Recruiting, developing, and retaining talent in education is an ongoing challenge. We need high-quality educators in every classroom for all students and school leaders who can meet challenges of today and tomorrow. Increasing teacher pay, improving teacher preparation and school leadership degree programs, and creating pipelines and support structures for effective school leader development…these are all things we have to prioritize.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Scott Cowen, president emeritus and distinguished university chair of Tulane University in New Orleans. Seven years into his 16-year tenure at the helm of Tulane, Hurricane Katrina presented Dr. Cowen with an existential institutional crisis that led him to transform the university and become a key player in the rebuilding of New Orleans and reformation of the city’s K-12 public education system. Cowen has been named one of the top college presidents in the nation by TIME magazine and is the recipient of several prestigious national awards for leadership in higher education. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to The Chronicle of Higher Education. For his last book, Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education, Cowen drew on examples from a wide range of colleges and universities to show what works (and what doesn’t) in American higher education.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Cowen! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
After my military tour of duty, I went back to school to get an MBA degree. In the second year of the program several faculty members encouraged me to pursue a doctoral degree, a goal I had never contemplated. The rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting — and tragic — story of my career involves my role in the rebuilding of Tulane University and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Having something that unimaginable happen to you, your institution, and your community and finding a way out of that devastating crisis was a defining experience that changed me and my outlook on challenging situations forever.
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During my years as an academic dean, I once appointed someone to be a department chair against the advice of many people in the department. It turned out that they were right and I was wrong. Lesson learned: Be a better listener!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m exploring writing another book or starting a podcast. In fact, I may do both! I started teaching an undergraduate course on leadership after I stepped down as president of Tulane, which really got me thinking about leadership myths and the reality of what it means to be an effective leader. I have a lot to say on the subject and am also constantly inspired by leaders around me, who come from all different walks of life and sectors but share an ability to lead people and bring exciting visions to life. I want to share a nuanced perspective on leadership that shows leadership in all its complexity and diversity. My goal for this project is to demonstrate to a wide range of emerging and established leaders that there is no one way to be an effective leader, while also offering them inspiration on how to be the best leaders they can be.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
My career in higher education spans 45+ years. I started out as a professor and worked my way up through the ranks, serving as business school dean at Case Western Reserve University and then as president of Tulane. After Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed New Orleans, I also took on a leadership role in the effort to reform K-12 public education in New Orleans and founded an institute to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I’d give American K-12 public education a C- and the higher education system a B.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
I wouldn’t say things are going ‘really great’ in US education. There are too many issues that have been brewing for quite some time and that we’ve been turning a blind eye to that are threatening education as a whole, but I do think there are a few areas that deserve recognition:
1. We continue to produce world-class research and innovation and our institutions of higher education are still the envy of the world in that regard. Stanford University sets the bar in my opinion when it comes to innovation.
2. We’re seeing much more emphasis on diverse student bodies and inclusive campuses. While progress is still too slow, I think we’re moving in the right direction and there are many genuine efforts to make student demographics reflect our communities’ demographics.
3. The return on investment remains high. For most people, completing college is a good investment that pays off financially and in many other ways. While there are a number of factors at play, education remains a powerful force for social and economic mobility.
4. I applaud K-12 public education reform efforts around the country. I believe that school districts that are decentralizing decision-making are empowering their schools to make decisions that are right for their particular students, teachers, and communities, which is critical to meaningful, long-term success.
5. School choice in K-12 education has become a priority in many states. New Orleans is a great example. Open enrollment allows parents to choose where to send their children to school, regardless of their zip code.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
1. The current college admissions system is making upward mobility and opportunity for all essentially impossible. This is at least true at elite institutions. In their efforts to move up in national rankings, they contribute to the selectivity hype that has created an admissions culture that tends to give a leg up to those who are already privileged.
2. The financial model of colleges and universities, and many private K-12 schools, is not sustainable. Between declining college enrollment numbers, decreasing state funding, and rising tuition discount rates, many schools are struggling to generate enough revenue to cover their growing expenses.
3. College persistence and completion rates for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, students of color, and first-generation college-goers are not what they should be yet. We need to make headway in this area if we are serious about wanting to increase social and economic mobility and address income inequality.
4. Recruiting, developing, and retaining talent in education is an ongoing challenge. We need high-quality educators in every classroom for all students and school leaders who can meet challenges of today and tomorrow. Increasing teacher pay, improving teacher preparation and school leadership degree programs, and creating pipelines and support structures for effective school leader development…these are all things we have to prioritize.
5. Early childhood education is key. Ninety percent of a child’s brain development happens by age five. Without access to high quality early learning, kids are 25% more likely to drop out of school, 40% more likely to become a teen parent, 60% more likely never to attend college, and the list goes on.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We can do a lot better when it comes to engaging young people in STEM and, even more importantly, keeping them engaged!
1. STEM attrition is real. Many students start their college education with an interest in STEM but drop out or switch to non-STEM majors along the way. Let’s figure out what discouraged them and how we can keep interested students in STEM fields.
2. We need to strengthen career pathways for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields so that more young people can see themselves in STEM. It can’t be the exception that a woman or a person of color is a STEM teacher, professor, department head or dean. We need diverse role models in STEM for young people.
3. We need to fight implicit bias. All too often girls and children of color still get the message that STEM is not for them from their teachers and society at large.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Women are attending and graduating from college at a faster rate than men. In other words, the future truly is female and we need to ensure that women are represented in all fields for our country’s sake. Our economy and society are increasingly dependent on STEM and to drive progress and develop solutions to complex issues, we need women’s expertise and perspectives at the table.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I have a bias for STEAM. Given the fast pace of technological and societal change, I think the convergence of STEM and the arts and humanities is essential. It’s our current reality and the future. Just look at Steve Jobs; he built an incredibly successful company based on this intersection. I honestly think that schools of engineering need to integrate the arts much more than most of them currently do. Today’s world of STEM is also raising urgent and complex questions, many of them of philosophical nature, that we can only respond to with an understanding of the humanities.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
1. I’d push for new methods of assessment in college admissions. The Posse Foundation’s process for recruiting and enrolling talented students overlooked by traditional admissions criteria is a great example of how we can give prospective students a fair chance. I also welcome the increasing number of schools that are going test optional. It’s time for our country’s elite institutions to de-emphasize SAT/ACT scores and focus on more holistic — and frankly, more accurate — ways to measure whether prospective students are likely to thrive at a particular institution.
2. I’d do away with national rankings, such as US News & World Report. They are misleading and undermine the educational missions of our institutions of higher education by encouraging schools to reject as many students as possible, rewarding institutional wealth, and failing to actually measure their academic quality and positive long-term impact on students.
3. I would ensure more equitable funding for K-12 schools. There’s currently too much variance in per pupil funds based on districts. In my opinion, more equitable funding would also mean more money directed to supporting instructional aspects, such as teacher salaries.
4. I would increase funding for and availability of quality early childhood programs. Research strongly suggests that the foundation for future learning and success in school and beyond is established during the first few years of a child’s life. The returns on this investment cannot be overstated.
5. I would lead colleges and universities back to the notion of academic freedom and free speech. Our institutions of higher education were built on these principles and they seem to be eroding. Free speech is harder and harder to come by on college campuses. We need to honor our commitment to the intellectual exchange of ideas and perspectives and teach students the art of civil discourse. It’s okay to be around people whose divergent views challenge us and maybe even make us uncomfortable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“No one will ever remember you for what you did for yourself, they will only remember you for what you did for others.” I can’t remember if I read this somewhere long time ago or made this up, but this insight has really stuck with me and guided me in what I do.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
The Dalai Lama. I got to meet him in 2013 when he spoke at Tulane’s Commencement, but we didn’t get the chance to sit down and have a real conversation. I would love to talk with him and learn about his life. He is such a wonderful and interesting person.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Twitter at @TulaneScott.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
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