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A Conversation with Roger Ogden

In December 2014, New Orleans developer and philanthropist Roger Houston Ogden made a transformative $12 million gift to the LSU Honors College, which has been renamed the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College, in honor of Mr. Ogden’s father and son, who share the name. We sat down with Mr. Ogden in his home in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans to discuss the motivation behind his gift, his formative undergraduate experience at LSU, and his hopes for the future of the Honors College.

Of all the things that you could choose to support—and I know you support a lot of different entities in Louisiana— what made you choose to support the LSU Honors College?

My generation, the baby boomers, we’re getting into the retirement years (although I’ll never fully retire) and you begin to look at: what can we leave behind? How can we have the greatest effect on the good of the state? I believe that Louisiana is naturally endowed with such incredible possibilities: our natural resources, our geographic position at the center of the South and on the Mississippi River, and probably the greatest asset we have is the diversity of our people. We’re this great big gumbo that really looks like what the country is coming to look like as a whole. So we have all this potential that we have never quite been able to harness, and to do that, I think we should start with your basic ingredient, and that’s people, educated people. 

Front and center: LSU and the Honors College. It boils down to answering the question of how can Louisiana do two things: first, keep our best and brightest in Louisiana and second, attract the best and brightest from other states? Instead of a brain drain that we’ve had for decades and decades, how do we bring about a brain gain? We simply must keep our best and brightest in the state. And the best possibility to do that for the good of the state is for LSU to offer an Ivy League-quality of education, a residential college with all of the lagniappe (to use a quintessential Louisiana term) of the collegiate experience. No one can equal LSU when it comes to that collegiate experience. There are just so many great things that happen across LSU’s campus: a huge amount of extracurricular activities, the music school, the drama school, not to mention athletics. So if we have the academics of a Duke or a Stanford or a Princeton, and we can combine that with the collegiate experience of a flagship university, especially one with as beautiful a campus as LSU, we’ve got a combination that really resonates with folks, and they want to be a part of it.

So in your vision, how would the Ogden Honors College help to harness some of that Louisiana potential? What do you hope Honors students get from their experience at LSU?

I think what the Ogden Honors College can do is offer such a fantastic undergraduate experience that it opens the eyes of undergrads to the possibilities of the state. Our undergraduate experience is so formative. It infects us, doesn’t it? The statistics verify that if you attract a student into your state for their undergraduate education, that greatly enhances the possibility of keeping that graduate in your state. For the talent that is already in the state, and has the option to go to a Stanford or a Duke for example, well, to keep that student here, the sell is much easier. 

Some aspects of the Honors College experience at LSU that have been developed over the last decade are really not all that prevalent on many campuses or honors colleges across the country. Not only do we have a residential college, which is modeled on the English system where you live in a house and have tutorials in the domicile, as well as in the French House—we also have the expansion of the Honors College curriculum, which was [former Honors College] Dean Clark’s major initiative. She instituted this idea to spread the footings of the Honors College to go beyond the humanities and be inclusive of all majors at LSU: engineering, computer science, business, architecture, and so on. That broad base idea has become the model that other universities and honors programs across the country are following. We were a pioneer of the idea. Plus, with the quality of the faculty teaching Honors students, the opportunities to do research and travel abroad—all of these components add up to an Honors college experience that I think deepens the roots of a student in Louisiana. They may decide to go to graduate school elsewhere, but they come back to Louisiana. They have a sense of what Louisiana can be, and they say, Wow, I want to be a part of this.

Was there something about your own experience as an LSU student that has kept you so involved over the years as an alumnus, or that deepened your desire to invest in Louisiana? 

Well, I’m an example of what I’m talking about, although there wasn’t an Honors College at LSU when I was an undergraduate. When I got to LSU, I really thought I had died and gone to heaven. LSU was diverse—I had chosen a university that didn’t all look just like me. I chose a fraternity that certainly didn’t look all like me. Back in those days, you were admitted to LSU with a diploma from a Louisiana high school, and you could go for a total tuition of less than $1,000. It was the Huey Long populist model, which really had an incredible 

benefit to LSU and to the state over the years. When we would travel to Oxford for LSU-Ole Miss games, the Ole Miss students were prepped up, and they all looked exactly alike. There was not a dime’s worth of difference between them. And then there would be the LSU students, and we were everything under the sun. From my fraternity brother Jason, who went around barefoot—he only had one pair of shoes, and he saved those

for Mass on Sundays—to guys in suits and ties. Studying at LSU, I came to understand to an even greater extent the diversity of the state, from its original founding and how it had developed over time, and I was naturally very drawn to that. It just broadened me as a human being. It caused me to understand the value of diversity to a society, and it enhanced my ability to respect and value those who are different than me. So I knew I was going to stay in Louisiana and work to help take our state to greater heights.

When I graduated from LSU I went to Tulane for law school, which brought me to New Orleans, and I fell in love with the city. I also saw the great distinction between a private, relatively small university and a flagship public university. It was great, to have both experiences. I had a lot of things happen in my life at that time. After my first year in law school, I went to basic training in the army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Shortly after returning to New Orleans,  my father unexpectedly died of an aneurysm, at age 49. So I was helping my mom through that. I was married. We lost a baby. You name it, everything that could happen to a youngster in grad school happened, and yet, I ended up graduating number five in my class. The underlying reason was that I was prepared, coming from LSU. The LSU education, the public education, is so much more rigorous than a private university or college education. It’s rigorous because there’s a lot more competition going on. There’s no coddling. Of course, you can go an easier curriculum route, or a tougher curriculum at LSU, as is the case at any university, public or private. But anyway, that’s how my own LSU experience stacked up academically. 

The Ogden Honors College bridges that. If you want the extra attention, you’re going to get that at the Ogden Honors College. You do not gain acceptance to the Ogden Honors College unless you have the brainpower. So we want to challenge you and enhance your academic prowess. But you still have the all-hands-on-deck competitive environment of LSU, plus a diverse student body with people from all different walks of life. The result is you get the benefit of both types of education. It’s a great way of winnowing LSU down to something that you can get your arms around, and then expand and take in all the other aspects of campus life. My fraternity experience was not unlike the Ogden Honors College in that it was sort of like finding a primary home within all of the greatness of LSU. 

Going forward, how do you see your role as the major benefactor of the Ogden Honors College? How do you see yourself being involved with Honors education at LSU?

My interest in the Honors College long preceded my stepping up and making the endowed gift. The College first came to my attention while I was on the Board of Supervisors. This was before it was a residential college. It was a college by the time I was on the Board, but it resembled more of an Honors program. At that time, LSU was getting its lunch eaten by schools with, frankly, not as good of an academic experience, because we weren’t doing a good job of communicating what LSU is about. The only thing we could get newspapers to write about at LSU was athletics. Well, I saw the possibility of the Honors College focusing the spotlight elsewhere. It’s not only a vehicle for attracting and keeping the best and brightest; it can also be a vehicle for informing both our Louisiana citizens, as well as those across the country, of the really great academics that exist at LSU. Much like what the football program does for all of LSU athletics, the Ogden Honors College can do for the university. I have no doubt it’s the best vehicle to tell the story of, to focus the spotlight on academics at LSU.

Anyway, I was on the Board for almost fifteen years, and it was during those early years that the Honors College became one of the things I identified could have a profound effect on LSU. So to answer your question, I see this gift as the next iteration of my long-held interests, and my belief that the Ogden Honors College is really important to the future of not only LSU, but to the state of Louisiana. I don’t see myself as an arms-length, fat-cat sort of money guy. I’m interested in the affairs and trajectory of the Ogden Honors College.

You’re clearly so passionate about your work as both an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. What advice would you give to Honors students about how they can really pursue independent ventures, or work that they love?

What I say to the students of today is that you need to identify what is your passion. It’s not necessarily going to be something you’re good at. I was a good law student, for example, but it wasn’t my passion. I couldn’t have had a better entry job practicing law after Tulane. I wrote my own briefs, I went to court, I met with clients—as a young attorney I couldn’t ask for more. And I just felt constrained. I remember calling my wife and saying “I feel like the walls are closing in.” I love two things: I love leadership and I love entrepreneurship. I wanted to start something. So with less than two nickels in my pocket, I quit practicing law and embarked on an entrepreneurial experience co-founding Stirling Properties and thus began the adventure and passion of commercial real estate development.

There was a good bit of materialism in my generation, the baby boomer generation. Millennials, generally speaking, seem to be emphasizing quality of life. The experiential, if you will. Not buying more stuff but gaining experiences. Travel, starting a business, whatever it might be. With this generation leading, places like Charleston and New Orleans that aren’t like every other cookie-cutter American city become very attractive. New Orleans has had catastrophes, of course. The silver lining is that our catastrophe slapped us in the face really hard. We were either going to lose the city, or we were going to engage and build an even greater city; we chose the latter. On this new foundation, entrepreneurs and the millennial generation, are flowing into the city, and want to make a difference. New Orleans, it’s her time. It’s Louisiana’s time. It’s OUR time!

Article by Liz Billet, Ogden Honors College, 225-578-0083