You are here


Coming Back from Katrina

More than a year later, New Orleans' institutions of higher ed-and their leaders-are recovering, adapting, and reinventing themselves.
University Business, Nov 2006

New Orleans may be better known as an international shipping capital, an oil and gas hub, and convention central, but The Big Easy is also a college town. During the academic year, more than 75,000 students fan out to 15 postsecondary institutions. Some of the largest universities-Tulane, Dillard, Xavier, Loyola, and the University of New Orleans-attract students who hail from all over the country.

And while the city's industrial and tourist bases have slowly come back from Katrina's devastation 15 months ago, its academic institutions also are striving to recover from an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion in losses, severe cuts in their enrollment and staff, and the realization that they have been changed permanently. Along the way, the leaders of these schools say they've been taking a crash course in crisis management, flexing administrative muscles they never thought they would have to use, and devising solutions to problems they never thought they would encounter.

"I'm not sure there's enough paper to write about the post-Katrina job description," says Tim Ryan, chancellor of the University of New Orleans, part of Louisiana's higher education system. Ryan's first tasks in Katrina's aftermath involved locating administrators who had been displaced around the region and returning by boat-accompanied by a SWAT team-to recover financial and student records from a campus that had been occupied and looted by hurricane refugees.

Xavier President Norman Francis, now in his 39th year leading the private Catholic university, also had to deal with a devastating flood. "We've spent a great deal of time working on reconstructing what it took almost 80 years to build," he explains.

And Dillard President Marvalene Hughes had just taken charge of the traditionally black private college after 11 years as president of Cal State, Stanislaus, where earthquake preparedness was a given for administrators. "What was absolutely new, in spite of the California emergency training," she admits, "was having to totally rebuild a campus, motivate students to return, and convince their parents that you'll provide a safe environment and a quality education. It was tough."

"We're no shrinking violet. We're going to play the hand we've been dealt, and play it aggressively." - Norman Francis, Xavier University

After confirming the safety of students and employees and assessing the damage, all three presidents turned to reopening their campuses as soon as they could. "To stay out more than a year from our campus would have been very difficult," says Francis. "You lose customers. You lose support. You lose the drive and the work ethic you were seeing pre-Katrina."

While UNO-helped by an expanded online curriculum-opened its doors just six weeks after Katrina, Xavier successfully targeted January 2006, and tapped a $40 million credit line to speed up reconstruction.

Since all of Dillard's buildings remained uninhabitable after taking on as much as eight feet of toxic water for almost three weeks, Hughes had to improvise for her school's January opening. "We located the largest cruise ship we could find and started negotiating with hotels," she explains, adding that finding the new location for dormitories and classrooms at the Riverside Hilton was just the beginning of a long road back. With 1,050 students scattered across 205 other universities, Hughes toured the United States last fall to get them back and held a series of town hall meetings to reassure parents.

Hughes was also plugging Dillard's emergency fundraising campaign, which raised $30 million in its first nine months and continues to bring in contributions. On October 21, entertainer Bill Cosby performed a benefit concert in Memphis, Tenn. Those funds, Hughes points out, have not only gone to repairs and operating expenses, but also to increased student aid. "The challenge for us as a black university is how to keep tuition at a rate so students from average economic backgrounds can attend," she says.

"The youngsters whom we historically serve had families who lost everything, and the majority were on financial assistance," adds Francis, who is also trying to bolster financial aid. Xavier has built a relief fund from foundations, corporations, and individuals and even negotiated a $12.5 million rebuilding grant from the Middle Eastern country Qatar. "We're no shrinking violet," says Francis. "We're going to play the hand we've been dealt, and play it aggressively."

The city's major universities opened the current academic year with an average of 25 percent fewer students than in the days just before Katrina hit. The losses have been even greater for the incoming freshman class. Hughes points to the "Mama Factor," the dismal impression that parents from afar have taken from media accounts of the city.

"It's a selling job," adds Francis, who this fall welcomed back about half of the 1,000 freshmen who would normally matriculate. "We have to sell parents as much as we had to sell students in the past. It's not going to be easy."

Even Tulane, New Orleans' most well-heeled and prestigious university, has not been immune. After fielding a record 21,000 applications for 1,600 spots for this academic year, only 1,000 accepted students decided to attend. A follow-up survey revealed that parents were concerned about New Orleans' future.

"We're not Pompeii," says Tulane COO Yvette Jones. The school has launched an education campaign to reassure out-of-state parents about everything from students' personal safety to the city's air quality to the viability of the immediate neighborhood. Tulane now offers a $1,000 tuition credit for students who elect to enroll. Louisiana has offered a similar award for incoming freshmen and any students returning to state schools.

UNO is dealing with a different set of dynamics. The large majority of its students-80 percent-live in New Orleans, and 85 percent of the student body members work while going to school. And Chancellor Tim Ryan says that the drop in the university's undergraduate and graduate population from 17,500 to 12,000 has a lot to do with students rebuilding their homes and taking on extra jobs.

"There's just so much opportunity to make money," Ryan says. "If you want to crawl on a roof and hammer nails, you can get $20 an hour."

But students are not the only ones missing from campus. Hundreds of faculty and staff and even more hourly workers are gone, a situation that's caused problems on many fronts. "A university cannot be downsized like a corporation," says Ryan, an economist by training. "We're not like Wal-Mart and can lay off 30 percent of our workforce and say, 'We'll call you back when we need you.'"

UNO has eliminated five degree-granting programs, including economics, and has cut 90 faculty positions. "One math professor-one of our best teachers for the past 30 years-came to me," Ryan recalls. "And he said, 'I was going to stay another three or four years. I'm still enthusiastic, but if I stay, you'll eliminate a young assistant professor who might be here for 20 years.'" The decision to retire seemed best.

In other professional areas, Ryan adds, a competition for services has broken out. "There's a tremendous poaching going on among universities for positions such as financial aid officers," he says. But he notes that universities here are having to do more with less. "We'll grow the staff appropriately as the student population grows, but we're also looking at these areas for better efficiencies."

With so many New Orleans residents still displaced, Tulane is having a hard time filling positions on the engineering staff for its physical plant. The post office has been so hard hit that academic departments have to pick up mail once a week instead of having it delivered two or three times daily. And custodians have been hard to find, adds Jones, especially since fast-food restaurants are offering $11 an hour, plus a signing bonus.

These schools are also rethinking their strategic plans and long-term missions. "The biggest thing for us to create was a vision for a smaller, more focused university," says Tulane President Scott Cowen. Among the changes, Tulane has closed its women's college and its engineering school, reinventing the latter institution into a combined science and engineering program.

At UNO, Ryan is beefing up the Admissions department in response to a changing student mix that may shrink to as few as 65 percent local residents. "Our traditional market was affected significantly," he says, "and we have to look at different markets." So UNO will build additional housing for out-of-state students.

Xavier is actively building on its strengths. The school turns out a quarter of the black pharmacists in the United States and more black medical students than any other college. And Francis is charging ahead with a 60,000-square-foot expansion of its pharmacy and premed facilities.

At Dillard, Hughes has taken the opportunity to make the school's health sciences building state of the art and has cobbled together the funding to spend $9 million beyond the insurance settlement. "We knew that we needed to have something more than we had in the past to bring students back," she says.

The health sciences building-with its new laboratories and electronic classrooms-is just one stop on a tour of the 55-acre Dillard campus on a sunny mid-September day. The university's famous Avenue of the Oaks-with a dozen of the stately trees on either side-is once again lush and green and runs up to a dazzling white building with two-story, Civil War-era columns.

After completing their final term at the Riverside Hilton, Dillard seniors returned to this spot to graduate this summer. "It was so important for them to see Dillard as they remembered it, spacious and green and beautiful," says Edgar Chase, Dillard's vice president, who is managing reconstruction. "It was just a beautiful day."

"Dillard's context is totally different than any other," Hughes adds. "We were within a quarter mile from two of the levee breaches." The university sustained $400 million in capital damage. While some of Dillard's residence halls burned down and other structures had to be razed, the two dozen surviving buildings shine brightly under new coats of white, the shoulder-high watermarks no longer visible.

In the humanities building, Dean Danille Taylor shows off the redone performing arts theater and recalls the water moccasins swimming in the orchestra pit after the storm. "We'll be cutting edge when we finish," she says.

There's plenty more to be done to bring the campus back to normal. The library is still empty and being refurbished, its books safely stored in Houston, Texas. In the meantime, students are using their access to electronic books and to the UNO library a few miles away. The student center is still gutted, and Chase says the university is taking more time in restoring it "to give students a chance to appreciate where we've been."

Dillard has also become involved in the economic redevelopment plan for the surrounding Gentilly neighborhood, and its future building projects may include creating more of a "college town" of local businesses within walking distance of the campus. "The only life here is on the Dillard campus, and it's very clear that Dillard is the anchor of this community," says Hughes.

You don't have to wander far to see that she's not exaggerating. The commercial strip stretching away from the campus is a dead zone of closed markets, laundromats, and video stores. And about a half-mile away, there's an expanse of uninhabited blocks-gashed buildings with their windows broken out, many still bearing the spray-painted codes left by rescuers searching for survivors and the dead just after Katrina.

About six miles away in New Orleans' Garden District, the Tulane campus looks like it's back to normal. The school opened in January, and as the fall term began, its paved courtyards with students sitting on stone benches beneath shady trees offers a classic picture. But, according to Cowen, there's a lot more to that picture than meets the eye.

"Anybody who would say we got off lucky didn't know what happened down here," says Cowen. "I think what people are seeing is how quickly we recovered compared to other institutions, and that wasn't luck. It was just sheer hard work and good planning on our part."

Two-thirds of the campus flooded, and the resulting physical damage, missing tuition revenue, and interrupted research amounted to $400 million in losses. "When you're a research institution and you've lost cell lines over 30 years old, that's costly," notes Tulane COO Yvette Jones.

Katrina has left its mark on Tulane in other ways. Incoming freshmen are required to take courses and perform fieldwork in community service. The university has added a public health degree in disaster management.

"This is a permanently changed institution," Cowen says.

New Orleans' college administrators, meanwhile, have been processing their own lessons, many of them logistical.

"We've done a lot of debriefing," explains Hughes of Dillard. "One mistake we made was depending on cellphones. I couldn't locate all of our vice presidents until the fourth or fifth day after Katrina." To prevent future phone service losses, Dillard officials have replaced that system with satellite phones with non-New Orleans area codes.

Distance learning through online courses has taken on greater significance. (See "Learning After Loss" in the September issue of University Business.) And Dillard has permanently postponed the start of the school year until the last week of September in order to avoid the height of hurricane season.

And then there are the less tangible insights. "If there's anything I've learned about myself, it's what it means to have a purposeful mission," offers Hughes. "It gives you a singular focus and takes you to a different level of strength, energy, and resolve you didn't know you had.

"I see people around the country in high-level organizational positions. They shake their heads and ask how I'm doing. When I answer that my life has never been more meaningful and fulfilling, they are all shocked," Hughes notes.

"We knew that we needed to have something more than we had in the past to bring students back."-Marvalene Hughes, Dillard University

Adds Cowen, "You have to be superdetermined going forward. Keep focused on the light at the end of the tunnel instead of the darkness around you."

UNO's Ryan says he also realized something more about the student body. "They came back in the fall and the spring under very difficult conditions," he says. "We've learned how important education is to our students."

That same realization came as a surprise to Xavier's Francis. "It was an amazing affirmation when 76 percent of our kids came back and said, 'Where we want to be is at Xavier.' And it reaffirmed what we owe them."

Francis particularly remembers a ceremony for seniors in the school gym. "I got three standing ovations," he says. "It was great. Presidents don't usually get standing ovations from students."

Hughes got a tree from Dillard students-an oak sapling named for her and mixed in with the grander trees on the Avenue of the Oaks-in time for Dillard's graduation ceremony last summer.

She says she's also come to appreciate the union that has developed among the area's universities. The presidents have met more than a dozen times since Katrina, primarily to coordinate efforts to get federal funding for their recoveries. They plan to cooperate on other joint ventures in the future.

"We hadn't engaged in a consortium before and had never realized that we needed each other to exist," Hughes says. "That was one of the beautiful outcomes of the tragedy of Katrina."

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer who frequently covers education. He went on location in New Orleans in September for this story.