The outgoing president of Tulane University looks back on his role in the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans.
When Hurricane Katrina drowned the Crescent City in 2005, it appeared as if the once-great American metropolis might never recover. The deceased bodies of poor, mostly black citizens were left for days to decompose on muddy streets, and many of those who survived the floodwaters were later denied relief at gunpoint when they tried to flee. At the same time, members of the wealthy white elite were openly talking about suddenly having a clean slate to start rebuilding New Orleans to their liking. Into that context came the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, formed with Cowen as the quarterback charged with rebuilding the decimated school system and, by extension, the city. That any impoverished child in the forsaken town ever again sat down in the classroom to study is a remarkable achievement. However, the blueprint used for that success—with its emphasis on charter schools and high-stakes testing—was controversial at the time and remains so today. Cowen skates over the particulars while continually exalting his can-do leadership doctrine. He delivers some blame to embattled former mayor Ray Nagin and his famous “Chocolate City” speech for inciting early black suspicion of the reconstruction effort. Although Cowen later takes pains to outline New Orleans’ long and tragic history of racism and social re-engineering, he seems oblivious to how the poor, black citizens of New Orleans might perceive a meeting with a group of white bankers and real estate developers in which one of his pals was quoted as saying, “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.”
More controversial and polarizing than the universal prescription for urban ills it yearns to be.