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Hurricane Katrina Case

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The Storm After the Storm : Tulane University President Scott Cowen was at the tail end of a respected career when Katrina hit. The hurricane almost destroyed his institution-- and gave him the chance to reinvent it.
Jennifer Reingold

It's a cloudy, foggy day in New Orleans, but at least it's not raining. That wouldn't bode so well for freshman move-in day at Tulane University. After all, the last time these students arrived, on August 27, 2005, they were here only a few hours before Scott Cowen, Tulane's president, told them to get the hell out of town. The rain that Hurricane Katrina brought--and the terrible wind, and the broken levees, and the chaos, and the devastation--not only shuttered Tulane for a semester but also spawned the largest diaspora from a natural disaster ever to befall an American city.

More than four months later, much of New Orleans remains in ruins. In the shattered neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview, overturned cars are everywhere, doors ajar, upholstery spilling out; tree trunks seem to have taken root inside houses; piles of splintered wood, once brightly painted children's rooms or kitchens, now look as weather-beaten as if they came from a sunken ship. Hundreds of stinking refrigerators still line the curbs, bound with duct tape to keep the ooze in.

Then there's Tulane University, which, while it didn't face the total destruction other areas did, suffered plenty all the same. On this January day, the place looks just a little ragged, although crews of workers are out in force to trim tree branches and cut weeds. Yet compared with the days immediately after Katrina--when nearly two-thirds of the campus was flooded and a thicket of tree trunks littered every walkway, when an administration team was marooned hundreds of miles away with no way to reach students or employees--it's paradise. The mood is festive as upper-class volunteers help excited kids hoist bags into their dorms. A jubilant baby-blue-and-green banner says welcome home.

Proudly surveying the scene is Cowen, 59, who is spending the morning greeting students and, just as often, reassuring their parents that their kids were right to return. "Take care of my daughter," pleads one mom from Ohio. "You just go to Columbus," replies Cowen, a former defensive lineman with a broad smile and a body to match, putting a protective arm around her. "We'll take care of the rest."

Coming from Cowen, it's not an empty promise. Since the night of the hurricane--when he hunkered down on an air mattress in the weight room of the school's rec center and woke up to see water surging across the campus--he and an intrepid band of colleagues have worked tirelessly to get Tulane running again. On January 12, to the classic New Orleans sounds of Dr. Michael White's Liberty Brass Band, Cowen and his colleagues officially welcomed back the 84% of the Class of 2009 that made the return trip (92% of all undergrads came back).

"As I was going to say before Katrina interrupted me..., " begins Cowen, looking resplendent in his president's robes. "We are absolutely delighted that you are here with us finally... No major research university, or for that matter, any organization, has ever been confronted with the challenges we've faced. Yet we have recovered, we have survived, and we have charted a path to the future."

With equal parts grit, creativity, and optimism, Cowen has resuscitated Tulane--formerly the largest private employer in New Orleans and, since Katrina, the largest altogether--even as the rest of the city remains mired in the literal and figurative muck. But Cowen has also decided to do something more than merely rebuild his institution as it once was. Using the powers granted him as a result of the school's financial emergency, he has enacted a bold, controversial, and wrenching "renewal plan," with which he hopes to remake Tulane from a very competitive school into a truly

elite one. "I wouldn't wish this on anybody," he says. "But out of every [disaster] comes an opportunity. We might as well take the opportunity to reinvent ourselves."

Academic leaders don't get that opportunity in normal times. The job of running a major university is one of the toughest management gigs on the planet. Given the endlessly warring constituencies of tenured faculty, students, alumni, athletes, community members, and administrators, it is a role that more often is about offending the fewest people than it is about radical change. So Cowen's decision to try to transform Tulane--a school with a relatively small $850 million endowment to begin with, $90 million to $125 million in projected 2006 losses, and property damage of $250 million--has some people scratching their heads. Yet it is also completely in sync with the no-holds- barred approach of Cowen, a doctor of business administration who ran Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management for 14 years before coming to Tulane in July 1998. "He's a pretty bold guy who only takes yes for an answer," says Richard L. Osborne, a management professor at Weatherhead. "He does it with grace, but he's very persistent."

"As I was going to say before Katrina interrupted me..." More than four months after the hurricane devastated his university and his city, Tulane president Scott Cowen welcomed back the class of 2009--even as crews continued to work to fix the campus.

In 2004, for example, Cowen single-handedly took on the national established collegiate athletic interests, declaring the system by which schools got lucrative invitations to football bowl games unfair and even monopolistic. His efforts resulted in rule changes that angered a lot of people. "We always thought [that] would be my legacy," chuckles Cowen, "and I didn't want that."

Katrina granted that wish--violently. And while the immediate problem was the millions of gallons of water that flooded Tulane's uptown campus and fully inundated its downtown location, the school's woes went far beyond water damage. A university exists in large part because it is expected to exist in the future. It is a dynamic organization that requires a constant influx of new ideas--and a crew of rich alumni who want to attach their names and fortunes to an institution that will outlive them. In short, it assumes perpetuity. And suddenly, that assumption was no longer valid.

This became obvious to Cowen even before he escaped his drowning campus (an escape that required, in order, a commandeered boat, a hot-wired golf cart, a "borrowed" dump truck, and a helicopter donated by a rich alum). Once he set up shop in a Houston hotel along with his executive



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