1998 Freshmen Convocation Address

Scott S. Cowen
Saturday, August 29, 1998

Life, Learning and Lagniappe

It is a great pleasure for me to officially welcome the class of 2002 to the Tulane community. As I wrote you this summer, you and I already have a common bond because we are starting our lives at Tulane together. Because of that, your class will always hold a special place in my heart.

In four short years, we will all gather again as I award your degrees at graduation. And I suspect that no matter how happy that day makes you, it will be nothing short of a sheer delight to those who helped pay for this education. As a parent who has been through this process several times in recent years, my smile at graduation always had a double-edged meaning: Pride and joy for the accomplishments of my son or daughter, and absolute delight at the prospect of my child becoming self-supporting!

But that day is four years away, and as I look across your faces today, I am both proud and envious. Proud because you are among the best and brightest students anywhere. Your potential is unlimited, and you hold the keys to opening and realizing all of your dreams. As you sit here today, whatever you can imagine for yourselves, you can make possible. It is up to you to seize the moment and fully take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities Tulane offers.

I am also envious because you are about to embark on one of the most exciting and memorable times of your life–a time of unprecedented intellectual and personal growth. A time to explore your independence with the comfort of knowing you have a safety net–you’re not completely on your own. To our parents in the audience, this usually translates into seeing your loving child as part of a screaming crowd at a televised sporting event, flashing a sign that says in small print, "Having a great time–Miss Ya!" and in large print, "Please Send Money!"

But while you explore your independence, you are also joining the community of distinguished and accomplished people who have preceded you since the founding of this institution in 1834 as the Medical College of Louisiana, and the subsequent creation of Tulane University in 1884 and H. Sophie Newcomb College in 1886. We have more than 91,000 living alums located around the world, many with distinguished careers in virtually every walk of life. For example:

  • Harold Rosen, developer of the world’s first communications satellite;
  • David Filo, co-founder of the Internet search engine "Yahoo";
  • Shirley Ann Grau, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction;
  • Heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, whose work in heart-transplant surgery and artificial heart development has saved millions of lives;
  • U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and former U.S. Congresswoman Lindy Boggs;
  • "Steel Magnolias" and "The First Wives’ Club" screenwriter Robert Harling.

And, just to prove that your Tulane education will truly allow you to go in whatever direction you please, two more well-known alums:

  • Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; and
  • Fashion designer Geoffrey Beene.

I hope one day to add your name to this extraordinary list. Beginning today, your future and Tulane will always be linked. You are a member of this community for life and we are proud of having you.

As you are about to embark on this wonderful journey, there are three key messages I would like offer in the way of advice to guide you in getting the most of the Tulane experience. You might think these messages sound preachy, more befitting a parent. Unfortunately for you, university presidents are even worse!

There is no magic in these messages. They merely are a set of observations, gleaned from years of being with students and seeing what factors contribute to their having a very productive and satisfactory undergraduate experience.

Message One: Take full advantage of the breadth and depth of intellectual opportunities provided by this institution. Experiment. Take intellectual chances. Don’t be afraid to take courses and participate in university activities in areas where you have no background or experience. This is why you come to a place like Tulane – to expand your intellectual horizons and develop the "habits of the mind" to enhance your capacity for responsible thought and action as a citizen of the world.

Tulane offers you a tremendous variety of learning experiences, from courses in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences to those in engineering, business and architecture. We also have a wonderful selection of unique interdisciplinary opportunities in such areas as political economy, Latin American Studies, and environmental studies, to name but a few. Make sure you take advantage of this diversity, no matter what major you ultimately decide to pursue.

An excellent example of the kind of opportunity I describe is going to occur this year with the introduction of a new program for freshmen called "Lagniappe: The First-Year Experience." The word "lagniappe" is an old Creole expression that means "a little something extra." A local restaurant might offer you an extra beignet with your order and not charge you for it, or your auto mechanic might throw in a free oil change –that’s "lagniappe," New Orleans-style.

At Tulane, "lagniappe" is a program that gives you, our new students, a little New Orleans-flavored "something extra" in terms of your educational experiences. A series of courses will introduce you to some of Tulane’s most distinguished faculty and the city’s most respected artists and experts. Lectures, bicycle trips, tours, films, and food are part of the program. (You will soon learn, if you don’t already know, that food is a big part of any program in New Orleans.)

You may be interested to know that the first event, scheduled for September 3rd, is a lecture by the author John Barry. Does anyone in the audience recognize the name? He is the author of one of the books I recommended you read this summer, called: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.

Of course, you all read the book, didn’t you?

If you miss the kinds of opportunities offered by our "Lagniappe" program, you will miss one of the truly exciting new facets of Tulane’s vast intellectual resources.

Message Two: The ultimate college experience is more than taking the required set of courses to graduate; it also involves being actively engaged in the life of this community. Whether it is intramural sports, student government, campus journalism or the performing arts, involvement in these activities will significantly enhance your learning experience while here. It will also help you develop leadership and interpersonal skills, and prepare you for being an active and concerned citizen in the communities in which you will live and work in the future.

As I reflect on my own past experiences in student government and intercollegiate athletics, I can see the knowledge and skills I developed which have assisted me – professionally and personally – throughout my life. I suspect your parents can easily relate to this point and have also communicated the importance of these experiences. I want and expect an active, vibrant student body who is concerned about Tulane and is willing to pitch in and make this university the best it can be. Whatever your interest, I am willing to guess we have a club, association or activity to match. Take the time to learn about these activities and get involved.

I have an aspiration for Tulane. I want it to continue its ascension into the very top rank of universities worldwide. We are already considered one of the best, but that isn’t good enough for me. Nor should it be good enough for you. Yet, to realize this dream, every single one of us in the Tulane community has to be involved in its various activities. I am counting on you to do your part.

I am also counting on you to be involved in community service activities outside the borders of the Tulane campus. Community service is a high priority of mine and one you will hear me speak about often. Tulane, or for that matter any organization, can be no better than the community in which it exists. My years in several urban areas have shown me that illiteracy, infant mortality, substance abuse, and poverty have widened the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" and jeopardized the future of a generation of young people. Those blessed with the talent and desire to help improve these conditions really can make a difference. Our involvement can be as simple as volunteering our time to things we believe in and, one by one, we can make our community stronger. If these issues are a concern for you, and I hope they are, get involved in any way that makes sense for you. You will see me doing it, and it would give me great pleasure and pride to have you by my side.

Message Three: Work hard, take your studies seriously, and have fun. Let’s talk about the first two phrases first–I suspect you already think you know all about having fun!

Work hard and take your studies seriously. In the next four years you are going to spend a lot of your time–and someone else’s financial resources–to get a degree. This degree is an investment in your future; you will only get out of it what you put into it. First and foremost, you came here to develop the knowledge and skills that will allow you to do whatever it is you want to in your life. This is serious business, and you should treat it accordingly. Your professors will challenge you intellectually, as will your fellow classmates. If you don’t work hard and approach your studies seriously you will fall by the wayside, not really get the full value of your investment, and possibly squander the greatest gift you could possibly receive in life – a great education.

You have already proven you have the potential to succeed at Tulane. Now, make sure that potential comes to fruition. There is no substitute for hard work and diligence. As the Nike ad says, "Just Do It."

Now, let’s talk about having fun. If ever a city was attuned to having fun, it is New Orleans. And I want you to have fun while you are with us.

But I want your fun times to be smart, and I want them to be safe.

Alcohol and substance abuse are hot topics on college campuses across this country, and Tulane is no exception. Binge drinking and drug use account for more student deaths and campus crime than any university cares to admit or will allow in the future.

So there are some things I want you to do. First, it is important for you to learn the laws of this city and state, and make sure you follow them. You must be 21 or older to drink alcoholic beverages, and it should go without saying that drug use of any kind is illegal.

If you have a problem with alcohol or substance abuse–or if you develop one–please come forward at any time and tell us. We will do everything in our power to help you. We want you to be safe and healthy, and we are here to help you if you will allow us.

As a parent as well as a university president, I am so concerned about these issues that I am working with a group of faculty, students, and administrators to review our campus policies. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to make our campus safe from the illegal use of alcohol and drugs, as well as to eliminate excessive and unsafe drinking. We don’t do this to be difficult or to curb your fun; we do it because we genuinely care about your well being. I hope that for the vast majority of you in the audience these are non-issues because you already adhere to a code of behavior that make them unnecessary. And I hope we will all be able to keep the lines of communication open–your thoughts and comments on these issues are important to us.

So I hope I didn’t put too much of a damper on your prospect of fun at Tulane and in New Orleans. Fun is also "serious business" in New Orleans, and you will be able to share in the excitement and vitality of one of this country’s truly unique cities.

It is also an exciting time for you to be a college student. We are on the verge of a new millennium, and we are living through the transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based, information-driven society.

You, my young friends, are the ones who will eventually be the leaders of this new age. Use your time well with us so you acquire the knowledge and skills to be successful in the 21st century.

And with those words, and those messages, in mind, let me again welcome you to Tulane. Examine, explore, and enjoy!

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638