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The Worst Book Ever Written on Hurricane Katrina

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Photos by Kathy Anderson Flood Street These are aerial photos of the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans after it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. September 9, 2005
Photos by Kathy Anderson
Flood Street
These are aerial photos of the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans after it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
September 9, 2005

Above: An opportunity for wealthy white men to promote their careers through “leadership”

Scott Cowen is the former president of Tulane University. He wrote a book on Hurricane Katrina and how it transformed New Orleans. It is unspeakably awful. It is all about how awesome Scott Cowen was for using Katrina as an opportunity to charterize all of New Orleans’ public schools, kick people out of their homes, and privatize the city to make white corporate leaders comfortable. Moreover, the only person capable of this was Scott Cowen, so each point is combined with his own bullshit leadership jargon. I was originally going to review the book here. But then I hated it so much I thought it needed a broader audience. So I reviewed it at the Boston Review. It’s really long (I submitted this at 1500 words and they were like, this should be longer. Oh, OK! I can do longer!). An excerpt:

In The Inevitable City, Cowen is proud to have taken advantage of the hurricane to implement Shock Doctrine ideology in New Orleans, starting with Tulane and moving on to the New Orleans public school system. His first post-Katrina priority was to get Tulane up and running because the city needed the jobs and the potent symbol of a functioning university. But in doing so, Cowen led two controversial initiatives. First, he pushed through the chartering of a nearby, predominantly African American school so that the children of his mostly white employees would have a place to send their children. Second, he unilaterally reorganized Tulane, firing tenured professors and consolidating programs without input from faculty. This led to his censure by the American Association of University Professors. He justifies both as examples of his leadership in tough times:

A first principle of leadership is “Do the right thing,” despite opposition. Leaders have the realism to face the facts, the wisdom to weigh the options, the will to make a decision, and the audacity to act. Which is another way of saying, Stand up and do what you think is best.

Cowen’s vision of leadership seems to be that one simply does what one wishes—that displaced black schoolchildren are in effect mere impediments to a kind of self-actualization that one achieves through proper “leadership.”

Unfortunately, that school was merely the beginning. Cowen went on to be a central player in the transformation of New Orleans into the first all-charter school district in the United States. While Cowen and others champion the results—including purportedly higher test scores and graduation rates—researchers at the University of Arizona have shown that even when one controls for race and class, New Orleans schools perform significantly worse on these metrics than Louisiana public schools as a whole, which already rank fourth worst in the nation.

Time and again, test score fraud and false research has put the lie to many such claims about the benefits of charter schools. The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, Cowen’s post-presidency lobbying group that aims to turn New Orleans into a giant experiment for charters, released a 2014 report lauding its success. However, the institute soon had to completely repudiate its own report for its flawed methodology. Despite well-funded charter industry “studies” claiming improved test scores, the nonpartisan Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda has found, “There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” On New Orleans schools specifically, the Investigative Fund has written, “seventy-nine percent of [New Orleans] charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.” Moreover, it has chronicled how the emphasis on test scores and college preparation has led charter schools to eject low-performing students who would require additional help to overcome the tremendous class and race-based barriers that impede their educational success.

Remember when we ripped on Chicago Tribune columnist Katie McQueary for saying she wished a Katrina would come to Chicago and wash away the teachers unions. That’s actually what Cowen is arguing for New Orleans and he was there at the time. The book actually starts with him fleeing New Orleans and supposedly feeling bad that he was staying at the Houston Hyatt (as I recall) when all these other people were suffering. Then he figured it was OK and went to sleep. It was quite a riveting story.

Couple of interesting points that didn’t make it into the review. First, the publisher changed the title in the paperback edition. The original was The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America That’s why I picked it up to begin with. Thought it would be interesting. Now it is The Inevitable City: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and 10 Principles of Crisis Leadership. That’s actually a much more accurate title. It also plays up to the actual audience of this book, which is people Scott Cowen wants to pay him large sums to give speeches about leadership.

Second, let me quote from my original draft for the single most infuriating part of the book:

Even Cowen’s admissions of error are designed to promote an agenda to destroy traditional education. Noting that New Orleans lacks the well-trained citizenry that will attract many corporations, he gives a half-hearted nod toward a liberal arts education yet calls himself “partly to blame” for training students in “medieval French literature, or higher math, or even critical thinking” because many jobs do not require these skills.

A public apology for supporting the humanities and critical thinking from a university president. You can imagine how this sent me through the roof.

The Inevitable City is one of the worst books I have ever read. Lucky for me I have an outlet when I face that situation. I read it so you don’t have to.

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