Panel Created for New Orleans Reconstruction

New Orleans is creating an advisory commission on rebuilding the city. Scott Cowen is the president of Tulane University, and a member of the advisory council. He tells Melissa Block what the commission hopes to achieve.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Some of the people who'll be coming up with answers to the questions Robert raised were named to a commission by the mayor of New Orleans today. It's called the Bring Back New Orleans Commission. Mayor Ray Nagin had this message for New Orleanians.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We want all of you back. We want you back from the uptowns to downtowns. We want you back from the east to the west. We want you back from the Lower Ninth Ward. We want you back from Pigeontown. Wherever you were from, we want you back.

BLOCK: Among the commissioners who will be figuring out how to rebuild the city is Scott Cowen. He's the president of Tulane University, and he joins us from New Orleans.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. SCOTT COWEN (Tulane University): Oh, I'm pleased to be with you today.

BLOCK: Mayor Nagin talked about the commissioners' jaws dropping to the floor when he described the work that he wanted you to do. What do you consider the mission of your group to be and how broad is its scope? Are you talking beyond buildings and structures? Are you talking about sociological things: high crime, high rates of poverty, a poor education system, any number of endemic things that people would like to see fixed in New Orleans?

Mr. COWEN: Yeah, the mayor asked us to look at every single aspect of life in New Orleans--everything from education to the cultural activities to housing to transportation to infrastructure--you name it. He made it all-inclusive. So the task is a very daunting one, but obviously a very critical one for our city, and I think every commissioner has agreed that it's probably one of the most exciting things that we'll ever undertake in their life.

BLOCK: When you think about the future of New Orleans, are you assuming that it will end up being a smaller city? It had 450,000 residents before Katrina; after, do you think it'll be substantially downsized?

Mr. COWEN: Not necessarily. I mean, I think time will tell there. I think we'll go into the task thinking that New Orleans will be the same size, if not larger, than it was before the storm. It may take many years, maybe even decades, to get it to that particular stage, but I don't think there's any presumption as we go into this activity that it's going to be a smaller city or that it has to be a smaller city.

BLOCK: You've also pledged that Tulane will reopen in the middle of January. Do you think that your school will end up being a smaller model of what it once was?

Mr. COWEN: My guess is for the next one, two and three years, it may be somewhat smaller than it was before the storm. However, once again, I think as we look out further, five or 10 years out, I suspect Tulane University will be back to the same size it was before the storm.

BLOCK: Tulane is the biggest private employer in this city. Now it's one thing to reopen the campus and bring students and professors back, but what about the low-wage workers that you would need to keep that university going, whether it's food service or custodial staff, who may have lived in parts of the city that are now washed away. What do you do about them?

Mr. COWEN: Well, there's two things. First of all, all during this time period, we are continuing to pay our full-time staff and faculty, and that's very, very important for them during this very difficult period of time. It has also given them a real sense of community and loyalty to Tulane University and almost to a person they can't wait to get back. Now having said that, though, there's many issues that we have to address to make sure that the environment is good for them when they get back. And the two biggest issues are making sure that there's ample housing for displaced people, and there's also an opportunity for K through 12 education for those who need it.

BLOCK: You know, the commission chair, Barbara Major, talked today about inclusiveness as part of this process, about equity and access for rebuilding New Orleans. Your university, Tulane, is a mostly white enclave in a mostly black city. How do you see your university's role in righting what many say are the wrongs of New Orleans--in other words, the racial imbalance in that city?

Mr. COWEN: Well, one of the things that we teach in universities is the whole notion of inclusiveness, access, tolerance. And I think we could be a model with other universities and colleges in this city to be an example of how you build an inclusive community, how you work with one another. And one of the things we're doing right now, for example, is Tulane University's working very closely with Dillard University and Xavier University, both of which are HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities, are trying to see if there's ways we can partner with them that would allow them to open up on time in the spring in New Orleans. That's another example how we can serve as a role model, if you will, for the rest of the community.

BLOCK: Scott Cowen, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. COWEN: Delighted to be with you.

BLOCK: Scott Cowen is the president of Tulane University, and he's one of those named today to the Bring Back New Orleans Commission.

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