President Scott S. Cowen
Central Synagogue, New York
December 1, 2006
I am deeply honored and humbled to be here this evening to receive this distinguished award.
It strikes me as especially poignant to be here, among my family of faith, in a synagogue that has been brought back so magnificently from the ruins of the 1998 fire. Its beauty speaks to me of recovery, hope, determination and renewal. And those are themes that strike at the heart of what my adopted city of New Orleans has been through since the winds of Hurricane Katrina and the floodwaters of a broken levee system dealt us a near death blow 15 months ago.
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 1,500 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 160,000 homes were destroyed, and many more damaged.
• Eighty percent of the greater metro population—more than 1 million people—were displaced for at least six weeks, many for months, and still others are to this day unable to return for lack of a place to live.
• 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 tons of debris, four times the amount experienced in the 9/11 tragedy.
• And, finally, one of American’s most unique and historic cities became a ghost town within days, and parts of it remain so even today.
Tulane University was not immune to this trauma. Eighty percent of our main campus and our entire health sciences campus were under water. Our physical facilities suffered more than $400 million in damages. Literally overnight, we went from being one of America’s most selective major research universities with an exciting future to a patient on life-support, not sure we had a future at all.
Our 13,000 students and 8,000 employees were scattered to who-knows-where, our campus was badly damaged and the outlook appeared bleak both for Tulane and New Orleans. I was on campus during the storm and evacuated four days later in an escape that involved a make shift boat, hot wired golf cart, commandeered dump truck and hailed down helicopter.
When I finally arrived in Houston the Friday after the storm, the university consisted of 30 people working out of a hotel suite. Our campuses were decimated as were our personal homes and life’s. But as we gathered in our hotel suite, I realized that since it’s 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 had to ensure that it survived Katrina and the levee breaks of 2005. I was bound and determined that the university would not go out of business on my watch!
We rebuilt our community from scratch. In essence, we Built a Village, making sure our campuses were remediated as quickly as possible. We re-established our payroll, so that 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.
We developed a charter agreement with a local school so the children of our employees would have a place to go when they came back. And we secured modular housing, an apartment building, and even a cruise ship so that faculty, staff and students who had lost their homes would have a place to live. We had to re-recruit our students, whose parents were leery about sending their sons and daughters back to New Orleans given what they were seeing on TV. And, 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 Tulane University reopened in January of this year with 88 percent of its students returning. Our students attended over 600 colleges and universities last fall, including all of those in NYC. Yet, when it came time to return they did in large numbers demonstrating their character and loyalty. The week we reopened the population of the city went up 20%. We are still feeling our way through the new Tulane and the new New Orleans, but I am optimistic about our future. I firmly believe that out of this tragedy Tulane will emerge a stronger and better institution than before the storm.
Tulane has led the way in the pace and scope of recovery among New Orleans institutions. We were self reliant, willing to make difficult decisions to secure our future knowing that some of them would be unpopular (and they were), and take charge of our destiny.
New Orleans has not recovered as quickly and certainly its problems of poverty, crime and racial divisiveness are well documented. But I firmly believe that adversity brings opportunity, both for communities and individuals. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans has the opportunity to be a better city, with better schools, safer neighborhoods and a higher quality of life than it did in the past—while still holding on to its unique cultural heritage. Tulane University is playing a major role in the recovery of the city as its largest employer. There is not an aspect of the city’s recovery that we are not involved with and we will stay the course for as long as it takes to rebuild New Orleans.
For me personally, this experience has also brought opportunity, and I truly believe that I was meant to be in this place, at this time. I have had the opportunity to “practice what I preach,” if you will. By serving on the mayor’s initial planning commission, by becoming involved in the planning to overhaul the beleaguered New Orleans public education system, and by taking a leadership role in the city’s recovery, I have been able to use the commitment and the life lessons learned along my own journey through life.
Since the storm the question I am personally most asked is: What was there about my experiences and life that prepared me to deal with this situation? Whatever success we have had results from the fact that I am surrounded by an exceptional group of people. These include our students, faculty and staff-they are my heroes. Their dedication and commitment is what has allowed us to survive and recover so quickly. Without them, we would be lost.
As for myself, I am a firm believer that there are critical incidents in life that shape who you are and prepare you for the next stage in your journey. In thinking back over the past 15 months, looking at my own experience and how I responded to events, I can pinpoint three defining moments in my own life that helped me cope and gave me the strength to persevere.
First, when I was a child, I had to overcome some 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 most importantly regain 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.
My second major period of transformation came when I was drafted after college but subsequently enlisted so I could become an infantry officer. This was during the Vietnam War, and it was both a frightening and exhilarating time. It turned out to be a very critical point in my life, giving me the opportunity to learn leadership skills, to develop a seriousness of purpose, and to really think about what I wanted to do with my life. Even though I was not sent to Vietnam, I did serve in the Middle East as an agent of the ASA. An assignment with its own risk and intrigue.
In the service, I learned how to lead, to set priorities, to achieve objectives and too never say “no”. At 23, I was responsible for the well being of hundreds of people. This awesome responsibility gives you clarity of purpose and focus that no other experience can possibly do. It also gives you the confidence to confront difficult issues under extreme pressure.
As important as those two times were in terms of influencing the person I became, they pale beside the third influence, this is the core of values and beliefs born from my religion and my faith.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with Thomas L. Friedman’s popular book, The World is Flat, which is all about how interconnected this world of ours is. When a hurricane decimates a city in the United States, everyone in the world knows about it instantaneously—not only knows about it, but sees it.
I was struck recently by observations about this book and about the Jewish belief system made by Lester Rosenberg, vice president of the executive committee of the United Jewish Communities. He said that while Friedman’s book pointed out that the world was flat; in our Jewish communities the world has always been flat because of our principles and ideals. He said: “We are responsible for one another and we’ve always been responsible for one another, wherever the call. This is our strength.”
I came to my religion later in life being borne into a mixed religious home where Judaism and Christianity were side by side on a daily basis. In many ways, I was the envy of my friends because I shared in all holidays and was comfortable no matter the circumstances. However, it was clear early in my life that Judaism was the path I would ultimately follow. Nonetheless, the journey to my faith was solidified through the marriage to my wonderful wife, Margie, my absorption in the Cleveland Jewish community for the last three decades and through the reading of a wonderful book by Paul Cowan, entitled An Orphan in Time:Retrieving a Jewish legacy.
During my religious journey I have learned the true meaning of the word “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 practice the positive and reject the negative—they shape who I am, as they shape who you are.
So that is why, as I said at the beginning, that I am so humbled to receive the Shofar Award tonight. Because I have not done anything beyond what is expected of me, in the place I have been put, by the faith I profess.
From my heart, I thank you.
Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638 firstname.lastname@example.org