Stephanie Grace: Cowen a tough act to follow at Tulane

It goes without saying that Tulane’s next president will have big shoes to fill.

Whomever the university selects to replace Scott Cowen, who steps down next spring after 16 enormously eventful years, will oversee one of the area’s most complex organizations, and its largest private employer. But that will be only part of the new president’s charge.

In New Orleans, probably more than anyplace else, running even a private university seems to carry a whole additional set of public responsibilities. Cowen, who will greet his last class of new students this weekend, embodies this. Before Hurricane Katrina, and even more so since, he and his fellow presidents have held among the broadest civic portfolios around.

Cowen chaired Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back committee’s panel on public schools, stayed engaged enough to launch The Cowen Institute, a think tank on the subject — and even tried to recruit “visionary, dedicated” candidates for last year’s Orleans Parish School Board elections, in an unstated rebuke to the sitting board.

When Nagin gave the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority a major role in rebuilding, Cowen was one of the appointees whose presence signaled the organization’s enhanced stature. Cowen later chaired the Southeast Regional Airport Authority.

He and former City Councilman Arnie Fielkow launched the Fleur-de-lis Ambassadors program, which sent civic leaders to cities across the country to tell the area’s recovery story. All this on top of his day job: not just overseeing the university but reorienting it for survival. That mission involved everything from haggling with insurance companies and FEMA to streamlining the place — and dealing with blowback over controversial steps such as reducing some academic offerings, firing faculty and scaling back Newcomb College from a degree-granting college for women to an institute.

Public engagement became such a part of Cowen’s identity that, in 2010, he was the only university leader appointed to the White House Council for Community Solutions. And it remains a personal passion; Cowen’s first post-retirement project will be a book on the subject.

Cowen, of course, is just one member of a tightly knit, hyper-involved club. Longtime Xavier University President Norman Francis, whom Cowen considers a role model, chaired the Louisiana Recovery Authority under Gov. Kathleen Blanco. He says he considers such civic engagement not just part of the university’s role, but a “moral responsibility.”

The Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola University’s president and an expert on health policy ethics, dove into the campaign to reform city government by serving as the founding chairman of the Ethics Review Board, which oversees the inspector general. Wildes now chairs the Civil Service Commission, on which Francis once sat as the first African-American member.

All routinely recommend board nominees — Cowen said requests seem to come in every month — as well as serving themselves.

Cowen and others say the dynamic is not necessarily unusual, although here it’s heightened. New Orleans doesn’t have huge corporations and foundations, so the universities have a particularly high profile. In that sense it’s like a big small town, Francis noted.

“As anchor institutions, you have a certain responsibility to your community,” Cowen said in an interview over the summer. “It’s not like being in New York City or L.A., where you have hundreds of companies that have human capital and expertise.”

And in a place were everyone seems to have an angle, politicians often appear eager to tap into the presidents’ perceived credibility. When the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad erupted in scandal in 2010, for example, Mayor Mitch Landrieu recruited Cowen, Wildes and other big names to overhaul the organization and rebuild public confidence.

So did Cowen, whose expertise is in finance and management, ever think, “I don’t know anything about railroads, or elementary and secondary education, or airports”?

“All the time,” he readily confessed. “But sometimes that can be a benefit, because it forces you to really study the problem, to be inquisitive, to think about it a little more creatively than others might.”

After 2005, there was the added communal urgency to save what Cowen called an iconic culture that “seeps through everything.”

“That really sunk in during Katrina and thereafter,” Cowen said. “I sort of got it before intellectually, but I really got it practically, because when you’re about to lose something that you knew, you really begin to think about how important it was to your life, and how important it was to others. Then you roll up your sleeves and do stuff at a very intimate level.”

Inevitably, such involvement has landed Cowen and his peers in the middle of contentious debates.

Cowen said he’s “manic” about not politicizing the university. On education reform, “I’m not pro-, I’m not anti-union. I am pro-child.” As for being on of Nagin’s team, particularly after the former mayor’s reputation took a nosedive, he said, “To be honest, I never thought of it that way.”

“You’ll never see me endorsing anyone. We’re here to help them be successful,” Cowen said. “If they’re successful, the city’s successful.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at