Scott Cowen memoir review: Indispensable man looks back

We’ve gotten pretty good at the blame game: Nagin. Michael “Brownie” Brown. Blanco. Dubya. The Army Corps. The Road Home. They’ve all done time as the bull’s-eye on the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina dart board.

What’s the opposite of the blame game — the acclaim game? It’s less popular, but let’s go a round or two. Who was singly most responsible for New Orleans’ recovery and rebound? Gen. Russel Honoré? Don Powell? (Remember him?) Mary Landrieu? Her kid brother? Drew Brees?

How about Scott Cowen?

A case can be made that getting Tulane University back on its feet was the sine qua non of New Orleans’ recovery after Katrina. Which would be a way of saying that Cowen, the force of nature who pulled Tulane back from the brink, did the same for the city.

Tulane, after all, was the city’s largest private employer before Katrina — and after Katrina was, as Cowen puts it in his characteristically blunt way, “the city’s largest employer, period.”

The university, then in its 172nd year, was also in mortal danger of collapse. It had sustained $650 million in direct damage and had a relatively small endowment. With students scattered to the winds, possibly forever, there was reason to wonder if the requisite number of parents would ever again have the stomach to spend 50 grand a year to send their children to college in a certifiable disaster zone.

Cowen, who is just stepping down as Tulane’s president, is no one’s idea of a bashful guy, but in his fascinating post-Katrina chronicle, “The Inevitable City,” he stops short of nominating himself as the city’s savior. That task is tactfully attended to in a foreword by Walter Isaacson, the best-selling writer and Aspen Institute head who performed yeoman service himself as co-chairman (with Xavier’s Norman Francis) of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Isaacson’s salute frees Cowen to range over the whole post-Katrina landscape. And Tulane’s reach does indeed seem to touch a remarkably wide and diverse spectrum of recovery programs and innovative enterprises. To mention just a few:

Lusher School: Cowen cut a deal to ensure faculty kids a place to go to school, then launched the Cowen Institute as a research arm in support of the education reforms that have swept New Orleans since Katrina.

Former Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, on which Cowen was a committee chairman.

Pedicabs in the Quarter and a new-age toothpaste company: Tulane alumni were the entrepreneurs behind those businesses and many others.

Revival of the Circle Food Store: Tulane’s schools of business and architecture provided the owner with pro bono guidance.

The BioInnovation Center: The consortium of corporate and academic institutions includes Tulane.

The Grow Dat Youth Farm: Cowen saw so much merit in this City Park experiment in urban agriculture for at-risk kids that he cut a personal check for startup funds.

It’s a strong record, and at the heart of it is the philosophical sea change that turned Tulane from a notorious party school into a more competitive university now recognized for its commitment to “service learning” — an idea hardly original to Tulane but nowhere embraced more earnestly. The gist of it is this: There’s no better way to learn than by centering the curriculum around real-world, place-based needs. And, of course, when the place is New Orleans, the students have a stunningly rich array of community needs to attend to.

The catalog of Tulane’s achievements is not just something for Cowen to brag on. Partly a memoir, his book is also conceived as a how-to manual on leadership, with each accomplishment meant to illustrate a precept. At his most expansive, Cowen proposes that the book is a “prescription for what it will take to rebuild urban America,” an ambition premised on an implicit equation: The current degradation of our cities is, in the aggregate, a fiasco comparable to Katrina. It might just be true.

Though worthy ideas, Cowen’s leadership precepts can be a bit bland: “Do the right thing,” “understand reality,” “aim high” (elsewhere rephrased as “ambitiously optimize”), “stand up for your beliefs,” “innovate,” “lead by example” and so on. The problem, perhaps, is that the nostrums pale by contrast with Cowen’s swift and vivid way with stories and examples meant to illustrate each of them.

The bigger frustration, for this reader anyway, is that Cowen leaps to the celebration of his and Tulane’s accomplishments without spending much time on the guerrilla actions — the skirmishes, dust-ups and pitched battles that he had to fight and win.

Instead, we occasionally get sentences like, “Apart from my fight with the American Association of University Professors on the firing of tenured professors plus a few other things, like defending lawsuits and chasing FEMA for what it owed us, the months after Katrina didn’t feature many showdowns.”

Whoa! Behind that glancing reference to the tenured professors lies one of Cowen’s most astonishing and controversial maneuvers: a complete restructuring of Tulane academics to build on strengths and pare back weaker departments.

It was a coup so swift and bold that Bob Boh, a local construction tycoon, wasn’t even informed the ax was about to fall. (And when it lopped off big chunks of the School of Engineering, on whose advisory board Boh served, he was not at all pleased to have been left out of the loop.)

Cashiered professors went ballistic, as did the American Association of University Professors on their behalf.

What’s missing is the sweat and smoke of the war room as Cowen and his aides overcame scruples and decided to do what they felt they had to do to save Tulane. Who was in the room? What alternatives were considered seriously?

For lack of this nitty-gritty, Cowen’s extraordinary accomplishment can seem as effortless as his very good way with a story. He’s a big-hearted guy, forbearing and generous toward his foes. But every once in a while, you see the glint of his blade, and it makes you wish you had been able to watch the duel as well as the victory march, for Cowen can be a savage infighter.

Here he is, in testimony on Capitol Hill, responding to a moronic congressman who had the temerity to suggest that rebuilding New Orleans would be a waste of time and money:

“As I hear you,” snaps Cowen, “you’re proposing a new standard for what the United States owes its communities. Logically, then, you don’t rebuild New York City after 9/11 because it’s prone to terrorist attacks. You don’t rebuild San Francisco if it has an earthquake because it’s prone to earthquakes. Same for tornadoes in Huntsville or Springfield: just let all these communities disappear. This is not the kind of country I think about when I think about America. I think of America as a place that values all its cities and towns, and that believes in preserving them generation after generation.”

And here’s Cowen on the phone with Nagin after the mayor’s famous “Chocolate City” speech, with its race-baiting insinuation about the treachery of “Uptown” people:

Cowen to Nagin: “ ‘Why did you give this speech? Aren’t I and a whole lot of other people from Uptown busting our chops to help you rebuild the city?’ Ray said, ‘I’m not talking about you.’ I shot back, ‘Then who the hell are you talking about, and why?’ There was silence on the line.”

Elsewhere Cowen refers, deliciously, to “Nagin’s circus of dysfunction” — and this in a book that evidently went to press before the ex-mayor’s recent trial and conviction on corruption charges.

Some of the fights are ongoing, and the book is itself Cowen’s dagger, as in this sly jab to the ribs of LSU, portrayed by Cowen as something of a bully in the fight to build the oversized University Medical Center, now rising off Canal Street:

“The good news, such that it is: Privatization is probably the only way out of the looming fiscal disaster. LSU will get out of the business of managing a hospital, something for which it’s ill-suited anyway.”

Ouch.

But any quibbles with Cowen’s narrative, any yearnings for more detail about the back-room maneuvering are more than offset by the rich material that he has seen fit to share. The major fights of the Katrina era are all deftly recapped: charters versus traditional schools, whether to tear down the Big Four housing projects, the toxic green-dots graphic produced for Joe Canizaro and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. There’s even a furious discussion of the more recent flap over The Times-Picayune’s decision to discontinue daily print publication, opening the door for this paper to rush into the New Orleans market. Cowen had a role in that, too, though a small one.

Cowen justly prides himself on his fair-mindedness. And in setting up his stories, he airs both sides of sometimes vicious disputes so fully and sympathetically that, now and again, I found myself wondering how he ever reached a decision and chose between them.

But choose he did; some of the calls were tough indeed, and a lot of them, so far, seem to have been right. (Cowen acknowledges the occasional blooper, among them discontinuing computer science just as New Orleans was about to attempt its reincarnation as “Silicon Bayou.”)

Bottom line: Cowen was, if not uniquely responsible for New Orleans’ comeback, certainly as important to the process as any of the more public figures who strutted and preened before us, insisting they were our only hope.

At the end of the day, there was blame enough to go around. Even the stunning ineptitude of the Bush administration was not enough to explain the disaster called Katrina. The city’s successful recovery was likewise the work of many hands, including a lot of folks who had nothing to do with Tulane and its president.

But you’ll finish “The Inevitable City” with little doubt that recovery from Katrina was anything but inevitable. It was magnificent good fortune to have had a Scott Cowen in the Tulane prexy’s office when the levees crumbled and, for a time, things looked really, really bleak around here.

Jed Horne is news editor of The Lens. His books include “Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City,” published by Random House in 2006 and updated in 2008.