In Katrina’s Unrelenting Aftermath, Tulane Continues to Reinvent Itself

Focus on the Presidency column written by Tulane President Scott S. Cowen
January/February 2006

As the university successively faced survival, recovery, and reinvention, the Tulane board rose to the occasion.

On December 8, 2005, the Board of Trustees of Tulane University announced a historic reinvention plan in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Some higher education experts have called it the most significant reinvention of an American university since the Civil War.

The plan for the university provides a new vision intended to satisfy two goals: first, to ensure that Tulane maintains its commitment to academic excellence and second, to address the significant financial challenges resulting from the hurricane. Tulane’s trustees were integral to the development of this plan and acquitted themselves with great distinction and integrity. They have helped save the university.

Shortly after the storm in August, I convened the first of many conference calls and personal meetings with trustees to apprise them of our dire situation. It quickly became obvious that Tulane was going to be forever changed by Katrina and that we would need to significantly revise our thinking about the future.

During all the calls and meetings, trustees remained calm, supportive, and focused on what needed to be done. As the university moved from the survival to the recovery phase, trustees made themselves accessible and offered advice to senior administrators on a myriad of issues without being intrusive. Their demeanor instilled confidence in all of us and reinforced our determination to overcome any obstacle. In the best sense of the word, the board became our true partner. Trustees were instrumental in helping us think through the distinctive characteristics of a reinvented Tulane. We knew we had to retain the core of the university’s academic excellence while addressing its financial challenges. But it also became clear that we simultaneously needed to commit the institution to be at the center of the recovery of New Orleans.

Once our goals were established, the board created a strategic planning committee to work with our leadership team and external advisers to develop an action plan. Virtually every meeting drew full attendance by the board, including emeritus members who returned to help. The board’s effort was heroic and unwavering.

The planning process quickly showed that we might have to allow traditions to recede, structures to change and programs to end—many of which were close to the hearts of our trustees, many of whom are alumni. Not once did parochial interests override the university’s needs or well-being. To watch individual trustees rise above self-interest was inspirational. There were never complaints and always offers of assistance.

As the plan began to take shape, the board vetted and discussed its aspects with the leadership team as the advisers. Trustees’ questions were probing, expansive and constructive. As a result, the plan became sharper, more focused and grounded. All this occurred in less than two months.

As our December board meeting approached, it was clear that what we had developed would be bold and responsive yet very controversial because of difficult tradeoffs. It was wrenching for all of us to cope with the necessity and reality of changing 172 years of history—eliminating programs, releasing employees and possibly alienating friends and donors who had supported us.

Specifically, we made a strategic decision to eliminate our departments of civil, computer, electrical, environmental and mechanical engineering, as well as computer sciences, which involved the separation of 34 faculty. In addition, we had to eliminate, as humanely as possible, 180 faculty positions at our medical school and about 14 faculty positions elsewhere. Yet Katrina’s effects left the board with few good choices if the university was going to survive and have an opportunity to thrive academically and financially in the future.

Our December board meeting lasted two days and was characterized by an intensity and focus unlike anything I have seen from any board with which I have served. In the end, Tulane trustees approved the plan unanimously, with no abstentions.

Not surprisingly, the board and the leadership team have continued to work nonstop since the meeting to discuss all aspects of the plan with our various constituencies. Once again, the board is standing shoulder to shoulder with us in this process.

Ultimately, history will determine whether our decisions were correct or astray. Regardless, I do believe history will reflect that the Tulane board shone during a time of darkness and rose to a level of performance rarely seen in any board, anywhere at any time.

Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.

Section: Focus on the Presidency
Volume 14, Number 1, Page 5