‘It was a very courageous thing to do’

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June 9, 2014 8:45 AM

NIck Altiero

Cowen and Altiero
During a homecoming event, President Scott Cowen, left, celebrates with Nick Altiero, dean of the School of Science and Engineering. (Photo by Sally Asher)

Editor’s Note: In this series of articles, colleagues and friends of Tulane University President Scott Cowen write a remembrance of their work with him. Nick Altiero, dean of the School of Science and Engineering, has been at Tulane since 2000.

About a month after Hurricane Katrina, Amy and I returned to the city. I remember standing on the uptown Tulane campus looking at the destruction that the storm and its aftermath had caused when I received a text message announcing that we planned to reopen in the spring. I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking it was possible.

Not only did we reopen, but the campus looked remarkably good. It was amazing.

But the university had to make tough decisions in a very short time, just for Tulane to survive. I was dean of the School of Engineering, and one of the decisions that Scott and the Board of Tulane made was to eliminate three departments in the school, leaving only biomedical engineering and chemical engineering. The departments that were eliminated were deemed to have too few faculty to be competitive with peer institutions.

Scott told me, “This is not something we would have done except for Katrina, but we really didn’t have the resources to grow those programs before Katrina, and we certainly don’t have those resources now.”

I’m sure it was a very difficult decision for him. It was a very courageous thing to do.

He then asked me to be the dean of a new school that would bring together the science and engineering disciplines.

I was conflicted … on the one hand I was angry that engineering departments had been eliminated. I had a great deal of sympathy for the faculty, staff and alumni of those programs. But a side of me saw that it was indeed the wave of the future, to have science and engineering more tightly interconnected.

What we have now is much stronger than what we had before. A lot of us can’t imagine it any other way. Tulane did something that I believe other universities will follow as the best model, because scientific breakthroughs are driving technological innovations at an accelerating pace.

Scott has been a big cheerleader for the School of Science and Engineering. And he has been very supportive of the programs we have added since the storm such as engineering physics and computer science.

The fact is that Scott Cowen saved Tulane University. Those of us who were here know that.