UConn Magazine: Call Cowen!

The more extraordinary the challenge, the more likely UConn Distinguished Alumnus Scott Cowen will be asked to help.

cowen touring disaster relief area

(Photo courtesy of Paula Burch-Celentano)

Scott Cowen ’68 (BUS) knows what it means to lead during a major crisis. His savvy and sensitive style as the Tulane University president who helped the city of New Orleans recover after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina spurred folks at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to lure him out of retirement to see them through the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

It begins, he says, with lists.

In the earliest days after Hurricane Katrina, when he and his team were evacuated to Houston, Cowen remembers not being able to sleep and calling his wife, who was in New York. “I told her I had no idea what to do. I’d never encountered anything like this,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know if the university was going to survive. I remember her saying to me very, very calmly, ‘What have you always done when you feel overwhelmed?’ I said, ‘I usually make a list and I prioritize things.’ So she said to me very calmly, ‘You better start making a list.’”

From that first list, he and his team devised a plan that would help Tulane return after having 70% of its main campus flooded and all of its health science campus underwater, a plan that would send students, faculty, and staff to universities around the country and find 87% of the students returning when the Tulane campus opened months later. It was a plan that meant making hard choices and reimagining the university through big ideas like a public service graduation requirement that meant all Tulane students would be involved in the rebuilding and strengthening of New Orleans. The university fundraising campaign he led that year surpassed its $700 million goal.

Leading through a crisis, says Cowen, means continually communicating with and listening closely to every stakeholder. That is exactly what he did in the days and months after Katrina, says Dr. Karen DeSalvo, who was then on Tulane’s medical school faculty and is now chief health officer at Google Health. “When the streets were still flooded and the city was under martial law, he came to where we, the team of Tulane medical residents and faculty members, were delivering care. He spent hours with us visiting each site and taking the time to listen to the people he met, so that he could understand the impact of Katrina on their lives and families and understand how Tulane could be there to help. He stood by our side, stood up for us,” she said in a tribute to Cowen on the occasion of his transition from Tulane president to professor. He saw to it, she said, that hundreds of thousands of people received care who “otherwise would have gone without.”

Cowen’s work on behalf of the university and the city of New Orleans and its public schools brought him countless accolades and awards. Time magazine named him one of the country’s 10 Best College Presidents, and he received the 2009 Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award. In 2010, Cowen was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2013 he was named a UConn Distinguished Alumnus.

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