From his office on the 52nd floor of the Comcast Center, David L. Cohen has a panoramic view of Philadelphia, the city in which he is so deeply involved. But he insists on heading to the 56th floor to see his favorite view from the skyscraper.
On the way, Cohen stops to greet Ralph Roberts, the 95-year-old founder of Comcast and a 1941 Wharton graduate. The two briefly discuss an upcoming event, exchange smiles and go separate ways. Cohen steps into a boardroom on the west side of the building and continues toward the windows. He points out his favorite spots: a new park on the Schuylkill River, an expanding medical campus and a 120-year-old red brick stadium. It is in this boardroom that Cohen can keep an eye on Penn every day.
Cohen, who graduated from Penn Law School in 1981, has served as Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees since 2009. Though he is one of the top executives at a multi-billion dollar media company, he makes time for other commitments, including his “number one philanthropic passion”— Penn.
“Over the course of my career I have come to recognize how important Penn Law School was in enabling just about everything I have been able to accomplish in my career,” Cohen explained. For him, this is a major reason why he contributes so much time to the University.
“I’m one of these weird people because I actually loved law school,” Cohen joked. “I even loved the first year of law school, where everyone said it’s so brutal and the work is so hard.”
Cohen went to Swarthmore College for his undergraduate education, but embraced the intellectual challenge provided by Penn Law. More importantly, he feels that the connections he made at Penn have become invaluable lifetime bonds. He cited the late Arthur Makadon, a former senior partner at a Philadelphia law firm and Cohen’s appellate advocacy professor, as the “most important person in [his] professional career” other than his wife. (Cohen met his wife, Rhonda Resnick Cohen, at Swarthmore and they got married before attending Penn Law together.)
“God only knows what [Makadon] saw in me as a law student, but we became friends,” Cohen said. “He became my best friend and recruited me to Ballard Spahr, was my mentor at Ballard Spahr ... and really was my closest advisor and friend and confidante for my entire professional career in Philadelphia.”
Makadon, a 1967 Penn Law graduate and former Penn Trustee, was also responsible for introducing Cohen to then-Philadelphia District Attorney Ed Rendell. The two became close friends and Cohen left Ballard Spahr to become Rendell’s campaign manager and press secretary. When Rendell, a 1965 College graduate, became Mayor of Philadelphia in 1992, he made Cohen his Chief of Staff.
In 1997, Cohen returned to Ballard Spahr and became the firm’s chairman. After completing his second term as mayor, Rendell followed Cohen to Ballard Sphar. Cohen then left in 2002 for Comcast and Rendell left in 2003 to become Governor of Pennsylvania.
When Cohen was first hired at Ballard Spahr, he thought he would remain there until retirement. He never pictured a career that would include politics, media, business and nonprofits. But he has come to appreciate his winding path and willingness to try new things.
“My father worked for the same company for basically every paycheck he ever received in his life — including as a college intern,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to practice law so I assumed I would go to law school, I would go to a law firm and I’d stay there for my whole career.”
This leads Cohen to his biggest piece of advice he tells young adults, whether they are Penn students he meets or his own two sons.
“I tell young people — particularly when you are in college — don’t try to set out a career path that you think you can do from now until the day you retire,” Cohen said. “Decisions when we’re in our twenties, and even when we are in our thirties, are not life altering.”
Reviving a heath system
In the late 1990s, the University of Pennsylvania Health System was bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars, and to make matters worse, numerous boards oversaw each component of the health system. Then-president Judith Rodin recruited Cohen to join many of the boards to help face the bureaucracy and the deficit.
“There was legitimate and serious concern as to whether the health system could literally bankrupt the entire University,” Cohen said. “It was the number one topic on the mind of the faculty, of the deans, of the president, of students — it was sort of the all-consuming topic and that was my issue in a sense.”
Cohen and others worked tirelessly to turn the situation around. In 2001, Penn Medicine was established to oversee all of the health system, including the medical school. Cohen was named the inaugural chair of the Penn Medicine board, and was offered a seat on the University’s Board of Trustees. When Jim Riepe was ready to step down as Chairman of the Board of Trustees in 2008, he and Penn President Amy Gutmann approached Cohen to take his spot.
“Almost anything I’m involved in, I sort of ultimately would like to be in a leadership position,” Cohen said. “When I became a trustee I said, ‘Gee whiz, I wonder if I could become chair of the trustees.’ But it’s not something you campaign for.”
Cohen ultimately asked Riepe to stay on for one more year so he would have time to prepare. Cohen became chair on November 7, 2009 and has held the position ever since.
Gutmann said Cohen is a “terrific person to talk to when you have a big problem that you want to solve.”
“David knows just about everybody in Philadelphia,” she added. “There are many other people at Penn who know lots of people in this city, but there is no single person who knows as many people and has as long a track record of making good thing happen as David does.”
Philadelphia’s “go-to person”
Fast forward to 2015 and David Cohen is as busy as ever.
Last week, Comcast dropped its hotly-contested $45 billion plan to take over Time Warner Cable. This week, an internal investigation by NBC News — NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast — was leaked, which found that anchor Brian Williams had embellished personal accounts of his reporting 11 times. (Cohen led the acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011.)
Though he has little free time left over after his commitments to Comcast, Penn and his family, Cohen is always happy to pitch in and help if he can. He has been very influential in two high-profile events coming soon to Philadelphia: the 2015 World Meeting of Families and the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
“He’s a true civic leader and he’s a go-to person, maybe the go-to person for any special project you want done in this city,” Gutmann explained.
Cohen has a history of helping mayors and city officials tackle their problems, especially in Philadelphia. Perhaps most telling is the fact that he is a co-chair of the World Meeting of Families Executive Leadership Cabinet, even though he is Jewish, because he is excited by what the event will bring to Philadelphia.
“I am very proud to be helping to make sure that we, Philadelphia, are a great host city for the World Meeting of Families and for the Pope, and to support the archbishop in making his vision a reality,” Cohen said. “A lot of people ask me for help doing a lot of different things and I try to help as much as I can.”
Beyond all of these commitments, Cohen is also an active Democratic fundraiser with close ties to the Clintons — he said he couldn’t imagine supporting anyone other than Hillary in 2016. In 2011, Cohen hosted a dinner at his home that raised more than $1.2 million for Obama’s reelection campaign.
“I have been here so much, the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have Seder dinner,” Obama joked at a 2013 Democratic fundraiser at Cohen’s home, which also brought in more than $1 million.
Though he mostly supports Democrats, Cohen supports candidates on both sides of aisle. He was a major supporter of former Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s failed reelection bid. Not only does Cohen befriend both Democrats and Republicans, he also values his relationships with people of all walks of life.
“I’ve had the fortune in my life and in my career to get to work with a very large number of people and I like to think that one of the reasons why I have the relationships that I do is because I treat people fairly,” he said, noting his efforts to respond to every call and email he receives.
“That is true if it is a United States Senator who is calling me or emailing me, and it is true if it is a customer from Indianapolis who is frustrated with the customer service that she is receiving,” Cohen added.
Many of his ties come full circle. For example, Penn and Comcast, two of the region’s largest private employers, have overlap beyond Cohen. One of his co-vice chairs at Penn, Andrea Mitchell, is the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for Comcast-owned MSNBC. Former President Judith Rodin sits on Comcast’s Board of Directors, while Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, and his father, Ralph, among other Comcast executives, are Penn graduates and donors.
Given all that he does in a day, Cohen draws his inspiration from another individual who was a leader in politics, media and at Penn: Ben Franklin. Cohen’s favorite quote comes from Franklin: “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”
“Busy people learn how to prioritize, but the hallmark of most busy people is that they get things done,” Cohen explained. “When I make a commitment to an organization I make sure they are getting the amount of my time they need.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have time to relax. Cohen enjoys watching his favorite shows on NBC with his wife.
“My favorite NBC show is probably The Blacklist,” he said. “The Voice would be a pretty good runner up but that is much more of a guilty pleasure.”
But Cohen said he and his wife don’t limit themselves to Comcast-owned stations. They also like The Good Wife on CBS, Homeland on Showtime, The Newsroom on HBO and Scandal on ABC.
“You can’t do better than Scandal,” he said. “Scandal is a great show.”
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