Days after the worst of Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, Scott S. Cowen felt as if he was running out of options.
Mr. Cowen, president of Tulane University, found himself stranded with a group of university staff in the student recreation center. The campus had no water, no working sewage system, and no electricity. Mr. Cowen had just one T-shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts. The recovery of a lifetime lay ahead.
Now, nearly eight years after Mr. Cowen led Tulane through the most trying period of its 179-year history, he has said he will retire. Mr. Cowen, who turns 67 this month, plans to step down on July 1, 2014. His departure will mark the end of a presidency that has been defined by the rebuilding of much of an institution from the ground up.
Mr. Cowen became Tulane's 14th president in July 1998. His previous leadership positions included serving as a U.S. Army infantry officer and dean of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.
The president—who used a boat, golf cart, dump truck, and helicopter to get from Tulane's campus to the university's temporary headquarters, in Houston, after Katrina—says he believes the institution's transformation since the hurricane has left it a better place. "The culture of Tulane has changed dramatically," he says. "We've developed a culture of civic engagement, particularly in New Orleans, and I doubt that shift would have occurred had it not been for Katrina."
Among the changes, he says, were the creation of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, which has supported the post-hurricane transformation of public education in New Orleans, and the addition of a public-service component to Tulane's curriculum.
Mr. Cowen says his time at Tulane has been marked by a series of "gut-wrenching decisions." Soon after the storm hit, in August 2005, he made the call to cancel the fall semester. He asked colleges throughout the country to allow Tulane's 12,000 students to enroll on their campuses that fall. But his paramount goal was to reopen in January 2006.
"We had absolutely no idea how we would do that, but we felt that we had to set a date to provide a sign of hope," he says. "Our feeling was that would at least give us something to work toward."
Tulane managed to reopen for the spring semester of 2006, retaining 87 percent of its undergraduates. Mr. Cowen's handling of the recovery, though, brought criticism from some quarters. Facing a drop in tuition income, he decided several months after Katrina to lay off more than 200 faculty members. That decision earned Tulane a rebuke from the American Association of University Professors. Mr. Cowen also supported the transformation of the university's Newcomb College, which had previously been a degree-granting school for women, to an institute.
Although he acknowledges that some of his decisions led to deep rifts, Mr. Cowen says he would not have done anything differently. "It's easy to be a Sunday-morning quarterback when you're not in the situation yourself and you're not accountable for results," he says.
Some students and faculty who were at Tulane during the storm say that Mr. Cowen has been forgiven by many who spoke out against him. "There are certainly those who don't agree with every decision that was made," says Lev Kaplan, associate chair of the department of physics and engineering physics, "but I think most agree that the overall process has been handled very well."
Meredith A. Beers, a doctoral student at Tulane who was an undergraduate there during Katrina, says Mr. Cowen's calm yet authoritative demeanor instilled confidence in students, faculty, and staff.
While Mr. Cowen has tried to close the chapter on Katrina, he acknowledges that his legacy will be entwined with the hurricane. The recovery process—which cost $200-million in the first year alone—is not far in the past, he says.
In recent years, other institutions facing natural disasters have called upon Tulane for guidance. When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Northeast last fall, Mr. Cowen reached out to college presidents and public officials, offering advice on disaster management. After the storm, Tulane sent a team of architecture students and faculty to collaborate with the New Jersey Institute of Technology on community revitalization.
Mr. Cowen, who hopes to return to teaching, says those efforts are a sign of Tulane's commitment to public service. "It goes to show," he says, "that something good can come out of even the worst tragedy."