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Just Call Me Scott

June 24, 1998

Suzanne Johnson
tulanian@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

Meet new Tulane President, Scott S. Cowen, whose dynamic yet informal style is changing the way Tulane does business. Rain had threatened all afternoon, and the skies were turning prematurely dark for early evening as Susan Tucker, archivist and librarian for the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, sat concentrating at her computer in Caroline Richardson Hall.

Everyone else had gone home for the day, no one was expected, and Tucker was taking advantage of the quiet time to catch up on some work. When the door to the center's reading room opened, she assumed it was a student.

"Can I help you?" she asked automatically, looking up to see a tall, somehow familiar-looking figure. "Hi, I'm Scott Cowen," the visitor said, and Tucker did a quick double-take as she greeted Tulane University's president-elect. Scott S. Cowen succeeded Eamon M. Kelly as Tulane's 14th president. Cowen, introduced to the Tulane community at a December press conference after his selection by the Tulane Board of Administrators, is the former longtime dean of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

After his presidency was announced, Cowen and his wife, Marjorie, wasted no time in becoming familiar figures on campus, making monthly treks from Cleveland to New Orleans to meet with university faculty and staff, talk to students over coffee at PJ's Coffee Shop near the University Center, and stroll the campus in every available spare moment as if to take it in, heart and soul, to learn its nuances, discern its nature, become a part of it.

In the process, people across campus, like Susan Tucker, learned more about their charismatic new president. A booming voice. A hearty laugh. A tireless curiosity. A tall, white-haired figure who has only to walk into a room for people to understand that this is a leader, with a formidable ability to absorb new information, understand it, and respond. And most, like Tucker, liked what they saw.

"I was really impressed," she says. "He asked a lot of questions and showed a lot of interest in what we were doing. I think the fact that he has taken the time to go around the campus and meet people has helped us feel like we know him."

The June morning is already unseasonably, unreasonably hot, even for New Orleans. The heat index hits 100 degrees by mid-morning, and Cowen wastes no time, after good-naturedly enduring an outdoor photo session, in shedding his suit jacket. Scott Cowen hates jackets, perhaps for the stricture of formality they imply. He prefers shirtsleeves to suit coats, wants to be called "Scott" rather than "Dr. Cowen," and is rumored to occasionally shed his shoes in the office after a long afternoon of meetings. The shoes are still on at the moment, however, as Cowen reflects on the journey that brought him to the second floor of Gibson Hall on such a muggy June day.

Born 51 years ago in Metuchen, N.J., a working-class town of about 14,000 that qualifies for the oft-repeated moniker of New York City "bedroom community," Cowen was the youngest of two children born to Helen and Stanley Cowen. He and his sister, Joan, grew up like most American kids of the late 1940s and early 1950s, school in the fall, summer vacations with the family. For the Cowens, vacations meant Long Beach Island, where the young Scott Cowen would go clamming and crabbing and occasionally embark on his father's small boat.

"Those vacations are the thing I remember most about our childhood," says Joan Cowen Garthwaite, a librarian in Union, N.J. Four years Scott's senior, Joan describes her brother as "warm and funny and friendly, even as a child."

As a student, Cowen didn't begin to develop his love of learning and leadership qualities until high school, where he says he "was a competent student, but not a star." Yet, even at Metuchen High School, there were signs: he was involved in student government, played football and, in his senior year, was voted by his peers as "Did Most for MHS While In School." Also that senior year, Cowen was presented with a choice: an opportunity to study at an Ivy League institution, or a chance to play football on an athletic scholarship for the University of Connecticut after being recruited by legendary coach Lou Holtz.

He chose the unconventional route and UConn, where he graduated in 1968. Again, he was involved in athletics, in clubs, in student government, in organizations that developed his leadership abilities. Again, he describes himself as "a good student, but not a great student." The U.S. Army was soon to change all that. "I think my transformation as a student came after college," Cowen says.

It was the heady, frightening days of Vietnam, and the new college graduate was drafted into the infantry. He subsequently volunteered to attend Infantry Officer Candidates' School, which took him from New Jersey to Missouri to Georgia to Texas and, finally, to Turkey.

"That turned out to be a very critical point in my life," Cowen recalls. "I began to take life much more seriously, began to reflect much more about what I wanted to do with my life." He also began to tap further into his intellectual and academic talents. By the time he completed his tour of service, he was anxious to get to work. He completed a master's and doctorate in business administration at George Washington University and set off on a career in academia, first at Bucknell University, then, in 1976, at Case Western Reserve University, the school that was to play such a big part in his future.

Working up through the faculty ranks at Case Western, Cowen became a full professor of accountancy in 1982, and was named dean of the Weatherhead School of Management in 1984. He subsequently became the Albert J. Weatherhead III Professor of Management in 1994. It was a long journey for the young boy who hunted crabs on a Long Island beach and thought he might someday become an attorney. But when Scott Cowen was named dean of the Weatherhead School, it was, in a sense, just the beginning.

Over the ensuing 14 years, he would transform the fledgling management school into a force not only at Case Western but in the city of Cleveland and in business education circles both nationally and internationally. And, personally, he would further develop the management style that has prompted colleagues to use words like innovative, visionary and inspiring. Darlyne Bailey had been struggling with a problem for more than a year when the crisis came in 1995. As the new dean of the School of Social Work at Case Western the year before, Bailey had been asked by Cowen to participate in a decision regarding that most difficult of managerial problems, a personnel matter.

"I was not convinced of the need for this action until almost a year later when, unfortunately, the circumstances had gotten very complicated," Bailey recalls. "Scott let me have the time to reach my own conclusions, and never once said, I told you so.'" Recently, Cowen and Bailey were in a meeting where Bailey was counseling another colleague about a personnel action. "After the meeting, Scott walked over to me and said, I'm so proud of you. You've really grown in this job.' " Bailey says. "It was not a patronizing or even sarcastic remark, but warmly delivered words that spoke some about me and volumes about who Scott is."

Ask Scott Cowen who he is, and he will tell you he is focused and performance-driven, with admittedly unrealistic expectations both for himself and others. He sets high standards, believes in setting high goals, and doesn't like to hear excuses, political backbiting or turf-related arguments. That's the one hand. On the other hand, he enjoys people and likes to work with honesty and a minimum of fuss, remember the shirtsleeves?

"I'm an accessible person," Cowen says. "I genuinely like and care about people. I think people find it very easy to talk to me, and they'll never have to worry about how to say something, it's almost impossible to offend me. "I believe in openness and trust and candor, and if I feel that in the people I'm working with, I think we can make magic within an organization."

He has even developed a name for the magic he wants to help create at Tulane: A Renaissance of Thought and Action. It is a theme he and others on campus will be using and hearing a lot in the coming year, as it sets not only a tone and direction for activities surrounding his inaugural year but also a backdrop for the institutional planning process he will lead. Cowen wants Tulane to think about who it is, what it stands for, and where it wants to go. Then he wants it to go there.

"The word renaissance is perfect because it captures a rebirth, a renewal, a rethinking," Cowen says. "The thought and action' part of the theme is important because it is not enough to rethink the institution and how we want to reconfigure it, but we also must act to get it that way. "I find a lot of times in higher education that people are very willing to think about ideas required to fulfill a vision, but they sometimes fall short on the execution and action."

Action, it's a word that fits Cowen to the proverbial T. He is by all accounts a tireless worker, energetic and driven. He works long hours, 12 a day, not because he has to, but because, well, he's having fun. "I love what I do, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction," he says. With all the work, he laughingly says his conversational range can be a little boring: there isn't a lot of time for hobbies, although he enjoys sports and is an avid reader, usually with up to five books in progress at any given time, from what he calls "trashy novels" to philosophy. But even with his private reading choices--except, perhaps, for the novels--most have some relevance to his work. Except, for Cowen, of course, it isn't work. It's fun.

"There's no greater satisfaction in life than institutional building," he says. "When you feel you've really helped an institution grow and develop, it's the greatest thing you can feel. I always keep focused on that goal." In fact, Cowen's ability to focus on the matters at hand is legendary among his colleagues at Case Western and among the numerous corporations, ranging from RubberMaid Inc. to the American Greetings Corp., for which he serves as a director and adviser.

Since December, that focus has gradually begun to tighten around Tulane. Cowen didn't just spend his six months as president-elect meeting people and exploring New Orleans; he also was learning about Tulane--what works, what doesn't work, what needs to work better.

"In the very beginning, I was overwhelmed by the fact that I had been selected for the job, and I felt as if I'd never be able to get my arms around it or grasp the organization or know where to get started," he says. "But after spending several months on campus and getting to meet people, it began to take focus and shape, and light began to shine at the end of the tunnel. "That's how I've felt about what's happened here over the last six months. I've had a great opportunity to talk with a lot of people, and people have been absolutely gracious and welcoming and have reaffirmed all the positive initial impressions I had of the people and of Tulane. Now, what I feel needs to be done is clearer. I'm ready to hit the ground running."

Some would say he has already completed a marathon, with several significant initiatives already under way. The university's administrative structure has been streamlined, and work has begun to initiate the strategic planning process at Tulane. Cowen's inaugural theme of "Tulane: A Renaissance of Thought and Action" will span events throughout the year, beginning with a universitywide convocation in September that will start the process of what he hopes will create a more familial feeling among Tulane students, faculty and staff (see related story on page 33).

And, finally, work is being done to create a less-centralized academic structure, giving more autonomy to -- and placing more fiscal responsibility on -- the deans of the individual schools and colleges, and using financial incentives to promote excellence. Whew and that's just the six months as president-elect. Now that he is officially ensconced in Gibson Hall, Cowen will continue to work at learning the people and nature of Tulane, expanding his focus to include important groups outside the immediate university campus who have a strong interest in the institution--Tulane alumni and friends, for example.

"The alumni that I have met so far speak very highly of the institution," he says. "They talk very fondly about their academic days, about New Orleans, and about the whole experience of Tulane in New Orleans." Alumni are what Cowen calls "stakeholders" of the university, along with such groups as faculty, staff, students and donors.

When an institution such as a university begins to develop a long-range strategic plan--a process Cowen will be leading Tulane through for the next two years--those stakeholders need to be involved in the process. Part of the early strategic planning process, Cowen says, will be orchestrating ways to ensure that the voices of Tulane University's multiple "stakeholders" are heard, loud and clear. Cowen acknowledges that different stakeholders will have different priorities for Tulane, and that is where leadership plays a role.

"One of the responsibilities of the senior leadership of an organization is to begin to meld all the different voices together into a coherent plan for the future, one that has general acceptance by the organization itself." Finding that general acceptance is the hard part, he admits. "It's a tricky task, and that's why most universities do not do strategic planning. They see it as too complex, with constituencies too diverse in their feelings." Tulane University, however, will be doing strategic planning, which Cowen sees as essential for the institution to move forward. It is a process he believes in strongly, and one he has led successfully not only at the Weatherhead School but also at other organizations.

Another thing Tulane will be doing--alongside its new president--is increased community service. Scott Cowen believes a university must be an active part of its community, a lesson he learned the hard way. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the city of Cleveland was on the verge of bankruptcy. Media coverage of the city's plight only served to reinforce negative images of Cleveland not only among its own citizens but across the country. "It really had an impact on Case Western because it was difficult to recruit students and faculty," Cowen says. "It wasn't a source of pride for the people who lived there. And I learned from that experience that if I'm going to be in a community, I'm going to get involved in that community."

Cowen was as good as his word, serving a number of Cleveland organizations in an ongoing capacity, including the Ohio-Israel Chamber of Commerce (board member); United Way (strategic planning committee); the Mt. Sinai Medical Center (board member); Jewish Federation of Cleveland (trustee); and the Leadership Council of the Council of Small Enterprises, part of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association.

"I feel it's incumbent on people in leadership positions to constantly give back to the community in whatever ways it is appropriate for them and whatever matches their interests," Cowen says. "I believe I have been blessed and had a lot of good fortune because a lot of people helped me along the way. I now think it's important for me to help those who are less fortunate. I believe that should be manifested not only through philanthropy but also in the giving of time to the community."

It is important for Tulane, as well. "I don't believe any institution can be any stronger and more vibrant than the community in which it exists," Cowen says, thinking back to Cleveland's dark days. "Tulane is the largest private employer in New Orleans, and the fourth-largest in the state. We are a national institution of renown. We are uniquely qualified to add value to the community in which we live with others." One of the things Cowen liked about Tulane from the beginning is the level of community involvement that already exists. "We do a lot already," he says. "But there will continue to be more. "And I always believe in leading by example, so if I think it's important I won't just ask someone else to do it. I'll be doing it also."

On March 27, The Chronicle of Higher Education--a weekly journal considered by most to be the most unbiased and accurate accounting of life in academia--ran an article titled "Corporate Know-How Lands Presidencies for a Growing Number of Business Deans." The subhead: "Some faculty members, fearing a loss of academic values, are worried about the trend." In conversation, Scott Cowen is relatively unflappable--as he says himself, "it's hard to offend me." But he does take issue with those who imply that academicians in management and business are not academicians in the truest sense.

"A lot of times people are quick to say that if someone has a business background or is a business school dean, that their beliefs must be antithetical to what a university stands for," he says. "That simply isn't true. Business school deans and faculty like myself who grew up in the academy share the same core values as faculty in the liberal arts or in other professional and graduate programs. "We do share the same core values, as well as having the same deep and abiding love for the things that make universities special."

Rather, Cowen says, business school deans are in a good position to take on university presidencies because they have already had to cope with the market-driven changes that are just now beginning to beset universities as a whole. "Over the last 10 years, business schools have really gone through a significant period of change, and many people believe that is a precursor to what universities as a whole will be going through," he says. "So business school deans may be uniquely qualified in some ways to lead that change process because they have had to do it."

B-schools began the last decade on a growth curve, then went through a decline. Deans had to learn to adapt their schools and the way they were run in order to most effectively deal with that decline and turn things around. "During that process, you learn a lot about change, everything from curriculum redesign to how to better lead and manage the organization," Cowen says. "People are beginning to realize that those skills are the kind of skills we need universitywide."

Higher education as a whole has taken a recent beating in the media and from the public, with escalating costs and a few prominent cases of mismanagement causing more people to question an American educational system that has always been considered the best in the world. "The spotlight has really been on our universities over the last 10 years, for a lot of reasons," Cowen says. "Many people believe the cost of an education has become prohibitive and that universities are not accessible. And, unfortunately, there have been some bad examples of either poor judgment or largesse on the part of a few universities, and people have blown that out of proportion to think all universities are guilty of the same thing."

Universities must respond, Cowen says. "First of all, we have to be much more effective in making consumers aware of how we operate, why costs are the way they are, and how we really do deliver exceptional value in our universities. People often look at the cost side of higher education and never think about what you get on the other side. Part of the blame for that falls to us; we are not as effective as we could be about communicating the need for a vibrant higher education system." Universities must also manage themselves more effectively, he says.

"These are tough, competitive times. Money is not as plentiful in some arenas as it has been in the past. We need to be more effective managers of our institutions." It's one thing to take on the job of effectively managing Tulane as its 14th "first family." That will require 12 hours of fun a day, in the Cowen vernacular.

But that leaves 12 hours unaccounted for, so Scott and Marjorie Cowen will also be taking on the job of learning New Orleans after spending the last 20-plus years in Cleveland. They are settled in a house on St. Charles Avenue while the president's home at No. 2 Audubon Place is being renovated. Streetcars rattle outside the windows, visible through the shimmer of a summertime heat only New Orleans can produce. Both admit it has been a hard move, emotionally.

Their children, grown now, and either in college or pursuing careers of their own, were all reared in Cleveland, and the Cowens have been active in the community as volunteers as well as professionally. But if the six months of Cowen's time as president-elect were any indication, they'll learn the ways of New Orleans quickly. Repeat the scenario with Newcomb's Susan Tucker and others on campus, inquisitive and interested and enthusiastic, with a clerk at the local E-Z Serve or a waiter at the Cafe du Monde.

"We're really excited about experiencing New Orleans," Cowen says. "It's a very unique city, very rich in tradition, and has a mystique to it that I find very interesting. People have been incredibly welcoming and warm. "I think it's going to be a terrific adventure."

Suzanne Johnson is editor of Tulanian and editorial services manager for the Office of University Publications. This article originally appeared in the summer 1998 issue of Tulanian magazine.


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