‘Tulane, N.O. are linked,’ school’s new president says

To make the point about how similar his just-announced successor is to him, Tulane University President Scott Cowen had Michael Fitts try on his old green sports coat Tuesday.

It looked like a good fit.

Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was announced Tuesday as Tulane’s 15th president, replacing Cowen, who is scheduled to step down in July after leading the university for 16 years.

His hiring, approved by Tulane’s board Tuesday afternoon, capped an eight-month search launched after Cowen announced last summer that he would retire.

“I am humbled by the lofty expectations you have, everybody in this community has, for propelling Tulane forward, in both its teaching and research missions,” Fitts, 60, told a packed room at Tulane’s Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, where the selection was announced.

Andy Wisdom, co-chairman of the 15-member search committee, said Fitts was the group’s unanimous choice.

Fitts graduated from Harvard in 1975 and earned his law degree from Yale in 1979. He worked as a clerk at the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia for two years, then spent another four years with the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Justice Department, according to his curriculum vitae, published on the law school’s website.

He joined the Penn law school faculty in 1985 and was named dean in 2000.

In an interview after the announcement, Cowen voiced support for his successor, describing Fitts as “very warm and genuine, and that impressed me a lot.”

“I think what people want to know about leaders is who are they really, and what are they like, and my first impressions were that this is a guy who will fit culturally and personality-wise at Tulane and in New Orleans,” said Cowen, who plans to continue teaching at Tulane after stepping down as president.

During a ceremony that included many hugs and rounds of applause, Darryl Berger, chairman of Tulane’s board of administrators, described Fitts as possessing “outstanding skills as a leader, a strategic thinker and, not incidentally, a prodigious fundraiser.”

Like Cowen when he took over Tulane’s presidency in 1998, Fitts has a reputation as a skilled money-raiser. Under his watch, the Penn law school raised a record $180 million in six years in a capital campaign, the school announced in 2012. Much of the money went toward boosting financial aid, hiring more faculty and expanding the school’s program offerings.

In an interview after the announcement, Fitts, who has lived most of his life in Philadelphia, said the opportunity to assume Tulane’s top post was appealing in large part because of the city, describing New Orleans as “one of the most exciting, diverse, energized cities in the country, if not the world.”

Just as Cowen has been a part-time civic booster for the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Fitts said the fates of the city and the university are tied closely together.

“Tulane and New Orleans are linked,” he said. “New Orleans is a better and more vibrant and attractive city because of Tulane, and Tulane is a better and more attractive university because of New Orleans, and the future of the two are linked. We need to nurture that and further that relationship because it benefits us both.”

In his spare time, Fitts said, he enjoys exercising and watching sports. Ultimately, his preferences will adapt.

“Going forward, it will be the Saints,” he said with a laugh. “Historically, I have been a Philadelphia Eagles fan. But absolutely, the Saints.”

Joseph Frumkin, a member of the Penn law school’s board of overseers, praised Fitts’ ability to connect with people and draw alumni back into the fold, likely big parts of the keys to his fundraising success.

“He’s just such an enthusiastic, warm guy,” Frumkin said. “He’s able to articulate a vision that people can feel enthusiastic about. It makes you want to give the money to help support the creation of that vision.”

Frumkin, a partner at a New York law firm, said Fitts’ lasting legacy at Penn may be his work integrating the law school with other departments, such as increasing the number of joint degree and certificate programs offered by the law school to nearly three dozen.

“I think he was years ahead of other law school deans in recognizing the need for legal education to connect with other kinds of education,” Frumkin said.

According to Tulane’s most recently available tax forms, Cowen received a $940,000 compensation package in 2011.