Scott Cowen, whose tenure as president of Tulane University became defined by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters and the recovery that followed, announced Friday that he plans to retire next summer.
A New Jersey native, Cowen, 66, arrived at Tulane in the late 1990s after spending 23 years at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But it was following the devastation wrought by Katrina that he made his most-lasting impression on both Tulane and New Orleans, launching a controversial restructuring of the university and a part-time career as a civic booster for the city.
Having spent the storm on the second floor of the Reily Student Recreation Center as water enveloped parts of Tulane’s campus, Cowen threw himself into the process of stabilizing the university and shaping the city’s response to the disaster, serving on various boards and committees charged with drawing up rebuilding plans.
In an email on Friday addressed to students, parents, alumni and staff, Cowen said he plans to step down July 1, 2014, and he reflected on the progress made over the past seven and a half years.
“Our focus and determination to persevere created a powerful bond amongst all of us that ultimately led to Tulane’s extraordinary recovery,” Cowen wrote. “Today, because of our collective efforts, Tulane is vibrant, distinctive and well positioned to address the new opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.”
According to Tulane’s most recently available tax forms, Cowen received a $942,000 compensation package in 2010.
Speaking with reporters later in the day, Cowen said he began to think of stepping down as president two years ago, feeling the institution needed a new leader as it embarks on a “very ambitious capital campaign” over the next decade.
While retiring from his leadership role, Cowen plans to stay at Tulane to teach and write, following a sabbatical. He and his wife bought a house in New Orleans a year ago.
“The plan is to make New Orleans, for the long term, one of the key locations where we spend our lives,” Cowen said.
Cowen took his post at Tulane on July 1, 1998, becoming the university’s 14th president. He brought with him a reputation as a gifted fundraiser. As dean of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western, he grew the school’s endowment more than ten fold, doubled the size of the faculty and expanded the campus with new buildings.
In Katrina’s aftermath, Cowen’s stature in New Orleans grew. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress and request the federal government’s help in rebuilding the city’s colleges and universities. He sat on Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, chaired a committee on restructuring the K-12 public school system and served as a board member for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
With former City Councilman Arnie Fielkow, he formed a group of local dignitaries called the Fleur de Lis Ambassadors, who toured the country promoting the city’s recovery. And he founded the Scott Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, a group that does research and polling on the near total transformation of the city’s public school system since Katrina.
In the storm’s wake, Cowen also had difficult choices to make about Tulane’s future, and the course he set drew detractors. Facing millions of dollars in damages and a drop in income from tuition, Cowen announced a few months after the storm that Tulane would lay off more than 200 faculty members, shrink the university’s engineering program and pare back Newcomb College, which had been a degree-granting liberal arts school for undergraduate women, to an institute.
The move sparked an outcry from Newcomb alumnae and an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit from the heirs of H. Sophie Newcomb, who had established the school in memory of her daughter in 1886.
Cowen said while some of his decisions provoked outrage at the time, he believes he made the right calls.
“We are at record levels of enrollment, quality, student interest. Fundraising has gone very, very well,” he said. “Right across the board, the university is performing at levels higher than we thought it would even after Katrina.”
Jay Lapeyre, chairman of Tulane’s board of directors, praised Cowen as a singular leader, citing as one example Cowen’s mandate that each student perform community service as a graduation requirement.
“Scott is a unique character who brought great vision and management skills,” Lapeyre said, also noting the passion that Cowen brought to his work. “If we can find all those things again, I think we would be delighted.”
Tulane’s board has begun the process of putting together a search committee to select Cowen’s successor. Lapeyre said that person would ideally be named by the end of the year.
The committee will hire a search firm to help with the process and conduct a nationwide search, Lapeyre said. Even in recent months, Cowen has continued to make course-setting decisions for the university, saying in November that Tulane’s sports programs would move to the Big East Conference in 2014.
Over the next 13 months, Cowen said he plans to focus a great deal on Tulane’s medical school, helping work out partnerships in advance of changes to the city’s medical landscape with the opening of two new hospitals in downtown New Orleans.