I arrived in New Orleans last summer as only the ninth president of Dillard University, one of America's oldest historically black colleges. I could not imagine that, two months later, my campus would be under eight feet of water and my students relocated to institutions all over the country.
I am not complaining. More than 2,000 people in New Orleans lost their lives, and some or all of their personal properties. All our students are safe and accounted for, and we are looking to the future, not the past.
At a recent visit to Spelman College in Atlanta, I met a group of my students. When we spied each other, we rejoiced. We were all a long way from home. They told me about their classes, and I answered their questions about relocated Dillard students.
I was frank about Katrina's destruction--three dorms destroyed by fire, those lovely Civil-War Era classroom buildings consumed by water and muck, and everywhere, on that beautiful campus, sludge, broken trees, and torn roofs. For just a moment, no one said anything. Then a young woman, a senior, broached what all were thinking.
"They've been so nice here, Dr. Hughes. But it's hard. Are we ever going back?" She brushed away a tear and I embraced her.
"You bet," I said. "In January we will be temporarily located at the Tulane campus. Yes, Dillard is not only going to survive, it will be greater than ever. My senior administration and I have vowed to preserve Dillard's 136-year legacy of outstanding education. We will be back. We will be focused. We will be even stronger."
I am so grateful to the schools that opened their hearts and doors to our students so they could temporarily relocate and continue their education. The trauma has been particularly tough on Dillard's seniors, who had been looking forward to the traditional graduation march through the beautiful "Avenue of the Oaks." My pledge that they won't be denied that experience now drives my every waking hour. The 2006 commencement is scheduled on the Dillard campus in June.
One major task is raising funds to rebuild Dillard. Insurance doesn't cover nearly enough. We are making progress, but not as fast as I would like. Fortunately, Dillard is special, not just to us, but to people around the country who have learned about it before and after the storm. The resolve and the resiliency of our young students in the face of such disaster touched their hearts. It has been heartening to have people like President Clinton, Bill Cosby, and Jamie Foxx asking what they can do, offering to lend their celebrity to raise money or bring attention and support to our efforts.
Ivy League universities have formed a partnership to guide us in restoring and re-envisioning our campus. This support is a labor of love to Brown University President Ruth Simmons, a Dillard graduate. It's a leap of trust and faith for Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman. Their hearts and values uplift us. From them, and through actions of their recovery team leaders, my staff and I are energized and inspired to remain focused on our rapid recovery.
Adversity is not new to Dillard, which has overcome social, political, and environmental obstacles. Shortly before Katrina struck, U.S. News & World Report ranked Dillard among the top 10 liberal arts universities in the South. We attracted students this past year from 34 states and a dozen countries. Dillard was the only university in Louisiana to earn an A+ rating for four consecutive years in its teacher training program.
Soon our students will be coming home. Tulane University--which was not as devastated by Katrina--has offered us facilities to commence classes in January. We had similar invitations from other schools around the country, but returning to New Orleans will allow us to reconnect physically, emotionally, and spiritually with our roots while repairs and reconstruction are underway.
Dillard alumni and alumnae represent multi-family generations. When we come back, Dillard will be even better. We will re-envision our curriculum in creative ways and re-figure the master plan of our facilities. We are more determined than ever to extend our legacy of success and hope for our prospective students.
The New Dillard will raise the bar even higher than before.
Marvalene Hughes was president of Cal State, Stanislaus for 11 years before becoming president of Dillard University in July 2005. Contributions to the Dillard University Hurricane Relief fund may be sent to: Dillard University, 1301 K Street, NW, Eighth Floor East, Washington, DC 20005.