Q&A with David L. Cohen

Through the years, Philadelphians have used a number of different adjectives and phrases to describe one of the city’s most high-profile and powerful adopted sons, David L. Cohen, including “level-headed,” “straight-forward,” “structured,” “disciplined,” the “calm in the eye of the storm,” a “stickler for details,” “savvy,” “tough” and a “methodical orchestrator.” But encountering him in person brings a different word to mind—unassuming. (Even his office inside the sleek Comcast high rise is unpretentious.) 

Cohen is a big deal. He is chairman of the Board of Trustees of one of the world’s most prestigious universities, executive vice president of one of the world’s leading media, entertainment and communication companies and the former chairman of one of the country’s largest law firms. Yet he is also immensely approachable and dismayed that anybody might think otherwise. 

A 1977 graduate of Swarthmore College, where he triple majored in political science, history and economics, and a 1981 alumnus of Penn Law School, Cohen is chairman of the Penn Board of Trustees, executive vice president of Comcast Corporation and formerly the chairman of Ballard Spahr.

David L. Cohen

Peter Tobia

Cohen stands before a portrait of Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, which hangs in the Comcast Center.

He was a top legal prospect fresh out of Penn Law, where he graduated summa cum laude and served as executive editor of the Penn Law Review. He was recruited by a host of high-powered law firms before deciding to join Ballard Spahr.

In the late 1980s, Cohen served as press secretary and campaign manager to Ed Rendell, and became Rendell’s chief of staff when he was elected mayor in 1991.

Many scribes, when writing about Cohen, reference Buzz Bissinger’s 1997 book, “A Prayer for the City.” Cohen and Rendell are the main protagonists of the story, which meticulously details Rendell’s first term as mayor.

As Mayor Rendell worked to save the city from bankruptcy, revitalize its image and wrestle with its powerful unions, Chief of Staff Cohen was right by his side, crisis by crisis, success by success, failure by failure. Some have even labeled him the “co-mayor” of the city, a title he would most assuredly reject.

Cohen left city government in 1997 to become chairman of Ballard Spahr, and then joined Comcast in 2002.

The Current visited the 52nd floor of the Comcast Center to discuss Cohen’s passion for Penn, the strengths of the University, plutonium on commercial airplanes and some parting words of wisdom for the Class of 2011.

Q. Shortly after you were nominated to become chairman of the Board of Trustees in 2008, you told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Penn is your No. 1 passion, other than your family and your job. What does the University mean to you and why are you so passionate about it?
A. Almost everything I’ve been able to accomplish professionally has derived from my education, my undergraduate education at Swarthmore and my legal education at Penn. Then, if you think about what has happened to Penn over the last 15 to 20 years, the growth in its reputation, the growth in its impact on the community, a tremendous amount of that has been tied to an institutional, educational and philosophical strategy of building close ties with the community and becoming a visible and unbelievably important part of the Philadelphia community. A lot of that started at the time when I was chief of staff to Ed Rendell, and I got to see firsthand the incredible impact that Penn had on the Philadelphia community by its decisions to invest in the neighborhood, by a judgment made to change the relationship between the University and the neighborhood.
Obviously I care a lot about Philadelphia, and I think Penn deserves credit for being the private sector institution that proves that working together with the government in a public-private partnership can dramatically impact the quality of life in a neighborhood. Seeing my alma mater making that kind of a commitment to my city made me proud, and it made me recognize the very special people who were at Penn and the very special role that it could play in the life of the city and of the region.
It was in that period of time that I became engaged actively as a volunteer at Penn, first as a Trustee of multiple Health System and Medical School boards, and then ultimately as a University Trustee and then as chair of Penn Medicine and chair of the Trustees. That volunteer experience at the University only built on my commitment and passion for the University and for the impact that it could have, not only locally and regionally, but nationally and globally.

Q. What do you think are the University’s greatest strengths?
A. I’ll put them in a few categories. We start with the institution itself and its reputation in category one. It’s an institution that’s both the twin towers, if you will, of the pure University of Pennsylvania plus Penn Medicine bound together inextricably and working together to advance the interests of the University as a whole.
Category two is the leadership. In Amy Gutmann, I think we have the best university president in the country. She defines an incredible vision with an incredible ability to execute, to attract high-quality staff because it’s not just about Amy, it’s about her senior staff and the people she’s attracted. On the academic side, I think Penn has enormous strength because of the deans and faculty and provost.
The last category is the students. As Trustees, whenever we have a presentation, the only thing that is more powerful than hearing from our faculty is hearing from our students. They never fail to blow us away with their maturity, their incredible complexity, how well-rounded they are, their intelligence. If you take all that together, it’s a powerful enterprise.
I think the other great strength of the University is the vision that our last two presidents have articulated. I think as a university in Penn’s current positioning, we have exactly the right goals and we have momentum towards each one of those goals. The goal of improving access to education couldn’t be more relevant and couldn’t be more important. And there is the goal of local, national and global engagement. Our philosophical approach to collaboration across schools, between the University and Penn Medicine being a huge example, with the Penn Integrates Knowledge professors as the centerpiece of an institutionalized focus on encouraging and facilitating faculty in different schools, deans in different schools, students attending different schools to work together, and to have an integrated and collaborative educational enterprise. I think it is a powerful vision that is being executed brilliantly and that has created enormous momentum for the school going forward.

Almost everything I’ve been able to accomplish professionally has derived from my education."

Q. Is it true that at Penn Law your nickname was ‘Chief Justice Cohen’ because of your legal intellect?
A. I can’t figure out whether that is true or not. I’ve read it before, so it’s been reported. I’m not sure I ever remember anyone calling me ‘Chief Justice Cohen,’ but maybe it was whispered behind my back, or maybe it was a little bit of revisionist history. I have my 30th law school reunion this year so I’ve actually spent some time recently thinking about my classmates. It was still a time when a reasonable percentage of the class, probably 20 percent or so, stayed in Philadelphia. Many of them are still my best friends in life. As a class, we do a pretty good job of staying in touch with each other.
It’s another good hallmark of Penn, the ties that bind students and alumni together. But I’d be honored if anyone in my class today thought that I deserved that nickname because there were a lot of smart people in my class and a lot of people who are incredibly accomplished and have been incredibly successful.

Q. Your wife, Rhonda, told the Inquirer that you ‘slept half the day, often through lunch’ while at Swarthmore and your famous work ethic didn’t really kick in until you came to Penn Law.
A. Well, it was a little bit of a different body clock. I’d also stay up until 4 o’clock in the morning. Actually, in fairness, I think whatever my work ethic is, it really didn’t kick in until after I started practicing law. But it is true. I am up very early now. But in college, I lived a standard college student life. I did have to set an alarm to make sure I’d be up for lunch on the weekend, but I might have stayed up till 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning before turning in.

Q. Why did you choose to triple major at Swarthmore?
A. I always knew I wanted a liberal arts education because I was curious about a lot of different things, so a triple major was perfect. And there’s a lot of relationship between those three, it wasn’t like it was physics, the classics and political science. Political science, history and economics I think in some ways are the guts of a liberal arts education, or certainly all important components of the guts of a liberal arts education.

Q. You have said you wanted to be a lawyer ever since you were 3 years old. Why have you always had an interest in the law?
A. It’s one of those questions that you sort of don’t know the answer to. My grandfather, my father’s father, was a lawyer and judge. Even though he died when I was 4 years old, my parents tell me that when I was young, I always gravitated to him and him to me. He was also actively involved in politics. I loved every day of practicing law. I think that being a lawyer is probably more an encapsulation of things that I like to do. Being intellectually curious, I like to learn everything you can possibly learn about a particular subject. I like to debate and argue and advocate. I like to analyze; I’m a fairly analytic person. I like to write, I like to read. If you think about it, those are all essential attributes of being a good lawyer, and they’re arguably pretty important attributes for what I do now.

Q. Do you ever miss being a lawyer, since it was something you were so good at?
A. It’s interesting, I do miss the practice of law every once in awhile. I think what I miss more than the practice of law is my partners in the law firm. I miss the collegiality and the friendship. I had those five-and-a-half years in City Hall, but I really grew up with a lot of the people at Ballard Spahr. I had said at the time I came to Comcast that if I were to list my Top 20 friends in the world, probably 15 of them would have been at Ballard. So I miss that more; I miss my partners, I miss the atmosphere of the law firm, but it’s hard to say I miss billing hours or collecting bills from clients. And I get to do so much of what I used to love doing as a lawyer in this job that I couldn’t be happier where I am now.

Q. You met your wife while writing for the Swarthmore student newspaper, The Phoenix. Did you have an interest in media at an early age?
A. I had great interest in media as a consumer. But journalism gave me an opportunity to write, to be able to learn things about a subject, synthesize it and make it easily understandable for people who may be less familiar with the subject matter. In some ways, you acquire a comparable skill set to be a journalist as you do to be a lawyer. My friends in journalism might not be happy about that, but…

Q. And I understand that you also managed the campaigns of two of your friends who ran for student government at Swarthmore?
A. That was my first involvement in politics. It’s funny, I was with one of those friends [recently] in Washington and we were talking about this race. I managed the campaign of a friend for student body president and I am still friendly with her today. She’s a member of the Swarthmore Board of Managers, as is my wife, so we actually see her and her husband frequently these days.

Q. Did you learn anything from those campaigns that you later used in Ed Rendell’s mayoral campaigns?
A. [Laughs]. Those were a lot easier than mayoral politics. Actually, when I worked in Congress, I managed a New York State Assembly campaign and I participated in managing a Congressional campaign, but there’s nothing like a mayoral race in a big city in terms of the depth of skills you have to bring to the table to effectively manage that kind of a race.

Q. Am I correct that while at Swarthmore, you interned over the summer for Congressman James H. Scheuer and you wrote a bill prohibiting shipments of plutonium aboard commercial aircraft?
A. Right, I did. You don’t often find a topic like this. It’s simple, easy to understand. It literally was passed while I was there that summer. So the topic came up, we researched it, wrote the legislation and we actually got the bill passed, all in a two-and-a-half month internship.

Q. They used to carry plutonium on commercial airplanes?
A. They used to carry plutonium in basically steel drums on commercial airplanes. And the containers weren’t crash-proof, so if the plane crashed and the container opened, you would have a radiation leak. The congressman represented a district that included John F. Kennedy International Airport so it was obviously of relevance to his constituents.

Q. Your work ethic is legendary. People have described you as ‘famously tireless;’ Bissinger wrote of you going to work at 3 a.m., working for nearly three days straight and sleeping for three hours over three nights during contract negotiations. How were you physically able to pull it off? Is it just drive?
A. I think everyone’s metabolism is a little bit different. Particularly at that time, I was in my 30s and didn’t need a lot of sleep. I was with Ed Rendell in Chicago [recently], we spent a day together out there doing some things, and we were both talking about the fact that—because you’re now talking about almost 20 years later—neither one of us runs at quite the same level as we did when he was mayor. But part of it is adrenaline and the press of business. I think if I didn’t have anything to do, I would have been sleeping a lot more than three hours a night during that period of time. But when you’re constantly on the run and there are constantly things to do, I think your body helps you, at least for some period of time, to compress the hours of sleep that you need. And I was always good about catching up when I needed to catch up. I certainly sleep more than three hours a night today. But I do think I need less sleep on average than most people do.

I’m a much bigger believer in collaboration, in teams, than I am in my own ability."

Q. You have a beautiful view from up here; it looks like you can see the entire city in all directions. When you look out the window, what do you see?
A. I see a few things. What I see when I walk around this building is what a great city we live in. The diversity of it. The walk-ability of the downtown. Quite frankly, you can see every major construction and renovation project as it goes on. We get a bird’s eye view of the Convention Center looking out of this window. You get a real sense of the vibrancy and the diversity of the city.
There’s another story that I tell though. We are 850 feet or so in the air and you look out heading in the Northeast direction, and it looks really nice. It looks orderly, the streets are straight, everything is clean, it looks terrific. That’s what one of the poorest areas in America looks like from 850 feet high. The point I make is too many of our policymakers, our opinion leaders, our thought leaders, our elected officials, only see places like North Philadelphia from 850 feet high or from movies. They don’t see it down at the street level. They don’t see the impact of poverty and drugs and the lack of equal education opportunity, because you can’t see any of that from up here. You can only see it when you’re actually down in the street or driving in a car.
I don’t think that people who think less about these issues than, frankly, I think about these issues are hard-hearted people who aren’t interested in making sure that everyone in America has an equal chance to succeed in life, that everyone has a fair opportunity to get a job in the Comcast Center some day. The solution to that, of course, is to get more people to see what’s happening in our cities at street level, and not just from the top of beautiful skyscrapers like the Comcast Center.

Q. Of the many different terms people have used to describe you, a common image is that of a problem-solver, someone with the ability to get things done. Bissinger wrote that you reacted to chaos not by succumbing to it, but figuring out how to conquer it by ‘taking the puzzle and shaping it into a set of manageable pieces.’ Is that an accurate description?
A. Well it’s hard to talk about yourself in that way. It was nice to read what Buzz said. I’m a much bigger believer in collaboration, in teams, than I am in my own ability. If you were to ask me what I thought some of my biggest strengths were, I do think my biggest strength is an ability to put together teams of really good people to help manage chaos or to solve problems, and to draw on the talents and strengths of multiple people on the team. On the best teams, of course, you have people whose strengths compliment other people’s weaknesses. So I think all that I will raise my hand and accept responsibility for is being a much better-than-average judge of talent, and doing a good job of bringing really talented people together to solve problems and to bring order to chaos.

Q. Are there any misconceptions that people may have about you?
A. I think the thing I hear most frequently is that a lot of people just know me from television or from a public persona, and I’m just a normal guy. I hope I’ve never allowed my head to be turned by any of the nice things that people have said and any successes that I’ve been able to have in life. It makes me feel good when people say, ‘Gee whiz, we can’t believe how nice you are and how you’re willing to talk to me.’ I like talking to anyone. I think that’s a common perception of people who are reasonably well-known, that there is a sense of aloofness or arrogance. I hate that word. I don’t know any people who know me, or have had a chance to work with me, who think I’m aloof or arrogant. But maybe it’s people who just know of me as opposed to knowing me. And I think that’s not an accurate window into my real personality.

Q. Comcast, with 127,000 employees, is sort of like a small city. Are there any similarities between helping to run a major corporation and a major city?
A. I think that these are both big, complicated enterprises. There are significant differences between private business and government, but they are big, complicated enterprises with lots of problems to solve. They’re both organizations that have a lot of talented people. Clearly in Brian Roberts, who is as good a CEO as any in the country, and Ed Rendell, who was as good a mayor as any mayor in the country, they both benefit from extraordinary leadership at the top, and from an extraordinary team of talented people who were put together to attack problems and to execute their vision of those institutions. Frankly, you could say the same thing about Penn. A big, complicated institution, lots of problems, an enormously effective leader. In each of those places, leaders have put together enormously talented and effective teams to execute a vision and advance the interests of the enterprise.

Q. The Penn Class of 2011 will graduate in 11 days. If you could give them one piece of career advice or life advice, what would you say to them?
A My one piece of life advice is to follow your passion. Follow your passion in your career, follow your passion in your personal relationships and follow your passion in the way in which you live your life outside of your place of employment and your family. That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to do the same thing because everyone has different passions, but I think if you follow your passion, you maximize your chances for success and for enjoyment in life.

Originally published on May 5, 2011