NEW ORLEANS — Scott Cowen, who is preparing to step down after 16 years as president of Tulane University in New Orleans, has written a book about his adopted home town’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
The book, to be released in June, is titled “The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America.”
Cowen said the book ties together stories of ordinary people and civic leaders who played a role in the city’s recovery. He envisions the book as a guide for people in other cities faced with the need for revitalization — such as Detroit or Cleveland, where he once served as dean at Case Western Reserve University. Both cities, once epicenters of manufacturing, have been ravaged by the poor economy in recent years.
He also said writing the book was therapeutic as he dealt with the emotional memories in the years following the 2005 storm, when levee breaches led to the city’s devastation.
“For a couple of years after Katrina, I could barely speak in public about what happened,” Cowen said. The raw emotions lasted for years.
“I think I had to get some distance from that so I could write about it from both an objective point of view but also from a very human point of view, about how it made me feel about myself, about the city and the wonderful things I thought I saw happen both in the university and the city since Katrina.”
Katrina changed the city — and Cowen’s career trajectory. He said he arrived at Tulane in 1998, envisioning a 10-year tenure and an eventual move to another presidency at another university.
After his involvement with the recovery of the university and the city, he doesn’t plan to leave.
“This is going to be our home when I’m not president,” he said.
It’s a personal story for Cowen, but he said the book is not a memoir. “It tells stories about individuals, whether it’s in the public education system or affordable housing,” he said.
For example, he said, the book deals with the feelings of longtime residents of New Orleans federal housing developments who saw most of those developments torn down and replaced. Schools are examined through the eyes of students and parents, and crime is discussed from the perspective of victims’ relatives.
Cowen isn’t ready to reveal too many details of the book more than six months ahead of its official publication. He does, however, give some hints to what readers can expect: examples of when leadership worked — and the times it didn’t.
He acknowledges that his own leadership came under fire after Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005, canceling the fall semester at Tulane and raising questions about the future of a campus that sustained an estimated $200 million in property damage.
A 2006 reorganization plan that included cutting more than half its doctoral programs, consolidation of undergraduate programs and 230 faculty layoffs brought widespread criticism.
“Anybody who was here, especially if you have responsibility for a large organization, you had to make difficult decisions,” he said. “Otherwise, you would not have survived. And even if you had survived, you probably would be so diminished that your future wouldn’t be very bright.”
The university now boasts enrollment of 13,462 — surpassing for the third consecutive year the 2004 enrollment of 13,214.
Cowen didn’t limit his recovery role to the campus. He testified before Congress and requested federal help in rebuilding the city’s colleges and universities. He sat on former Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission and helped form a group of local dignitaries called the Fleur de Lis Ambassadors, who toured the country promoting the city’s recovery.
He also founded Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, which does research on the transformation of the city’s public school system after Katrina.
Education, he said, is a key part of any urban revitalization effort. He believes the effort in New Orleans to decentralize authority over schools, putting more power in the hands of principals and teachers while holding them accountable for student achievement, is showing measurable progress.
Other revitalization efforts in cities such as Detroit will fizzle if student achievement doesn’t improve, he warns.
“If they don’t ultimately turn the corner on public education, whatever good they’re doing now in 10 or 20 or 30 years from now will disappear,” he said.