N August 2005 Scott Cowan, president of Tulane University, watched in despair as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Most of his main campus and all of his health sciences campus were flooded up to six feet.
On the fourth day of what turned out to be the deadliest storm in U.S. history, Cowan decided it was time to take flight. He made his way out of the flood zone in a makeshift boat, a hot-wired golf cart, and a commandeered dump truck before finally hitch-hiking on a helicopter.
"I was raised in New Jersey so that tells all you need to know about my escape skills," he told 780 guests who raised $2.13 million at Yeshiva University 83rd annual Chanukah convocation/dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
When he arrived in Houston, his staff consisted of 30 people working out of a hotel suite. Overnight Tulane went from being one of America’s most selective major research universities to an institution on life support.
Cowan returned to New Orleans and secured modular housing, an apartment building and even a cruise ship from Israel so that his faculty and students who had lost their homes would have a place to live.
People have asked Cowan about his background that prepared him for this moment.
The answer, he said, is a determination to overcome, a passion to succeed, and a strong set of beliefs and core values.
At the YU dinner I asked Cowan to explain. He described growing up in a home in Metuchen where Christmas and Chanukah were celebrated together. His Jewish father, Stanley, and Catholic mother, Helen, brought up their son and daughter to observe both religions. Scott has since converted to Judaism.
The highlight of his journey came at the YU dinner when President Richard Joel conferred on Cowan an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Joel conferred honorary degrees also on board members Henry Kressel, Mary Smart, Samuel G. Weinberg and Elizabeth Wilf.
Joel announced that a $5 million endowment will allow for four initiatives to honor Chancellor Norman Lamm who celebrated his 80th year on the second day of Chanukah. He started as a student at Yeshiva in 1945 and never left.