2002 Convocation Address

President Scott S. Cowen
President's Convocation for New Students and their Families
Tulane University
August 24, 2002

Why Are You Here?

It is my great pleasure to welcome the classes of 2006 and 2007 to Tulane University. We are absolutely delighted that you are now part of our community and look forward to your years with us.

Today, you are 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 alumni located around the world, working in distinguished careers in virtually every walk of life. I hope and expect that many of you in this class will join this distinguished group in the future. That process starts today.

Before I get to all the serious stuff, let me spend a few minutes telling you about your classmates. You are a member of the most academically qualified class in this university’s history. Virtually every student in the audience graduated at least in the top 25 percent of his or her graduating class, most in the top 10 percent. Your average SATs put you in the top 5 percent of all test-taking students in the nation.

Of course, this performance is what earned your admission to Tulane University, and now it is time to start over with a clean slate. Obviously, not all of you will be in the top 5, 10, or 20 percent of the class during your time at Tulane. But the real key to the next few years is not what rank you might achieve, but what you make of this experience afforded you—well, perhaps I should say afforded you in one sense, and your parents in a more financial sense!

As I was thinking about this year’s convocation remarks I came across an interesting article in the New York Times entitled: “What is Higher Education For?” In the article, the writer poses a question that is particularly germane to us today. The question was: What is the purpose of an undergraduate education? In other words: Why are you here today and what do you hope to accomplish during your time with us?

I suspect there could be at least three answers to these questions: yours, your parents,’ and mine.

As for why you are here, your answers might include:

  • To have fun.
  • To wear Bermuda shorts and bask in the N.O. sun year round.
  • To live away from home.
  • And, oh yes, I hope you include “furthering my education” on that list.

As for myself and your parents—and, I hope, many of you—we believe you are here to fulfill expectations, to pursue a degree that will lead to a successful career in whatever fields of endeavor you choose, to establish a firm basis for a personally fulfilling life, and to explore your vast potential.

It is the original question, however—concerning the purpose of an undergraduate education—that I’d like us to ponder as we gather here today at the beginning of your university years.

There are at least four purposes for pursuing an undergraduate education and, again, I suspect some of your answers might differ from my own.

Number One

For many of you, asked why you want an undergraduate degree, your answer might be something like this: “I want to learn the things that will help me be successful, make money, and climb the greased pole of success—over the bodies of my competitors, if necessary.”

There are a number of problems with that viewpoint. If you focus on one area to the exclusion of others, you’re going to miss an awful lot of the intellectual smorgasbord your college years should be. This is a time to learn, think and to develop the “habits of the mind” in ways that will probably never again be available to you after graduation.

So I hope you take a broad array of courses, and give yourself permission to explore areas that you have never before considered.

And by “habits of the mind,” by the way, I don’t mean such habits as staying up late, skipping early classes and expanding your party horizons. I mean developing a better understanding of who you are by engaging in a range of activities outside your immediate area of interest so that you acquire a depth of understanding about the arts, humanities, sciences, yourself, and society in general.

The breadth and depth of knowledge and skills you will acquire by expanding your intellectual horizons will better prepare you for life and to assume your role in the global community.

Number Two

Another reason you might give for pursuing your undergraduate degree is to get away from home, grow up and live on your own, and experience life outside the shadows of your family. This reason, by the way, is the one that scares your parents the most.

Surprisingly, I agree with you on this one. Now, I don’t mean your college years should be devoted to the singular pursuit of pleasure, that you should neglect your studies for the “classroom of life.” Not by a long shot. You are here to learn and get an education—please don’t blow this marvelous opportunity!

But it is important that you take advantage of the co-curricular and extracurricular activities that abound for Tulane students. Approximately half of the learning that occurs in college takes place in the classroom; the rest occurs through your daily interaction with your peers.

So go out and get involved. Join a club, a team, or a volunteer organization. Participate in activities like the TIDES program; make sure you participate in the discussion groups focused on your summer reading assignment. John Barry’s book is a fascinating story of events and people that helped shape this region and America in the 1920s and beyond. We are fortunate to have John associated with the university so don’t miss the chance to join in these discussions. In addition, join in activities that introduce you to New Orleans and its rich history and culture.

If you take advantage of the vast opportunities the university offers outside the classroom you will learn more about yourself and others than you ever dreamed possible. Through these activities you will hone your leadership and interpersonal skills, develop new abilities and position yourself, when combined with your formal education, to enhance the likelihood of success in life. As part of your Tulane experience, we want you to fully develop your capabilities to become a wise, thoughtful citizen of the world.

Number Three

A third reason for pursuing your college degree is to meet new people and make new friends to enhance your personal development. No doubt you will meet friends that you likely will carry with you the rest of your lives just as your parents and I have. You’ll tend to have a lot in common with these people—you will share interests, backgrounds and goals.

But I challenge you to expand that reasoning. Meet new people, yes, and certainly make new friends, but go out of your way to meet people who differ from you, who come from different backgrounds and cultures, who speak different languages, who believe different things. This interaction will enhance your understanding of what it means to be a responsible, sensitive and influential global citizen who cares about society. This particular reason has taken on even more significance since the tragic events of 9/11.

I know that it’s hard, when you’re 18 or 19 years old, to really get your mind around the idea of how you can improve the quality of life for those less fortunate, or to forge worldwide peace, or to protect the rights of our democratic society. It’s not even that easy at my age—which I dare not mention.

But it’s vitally important to try, and this is a time when you are able to freely explore other languages, cultures and ideas so that you are able to take your place on the world stage when the time for your generation comes.

It is also vital, as you explore, that you learn the virtue of acceptance and tolerance. Ours is a diverse and exciting world—and Tulane is a diverse and exciting campus. It is important not only that you be exposed to and be able to explore other ideas and beliefs, but that you learn to accept them. You’ll find many people and beliefs with which you disagree, and no one expects you to do otherwise. What you can—and should—do, however, is respect others’ rights to believe as they do and learn as much as you can from them. Being part of a diverse community is an important part of learning, take advantage of it.

So, with that in mind--- mingle, volunteer, get engaged---Tulane has many opportunities for community involvement. Absorb what’s around you; you are attending a university that is in itself a microcosm of world cultures and beliefs, located within a broadly diverse urban community. Community engagement is a noble endeavor—indulge in it to the fullest the next few years and you are likely to want to do so for the rest of your life.

Number Four

Finally—and you’re going to like this one—college is a time for you to have fun, and I do want you to have fun while you’re here. If ever a city was attuned to having fun, it is New Orleans.

Now, here comes the preachy part, and I ask you not to groan or look too harshly at your nodding parents.

While you are having fun, also be smart, act responsibly, and stay safe.

For many of you, this is your first real time away from home and you will no doubt face many temptations and social pressures. I ask you to confront these with thoughtfulness, confidence and respect for yourself and others.

And while we’re talking about having fun while acting responsibly, I would be remiss if I did not talk about alcohol and drug use. Nationwide, excessive drinking and drug use account for more campus crime and student deaths than any university cares to admit or should be willing to tolerate. At Tulane, we have spent a lot of time discussing these issues and strengthening our policies to strongly discourage excessive drinking while having zero tolerance for drug usage of any kind. We are unforgiving when it comes to the use of drugs and intolerant of excessive and underage drinking.

That is not to say that if you find yourself with an alcohol or substance abuse problem that we aren’t here to help. We absolutely are. Come forward at any time and we will do everything in our power to assist you

I should add here that I’m speaking as a parent as well as a university president, and the issues of alcohol and drugs are extremely important to me and to Tulane. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to make our campus and students safe from excessive and underage 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 makes them unnecessary. And I hope we will keep the lines of communication open —your thoughts and comments on these issues are important to us.

Fun is serious business in New Orleans, and you will be able to share in the excitement and vitality of this unique city. Just do it safely and with judgment.

Well, those are my four purposes for pursuing an undergraduate degree. You are about to begin one of the greatest journeys in your life.

Enjoy yourself. Aim high, but accept that you’ll make mistakes. We learn as much from our mistakes as from our successes—sometimes even more.

I’d also like to say a few words to you parents in the audience. Whether this is your first child you’re seeing off to college, or the last, this is a bittersweet passage for you. I am not sure I can comfort you at this time other than to share my own experience as a father of four, all of whom have now completed undergraduate school. When the first one left we were sad for the first 48 hours until we realized that life at home was easier and much more simple. By the time the last one left, we had a smile so wide on our faces that we had to hide it for a few days for fear people would construe us as uncaring parents. Life has never been better.

I should warn you, however, that they do tend to recycle themselves after a few years and go back to school or even return home for a time, but the life of an empty nester can be nirvana. Enjoy these times. I know we sure have.

Students and friends, welcome to Tulane University. You are now officially part of our family and will remain a part of it for the rest of your life. We are proud to have you here and look forward with great joy to the years ahead. Oh, by the way, make sure you say hello when you see me on campus or at games. I really like that and it makes me happy. This is a good thing for all of us!

I look forward to playing a part in your lives in the years ahead. I will enjoy watching you grow and develop.

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