2003 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 17, 2003

Good Morning!

On behalf of the entire Tulane University community, it gives me pleasure to welcome our graduates, and their families and friends to the 169th commencement exercise of this great university.

Before I begin I want to pause to recognize two very special individuals. Today is John Koerner's last commencement as Chair of the Tulane Board and I ask that he stand and be recognized for five years of outstanding leadership and service to the institution. Thank you John, for all you've done!

On July 1 of this year, for the first time in the institution's history, the Chair of the Tulane Board will be a woman. Please join me in wishing Cathy Pierson our best as she assumes her new role.

Let me take a moment to tell you all about the class of 2003.

  • There are 2,390 of you-1,240 women and 1,150 men, representing all 50 states as well as 71 countries.
  • The top five states represented, after Louisiana, are Texas, California, New York, Florida and Illinois.
  • The top five countries, behind the United States, are China, Taiwan, India, Mexico and Colombia.
  • The youngest member of your graduating class will turn 20 in August; your "most well-seasoned"-I won't say "oldest"-is 58 years old.
  • Of the degrees being awarded today, 54% are bachelor's degrees; 21.3% are master's, 2.2% are doctorates; 16% are in law; and 6.5% are in medicine.

Today, our graduates become part of a worldwide network of Tulane alumni who have distinguished themselves in every field imaginable and made their mark on our country and the world. You will follow in their footsteps and, I hope, exceed their accomplishments for, on paper, you are the most talented graduates to ever leave this university.

You leave this safe haven at an interesting time in the history of the United States and the world. Since September 11, 2001, our world has changed. We are now at war, and a dominant nation in a world filled with uncertainty, instability and divisiveness. When and how this period of history will end is unclear. Yet, what is certain is that you are the next generation of leaders, the generation that will determine the future for my generation as well as for your own children and your children's children. Are you ready to meet this challenge? Are you emotionally, morally and intellectually prepared to guide the way to a lasting peace and security for our world? Of course, only time will tell. I have no doubt you have the competency to succeed, but do you have the courage and strength of character you will need?

As I stand before you today in an effort to be brief, yet have something useful to say without offering platitudes or simplistic advice, I do wish you one attribute above all others-I wish you CHARACTER!

I must admit in front of this intimate gathering of graduates and their guests that my all-time favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. This confession is not a political statement of any kind. Rather, it is a statement of admiration for a leader that embodies, at least for me, those personal qualities so desperately needed in the world.

President Roosevelt's intellect, inquisitiveness, humanity, integrity, vision, courage and strength have always been attributes I have greatly admired in people. In essence, he had the total leadership package-not perfect, but almost as good as it gets. Anyone who has read and studied the life of Teddy Roosevelt would agree the man had CHARACTER and demanded it in those around him.

The historian, Edmund Morris, in his biography of President Roosevelt entitled Theodore Rex, describes Roosevelt's concept of character as including the virtues of "intelligence, unselfishness, courage and decency." He goes on to say that Roosevelt believed character determined the worth of the individual, and "what is true of the individual is also true of the nation." I believe this observation is as true today as it was when stated more than 100 years ago.

One does not need wealth or position or stature to have character. In fact, character is the most powerful non-economic virtue that can transform an individual, a nation and a world. Some would have us believe that if we don't have character by now in our lives, it is not possible to develop it. This is not true. The development of character is an evolutionary process requiring continuous learning, a lifelong dedication to introspection, and a willingness to adapt and change as life dictates. Character is more a product of failure than success, more a product of risk-taking than compliancy, of giving rather than taking, seeking what is true rather than what you can justify.

When, and if, you ever stop developing character, it diminishes your ability to make a meaningful contribution to your family, your community, and society at large. Don't ever let that happen to you!

We live in troubling and complex times. It is easy to get immobilized or frustrated about our inability as individuals to alter world events or address societal issues. Yet, as Roosevelt rightly observed, individuals of character exercising their rights of citizenship can alter a nation.

So while I send you away to celebrate with your families today, I wish you happiness, health, luck-and a lot of character.

Thank you.

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