In 1998, soon after assuming the presidency of Tulane University, Scott Cowen was confronted with a setback. Despite an undefeated football season and putting the best financial deal on the table, Cowen was unable to retain the school’s football coach. The coach wanted something the president didn’t have — a football program so popular, as the coach put it, that fans would line up their Winnebagos on Wednesdays in anticipation of Saturday games. In that moment, Cowen improbably found himself in the entertainment business—and his university was deemed wanting.
At a time when schools seem overrun by sports programs, spiraling costs, and absurd ranking systems, Winnebagos on Wednesdays argues that colleges and universities of all stripes and sizes can achieve their educational aims if they possess two things: visionary leadership and a strong mission. Cowen, named one of the nation’s top university presidents by Time magazine in 2009, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the critical demands faced by many education leaders. He profiles a range of situations, from how Diana Natalicio of the University of Texas at El Paso expanded a school serving a specific demographic into an academic powerhouse to how Michael Sorrell shifted Paul Quinn College’s mission to urban entrepreneurship in order to save the institution. Cowen also draws from his own hard-won experiences, including the rebuilding of Tulane and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the decision to maintain Tulane’s football program. He shows how crucial choices in tough situations shape organizations, for better or ill.
A sweeping overview of the higher education landscape, Winnebagos on Wednesdays demonstrates that the courage of transformative leadership is essential for colleges and universities to remain vital.