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Inaugural Remarks - September 24, 1999


Growing Great by Dreams

Mr. Chairman, honored guests, friends, colleagues and my dear family:

I am honored to stand before you as the fourteenth President of Tulane University.

I am pleased to see so many of you here and want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing this special day with me. However, to see so many people in the audience reminds me of a comment Sir Winston Churchill once made when he was congratulated on the size of an audience gathered to hear him speak. It was no great achievement to draw such a crowd, Churchill said. "Twice as many would have turned out for a public hanging."

Maybe so, but I thank you for being here this afternoon, nonetheless.

Since the founding of this great institution in 1834, it has been blessed with the strong leadership necessary to transform it from a regional medical college into an international university. Our challenge is to continue to build on this legacy to attain an even higher level of academic quality and recognition for Tulane. I welcome this opportunity, and have every intention of ensuring that it is realized.

At last year's convocation, I spoke about the challenges facing higher education in the new millennium and what Tulane needed to do to continue its ascendancy among the very best private research universities in the country. Today, for just a few minutes, I would like to speak with you on a much more personal and intimate basis. In fact, I would like you to go on a journey with me. Let's for a moment imagine that we are at a gathering at Tulane University in the year 2010, and the topic is "Tulane since the beginning of the Millennium." What is it we would like to say about our achievements since the year 2000?

There is nothing special about picking the year 2010 as our starting point. It seems like a long enough time period to get us to think beyond our current horizon of opportunities, yet short enough to at least be in our sight and imagination.

I have been thinking a lot about that question for the last 15 months. In the process, I have come up with hundreds of ideas ranging from "Tulane University survived Scott Cowen's presidency and was even better off for it," to "Wow, Tulane was the first university in the 21st century to get a $1 billion unrestricted endowment gift in a lump-sum payment and the check successfully cleared the bank." No doubt, you have your favorite scenarios. However, throughout the summer, I disciplined myself to get the list down to three simple, straightforward statements.

Let's now time-warp to the year 2010 at Tulane University. Our gathering is being held in an attractive and functional University Center constructed with funds raised in a highly successful capital campaign in the first decade of the new millennium. Everyone associated with the university at the time gave often and generously, almost to the point where the president simply couldn't accept any more money. Oops, sorry, my fantasizing got the better of me!

First, I would like anyone associated with this institution to say that it had a profound and long-lasting impact on his or her life. In fact, the Tulane experience was a seminal one in the intellectual growth and development of all those associated with it. At a time when technology is pervasive in society Tulane found a way to create a high-tech, high-touch culture that values the human spirit and individual initiative. I want the Tulane experience to profoundly touch the minds and hearts of all those associated with it.

In early June, Marjorie and I had the pleasure of going to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a number of Tulane alumni, many of whom are in the audience today. It was a wonderful weekend, steeped in fun, deep conversation about Tulane, and ample opportunities for us to learn a lot about this institution from people who care for it deeply.

One of those people was Bobby Boudreau, a lawyer from Lake Charles who earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from Tulane University in the early '50s. We flew from New Orleans to Santa Fe with Bobby and his wife, Margaret, and for three-and-one-half hours, Bobby peppered me with questions about Tulane and my plans for the institution. At first his questioning amused me, but then I couldn't help but be impressed by his unabiding love for and interest in the institution.

The questions, the suggestions and the wonderful stories about Tulane continued throughout the weekend as Bobby introduced me to friends old and new. The day we left Santa Fe to fly back to New Orleans, Bobby handed me a letter he had written at 5:00 that morning and asked me to read it when I got home. The letter was written in green ink and in longhand. It is impossible for me to do justice to the poetry of his letter, but it had a profound impact on me because it described so vividly what impact Tulane University has had on Bobby and his family. Ironically, several days later, I received another letter, this one from my host for the Santa Fe weekend, Carol Cudd, Newcomb class of '59 and a member of the Tulane board. Carol's letter exhibited the same intensity and love for Tulane as did Bobby's.

The following are just a few of the observations they shared with me as to why Tulane was so special to them.

  • Soul mates living in a splendid campus residential community;
  • Faculty who nurtured and developed their potential to the fullest;
  • The absorption of everything Tulane had to offer, from academics to student government to community activism;
  • A rigorous, but humane and intimate, intellectual and learning environment;
  • A place where a person felt more like a member of a family than a number in an institution;
  • New Orleans--its flair, uniqueness, culture and magic;
  • A place that cared for them and really made a difference.

If we could only consistently ensure a collegiate experience that engenders these emotions and feelings in everyone associated with Tulane University, we would have accomplished something very special. Even though there are probably many Bobby Boudreaus and Carol Cudds among our alumni, my desire is to have all of them, as well as our faculty and staff, feel that same love and intensity toward Tulane. For our students, this requires us to be attentive to every aspect of the collegiate experience, from admissions to career counseling and placement, and everything in between. For our faculty and staff, it requires us to create a culture of excellence and develop an infrastructure that allows us to attract and retain the very best people.

It also requires us to change the public image of Tulane. I want people to perceive Tulane as an extremely high quality academic institution that continually aspires to deliver a demanding and rigorous learning experience in a vibrant and exciting intellectual environment. One that cares deeply for its students and brings to bear all of its resources to make the Tulane experience one of the most distinctive and distinguished anywhere. I don't even mind if the image also includes the fact that you can also have a good time here; I just don't want that to be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Tulane.

It also requires us to find creative and effective ways to use technology in the learning process without depersonalizing the collegiate experience and replacing personal human interaction as a means to facilitate learning and individual intellectual growth.

Is this a realistic expectation for us to accomplish by 2010? I think we can and, besides, an inauguration allows leeway for dreaming. As that great entrepreneur Walt Disney said, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

The second thing I would like people to say about Tulane in the year 2010 is that it is a university in the truest meaning of the word. A university that dares to dream and has the courage and will to make these dreams a reality.

About 40 years ago, Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California, defined the modern research university as a "multiversity." "The 'multiversity,' " he said, "is an inconsistent institution. It is not one community, but several...Its edges are fuzzy...It serves society almost slavishly--a society it also criticizes, sometimes unmercifully...A community, like the medieval communities of masters and students, should have common interests; in the 'multiversity,' they are quite varied, even conflicting. A community should have a soul, a single animating principle; the 'multiversity' has several--some of them quite good, although there is much debate on which souls really deserve salvation."

Kerr's observations about research universities are probably as accurate today as they were 40 years ago, yet I do not want them to hold true for Tulane. I want us to have a soul and a single animating principle. If we can do this, we will continually realize our dreams.

At last year's convocation, when I stated that I wanted Tulane to be a university acting as a community with shared aspirations, values and goals, my message was a simple one. Let's be one of the few research universities anywhere that is truly a university and not a "multiversity"; an institution where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, moving in unison to achieve its destiny.

This is not an easy challenge, for it first requires us as an institution to dream. Then we must have the discipline to transform these dreams into reality.

The former CEO of Time Warner Inc., Steve Ross, got a wonderful piece of advice from his dying father. He told him: "There are those who work all day, those who dream all day, and those who spend an hour dreaming before setting out to work to fulfill those dreams. Go into the third category because there's virtually no competition."

My friends, we must learn to dream together to shape the future of this wonderful institution. This is a daunting task under the best of circumstances. It is a particularly difficult challenge at Tulane because of our having to continually cope with financial issues and having do more with less at a time when we have increasing expectations put on us by ourselves and others. Yet, we must occasionally dream together if we are ever to realize a future we cannot envision today.

As I read about our history and people like Paul Tulane, Josephine Louise Newcomb, William Preston Johnston, Brandt Dixon, and scores of distinguished faculty, loyal staff and alumni, I realize we would not be here today if it were not for these dreamers. They might not have used this term to describe what they did and accomplished but, nonetheless, they had the foresight, will and discipline to take this place to heights they could not envision at the time.

We must renew this spirit and soar again to the heights we cannot see. What an exciting time to have this rebirth, as we are about to enter a new millennium where the advancement of human knowledge is even more important than ever as the key to prosperity and equality in the next century.

This summer, during a few relaxing moments, I did get the opportunity to listen to beautiful music, close my eyes and dream about Tulane's future. The exercise always brought a smile to my face and a feeling of hope and contentment. My only regret during these moments was that I was dreaming alone and yearning for the time and space to do it with so many of my colleagues here.

Let's make a commitment from here forward to be a university in the best meaning of the word, one that dares to dream while others only work. A university that is a renaissance of thought and action in spirit and deed, and does not use this phrase merely as a marketing slogan. To accomplish this, we must develop a level of trust, goodwill and cooperation among us unprecedented at this university and at many others. As faculty, we are often bred to be cynical and skeptical, especially when it comes to the motives and actions of administration. If these feelings exist here, let's put them aside and move forward together to realize our future. I will approach my leadership challenge in this manner and I hope you will as well.

But let's not forget that dreams need to be transformed into reality.

Shortly before I became president of Tulane University, many of my presidential colleagues across the country gave me this sage advice: Don't try to develop a unified, specific plan for the institution. Their experiences indicated this was a futile task bound for failure. As they correctly observed, very few universities--especially complex research universities--are ever successful in developing a substantive plan. As one particularly wise president said to me, "Scott, do not try to get people at a university on the same page, it is an impossible task". The advice of these presidents was to forget trying to develop a university out of a "multiversity." To try otherwise, they said, would doom me to permanent membership in Don Quixote's therapy group.

Despite this advice, since assuming this presidency I have continued to press forward for us to develop a clear statement of our future. There have been some bumps in the road along the way, but I am pleased with our progress over the last year and believe we will be able to successfully complete the process during this academic year. If we can, we will have achieved something very few universities have done, and we will be the better for it.

I cannot overemphasize how important this process is to helping us determine the future direction and destination for Tulane. The late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once boarded a train but then couldn't locate his ticket. The conductor recognized the justice and reassured him. "Don't worry about your ticket, Mr. Holmes--you can send us the ticket after you reach your destination."

"My dear man," Holmes replied. "The problem is not 'where is my ticket?' The problem is 'where am I going?'

If we dare to dream and then have the desire to fulfill these dreams, we must know their shape and content.

To achieve my desire of us being a "true" university, as well as having people in 2010 say that we always achieve our dreams, we must come to closure on a plan for our future.

I will not take the time today to outline the draft plan we have before us other than to say that it is focused on enhancing our already high academic quality and securing our financial future. We have in the draft plan the room to dream, the flexibility to innovate and exercise our creativity to its fullest. Yet, we also have a clear set of expectations that, if achieved, will make us proud in the decades ahead and clearly set us apart as a university that not only dreams but also has the will and discipline to see them become a reality.

To ensure that our dreams do become a reality and our plan is achieved, I have good news to share with you today. This summer, the university received the largest gift in its history and one of the largest, if not the largest, gifts on a present-value basis ever received in Louisiana. It is an $18 million unrestricted gift from the estate of Lallage Feazel Wall of Monroe, Louisiana. Mrs. Wall passed away in February, and as a settlement of her estate the university received this extraordinary gift, which has already been paid in full.

At the most recent Tulane Board meeting this week, the Trustees approved putting a portion of this gift in the endowment and earmarking the income from this endowment to assist us in the implementation of our plan when it is finished. The remainder of the gift will also be used to implement the plan by providing immediate investment funding to underwrite the cost of our initiatives in the next three years. I am deeply appreciative to Mrs. Wall and her descendants for providing this extraordinary opportunity. I am also appreciative to our Board for having faith in us to successfully develop and implement a course of action for our future. I promise that we will not let you down.

My final expectation for 2010 is that Tulane is a beloved, local treasure and a national model of influence, accomplishment and recognition.

When I think of this last hope for Tulane I can't help but think of the Mississippi River.

When I was a child, the Mississippi River always intrigued me. I acquired the interest, no doubt, because of Mark Twain. I vividly remember reading just about every book and short story he wrote and being fascinated by his descriptions of the river. In Life on the Mississippi Mark Twain describes the river by saying, "The great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun."

Unfortunately, this interest was repressed as I grew older and was diverted by other interests in my life. However, now that I am a New Orleanian and have witnessed firsthand the splendor of the river, my interest has been rekindled.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading John Barry's book, Rising Tide: The Great Flood of 1927, knows what a profound impact this river has had on the development of this region and the nation. As a matter of fact, as I now look at the river I see so much more than just a body of water. I now hear jazz, and think of the literature it inspired, the commerce it developed, the science and engineering feats it gave rise to, and how it shaped national politics.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Mississippi River is a treasure that has significantly shaped many facets of this country. This reality was brought home to me again this morning during the faculty seminars held in honor of today's inauguration. My faculty colleagues very eloquently described in session after session the interconnection between the river, Tulane and the development of this region.

I do realize that the river has its shortfalls. It can smell occasionally, it doesn't always look nice, and it can be unforgiving on a bad weather day. Despite all of this, New Orleans, and much of this region, owes its identity and existence to this magnificent resource.

In many ways, I hope Tulane can, in the years ahead, be described in many of the words used for the river: powerful, influential, inspiring, unpredictable, and a catalyst for growth and change for all those who come in contact with it--a "true" resource of local and national prominence. If we continually fulfill our mission and achieve our dreams, we will have earned the right to this position. Much progress has already been made, yet so much more needs to be done to accomplish this by 2010.

These, my friends, are my thoughts about what we should accomplish in the years ahead:

  • To have a profound and long-lasting impact on all people with whom we interact;
  • To be a "true" university with dreams that soar and accomplishments to match; and
  • To accomplish our mission with brilliance so that we are a beloved local treasure as well as a highly respected institution with unquestioned national prominence.

These are my dreams for Tulane University. Will they be difficult? Yes. Are they doable? Absolutely.

I leave you with the words of Woodrow Wilson, America's 28th president and president of Princeton University, who aptly observed that "We grow great by dreams...Dreamers see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter's evening. Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which comes always to those who sincerely hope that their dreams will come true."

I sincerely hope--no, I believe--that our dreams for Tulane University can come true. I hope you'll join me on the journey in making it happen.

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638 info@scottcowen.com