Center to Study New Orleans and the Mississippi River

June 1, 1998

Mark Miester

For more than 50 years, University College has been a component of Tulane's community outreach, offering courses on everything from computer information to public speaking for the New Orleans community. In April, however, University College made a commitment to offer the New Orleans community a mirror on itself.

On April 28, the University College Council approved the establishment of the Center for the Study of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, a new research, teaching and community outreach institute that organizers hope will accomplish a threefold mission: fund Tulane research on the city and the river, sponsor conferences and short courses about New Orleans for the local community, and promote both Tulane and New Orleans.

According to the center's director, Terrence Fitzmorris, assistant dean for academic affairs at University College, the center will offer grants to Tulane faculty, staff, students and administrators working on research projects relating to New Orleans, and present conferences or courses about various aspects of the city and the river to make that research accessible to the New Orleans community.

What makes the center unique is that its research and programs will be aimed primarily at the New Orleans community, rather than a strictly academic audience.

"The folks out there, the people who I grew up with and who I live with, they're interested in New Orleans history and they're interested in its culture, but they don't want to hear somebody read a paper," Fitzmorris says. "What we wanted to do was take what the scholars know and present it to the public. For our conferences, we have entertainment, we have food and we have drink--all the things that New Orleans is noted for."

Examples of the kinds of events the center hopes to be involved with include two events that Fitzmorris and history professor Colin MacLachlan, the center's secretary-treasurer, organized to test the water for interest in the center.

In October 1997, with the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Liberal Arts Dean Teresa Soufas and University College Dean Rick Marksbury, Fitzmorris and MacLachlan organized a symposium on the cultural heritage of the Lower Mississippi Valley.

The event combined Tulane faculty members, such as architecture professor Eugene Cizek and assistant professor of geology George Flowers with faculty from other universities and other experts from around the state to talk about the history and culture of the Mississippi.

Approximately 60 people attended that first symposium, which led to an even more successful follow-up in March 1998, on the Irish and New Orleans. On a cold, stormy Saturday morning, the conference attracted more than 150 people. The idea to create a center grew out of Fitzmorris' and MacLachlan's hope to offer better programs with better funding.

The center's budget is currently underwritten by University College, but Fitzmorris' goal is to make the center self-supporting through institutional grants. The National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, announced in February plans to offer grants to centers that study regional cultures. MacLachlan is writing that grant proposal.

Fitzmorris also plans to start an advisory board and executive board of prominent New Orleanians to approve requests for funding and keep the center in touch with the entire New Orleans community. Fitzmorris emphasizes that the center does not have a monopoly on the study of New Orleans and the Mississippi at Tulane. Anyone in any department is encouraged to approach the center if he or she has a project that fits in with the center's goals.

"If anyone comes to us with an idea, our advisory and executive boards may say it's a great idea, let's fund it. I see us as a service to the university and a service to New Orleans. If we can help anyone in any way, we'll be glad to do it."

While the embryonic center has not yet funded any research projects, the next conference, "Centuries of Change: Human Transformation of the Lower Mississippi," is scheduled for Oct. 16 on Tulane's Elmwood campus. "The hope is to take Tulane's expertise and knowledge in everything from history and political science to chemistry and biology and ally it with the expertise and knowledge that the non-academic community in New Orleans has," Fitzmorris says. "I think we will be providing what the university wants to do--research, scholarship, education and service."

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