sixteen years after he took the school’s helm, Tulane University President Scott Cowen presided over his final commencement Saturday, overseeing the graduation of 2,800 students in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with the same passion and panache that have made him a beloved leader on campus and throughout the city.

“No one will ever remember you for what you did for yourself,” Cowen said at the beginning of the ceremony. “They will only remember you for what you did for others.”

A host of dignitaries, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Brees and keynote speaker and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis were on hand to take part in a festive celebration for the graduates and for Cowen, who will leave his post July 1.

He has said he will take a sabbatical before returning to teaching.

He will be succeeded by Michael Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Speakers lauded Cowen for shepherding the university through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, during which 70 percent of the campus flooded. Despite the damage, 87 percent of the university’s students re-enrolled in January 2006, according to Cowen’s biography on the Tulane website.

In a video tribute, Cowen, 67, was praised for his leadership by a host of New Orleans notables.

“I will always love Dr. Cowen,” restaurant owner Leah Chase said.

He also was heralded for his commitment to community service. Cowen made Tulane the first university in the country to require that all students engage in volunteer activities. For his retirement gift, the university community pledged 750,000 hours of community service.

“He tore down the walls of the academy to give students the opportunity for community service,” Marsalis said.

During a high-energy oration, in which he switched back and forth between spoken word and his trumpet, Marsalis touted both the prestige of a Tulane education and the cultural riches of New Orleans, his hometown.

“New Orleans is the birthplace of soul,” he said. “Each of our graduates has been baptized, sin-dipped and bathed in that ephemeral feeling.”

Marsalis said Cowen asked him to focus in his speech on the accomplishments of the outgoing graduates and not the outgoing president, but the world-renowned musician explained that it was hard for him to separate the two.

“You are what he has worked tirelessly and passionately to manifest,” he said to the students.

Also speaking briefly at the event was Brees, who, along with clarinetist White, was awarded the Tulane University President’s Medal.

Honorary degrees were given to Chicago businessman and humanitarian Frederick Day and Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Brees and Cowen both gave a shoutout to graduating senior Devon Walker, who was paralyzed from the neck down during a Tulane football game two years ago.

“Since that day, he has been an inspiration for everyone at this university,” Cowen said.

Saints coach Sean Payton honored Walker on Saturday afternoon by signing him to a one-day contract with the team.

Cowen spent the closing moments of the ceremony thanking the faculty, the board of trustees and his wife, Marjorie.

“It’s been a great honor and privilege to serve this university for 16 years,” he said.

Minutes later, sparklers exploded, confetti descended from the rafters and the band burst into the boisterous chatter of jazz once again.

Cowen grabbed a green and blue parasol and jived to the music, dancing offstage as Tulane president for the final time.