Thinking Out Loud: The gift of mentors

To the Case Western Reserve University Community:

I have been thinking a lot lately about the people who have greatly influenced me in my professional life. Several come to mind, but there are two who really stand out. 

When I became president of Tulane University in 1998, I was introduced to Dr. Norman Francis, who had taken the helm at Xavier University of Louisiana, the country's only Catholic HBCU, 30 years earlier. It struck me immediately that I was in the presence of an extraordinary human being. 

Not only was Dr. Francis on track to becoming the longest-serving university president at the time and transforming his institution into an engine of upward mobility for African Americans—Xavier is the nation’s leading university when it comes to sending Black students on to medical school—he had also been a leader during the civil rights movement. He was the first African American to graduate from Loyola University Law School in New Orleans, and in 1961, while dean of men at Xavier, he had housed the Freedom Riders in a university dorm after the group's bus was bombed in Alabama. 

I learned so much from Norman about living in the South, racial disparities and injustice, and how to be an agent of change with humility, dignity, fierce resolve, and unwavering hope for the future. His steadfast leadership also proved invaluable for Louisiana and New Orleans in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. I was delighted when my dear mentor received our nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2006. Years later, I received one of my most treasured awards from him: an honorary degree from Xavier University. To this day, Dr. Norman Francis remains one of the greatest leaders I have ever had the honor of knowing and learning from.

Another influential mentor of mine was Cleveland businessman and philanthropist Mort Mandel, who received his bachelor’s degree from CWRU in 2013 at the tender age of 91. Mort’s charm, candor, and strategic, innovative and disciplined mind have inspired me since I first met him in the mid-1980s. I was new in my role as dean of the Weatherhead School and couldn’t imagine why a business and community icon like Mort Mandel wanted to have lunch with me. He and his brothers had founded the Premier Automotive Supply Company, which had become one of the world's leading industrial parts and electronic components distributors. I, on the other hand, was not even 40 years old yet and still felt a bit wet behind the ears. 

When it came time for dessert, Mort asked me if I would be willing to join the board of Premier Industrial. I was surprised and asked him what value I could possibly bring to the board. He smiled at me and said without hesitation, “I want you for your age.” I was flummoxed by this response, but he went on to explain that he needed me to lower the average age of the board. “But what would you expect of me? What value could I provide?” I asked him. He smiled again and said: “Absolutely nothing. I just want you to listen and learn, and maybe in 30 years you’ll be helpful to me.” So my friendship with Mort began, and I learned my first leadership lesson about being transparent and having a long-term perspective. 

About 30 years after that memorable lunch meeting, right after I had announced I was stepping down as president of Tulane University, I received a call from Mort. Would I be willing to join the board of his private trust company, Parkwood LLC? Of course, I said yes. Thus, I became his student again, until his death in 2019. Among the many things I learned from Mort is that success is all about “the who”—that is, the values, competence, character, and drive of the people you work with and rely on. He strongly believed in always “raising the bar” and investing in people and organizations that were making a difference in the world. Mort died at the age of 98 and was vibrant and engaged in his causes to the very end. His legacy will have a lasting impact on me, Cleveland, and other communities in the U.S. and Israel.

Without the mentors in my life, I would have missed out on countless opportunities for growth and fulfillment, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Thank you, Norman and Mort, and to everyone else who broadened my mind, pushed me, and encouraged me time and again.

Regardless of age or success, we should all seek the gift of mentorship. I still do, and I hope all of you have people in your life whose guidance and support are having a profoundly positive impact on you. Make sure to thank them, and “pay it forward” by giving the gift of mentorship to others.

Keep thinking, take care, and enjoy your weekend,

Signature of Case Western Reserve University Interim President Scott Cowen that reads "Scott" in cursive
Scott Cowen
Interim President