January 18, 2006
Carol J. Schlueter
Reinventing. It's a familiar buzzword in business school circles and in corporate America. Daunting, this word, but doable.
But reinventing the operations of an entire institution of higher education? With an emergency team of a dozen people, virtually no communications system, and with your entire university community -- students, faculty and staff -- scattered, literally, to the four winds?
Picture Tulane President Scott Cowen on the night of Sept. 1, sitting on an airplane en route to Houston, knowing that more than half the Tulane campus is sitting in several feet of water, two-thirds of its buildings damaged, while the city that surrounds it is in chaos and 80 percent submerged.
Extreme makeover, indeed.
"It is difficult to describe what this situation feels like for those involved," the Tulane president wrote just before he was airlifted off the campus. "It is surreal and unfathomable; yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our focus is on the light and not the darkness."
By December -- in just 90 days -- the light was shining brighter as nearly 90 percent of students had registered for the spring reopening of the campus. But that ultimate outcome remained hidden as Labor Day weekend dawned in Houston.
Anne Banos, chief of staff, was the lone scout for the Green Wave expedition to Houston. Arriving in the middle of the night on Aug. 29, she served as the eyes and ears of Tulane, first finding a helicopter that could rescue Cowen and other administrators from campus. Then she searched for hotel space in a city already overrun with Katrina evacuees. A top-drawer hotel downtown cut its rates to accommodate Tulane, and the calls went out to bring the leadership to Houston. Some, such as Yvette Jones, senior vice president for external affairs, came from Jackson, Miss., where they had evacuated with students from campus.
Why Houston? It was the closest large metropolitan area and a place with a Tulane campus, albeit small. The Freeman School of Business opened an office in the busy Galleria area a year ago to begin offering MBA classes.
On Sept. 2 they had the first meeting. Cowen hugged everyone, "a really touching moment," said communications staff member Zack Weaver. The president's suite became the war room as the team began making lists of priorities, finding resources, seeking out people, rebuilding Tulane bit by bit. When there weren't enough chairs, they worked on the floor.
Despite worries about their own families and homes, "everybody was focused," said Banos, who added that in those early days, "We didn't know if the institution would survive."
Cowen beckoned Larry Ponoroff, dean of the Tulane Law School, to Houston over Labor Day weekend. Ponoroff arrived from Chicago, where he had driven with family and friends, an entourage of 12 people and a 110-pound dog. Like most Tulanians, his wardrobe was spare -- he had left home with two pairs of shorts and three T-shirts. "We thought it was going to be like it always is (with hurricane evacuations), a few days and back."
Several failures in the city's levee system, however, dashed any hopes for a quick return.
Arriving at Tulane-Houston, Ponoroff stepped into the situation "with enormous uncertainty" and he had two initial impressions of the Tulane team, already at work.
"It was totally chaotic and remarkably under control," Ponoroff said. "At that point there were huge, very critical issues -- that's the chaotic part. But it was being approached very carefully, not in a panicked way. Scott very much set that tone in his demeanor."
Yet everybody was traumatized. "There were huge unknowns, personally and professionally," but work was somehow therapeutic, said Ponoroff. "To have something to do, to have a major challenge to focus on, to occupy your attention and feel as if you're playing a role in the recovery, was actually very meaningful to me at the time."
The challenges and decisions were enormous. What about the fall semester -- should it be canceled? How would Tulane communicate with students and employees when the Tulane e-mail system was not operating? What about payroll, tuition revenues, repairs to facilities, all the Tulane computer-based systems, and housing and support for employees and students living off campus who lost everything?
With the Tulane e-mail system shut down in a city without power, the university's emergency website became a lifeline. Uploaded from Houston, it was small at first but provided the world with the only reliable connection to Tulane. Daily messages from Cowen were posted along with other critical information as, behind the scenes, technology services employees labored to rebuild the thousands of e-mail addresses for Tulane constituents.
Team members in Houston were assigned alternate e-mail accounts through Yahoo! so they could communicate with each other. A new roster of employees was started from scratch -- eventually a register was posted online for employees to "sign in" and list their new contact information.
At 5 p.m. on Sept. 2, the most vital decision was reluctantly announced: there would be no fall semester on the Tulane campus.
But through a landmark policy crafted by nine leading higher education associations, college and university students from Tulane and across the affected Gulf Coast would be accepted at other institutions. Eventually, Tulane students would be attending the fall semester at more than 500 different schools (see related story).
Working to bring them back to Tulane for the spring semester, along with faculty and staff and a community to support them, was the largest task ahead.
In the post-K world, the task ahead was what mattered, not the old ways of working. The Tulane Houston Operations Group, as it came to be called, worked out of a single checkbook accessed only by Cowen and Jones.
Job titles became obsolete as team members took on new assignments. Ponoroff walked into his first meeting and Cowen assigned him to run the academics task force that would plan the spring semester. Other task forces were drawn up to deal with such issues as housing (for the January return by students and the many homeless employees), technology and payroll. Knowing New Orleans would be without sufficient housing and good-quality K-12 schooling for the foreseeable future, the team realized Tulane would have to create its own "village" in order for students and employees to return for the university's reopening (see story).
Being able to pay employees displaced by the storm also was crucial to Cowen. The Sept. 1 payroll had already been processed, with most employees having automatic deposits made to their checking accounts. But some 800 employees had not converted to electronic deposits and their paper checks were not deliverable. A team worked at finding those employees, sending the checks, and getting that group converted to electronic deposits for the looming Oct. 1 payroll.
Meanwhile, the work to open communications lines continued, using the Internet in a variety of ways, including establishing an "ask Tulane" e-mail address, scheduling online live chats each Friday with Cowen and setting up a call center staffed by employees and volunteers.
A January reopening began to look doable. The reconstruction crew hired by Tulane in early September to revive the campuses, along with the university's own facilities crew, worked toward a late December deadline to have the work completed (see related story).
The Tulane team in Houston became double evacuees on Sept. 21 when Hurricane Rita appeared to be headed straight for Houston. The distressed team members departed the office that afternoon and dispersed to safety across Texas, some heading home to further uncertainty in New Orleans.
But Houston and New Orleans both dodged the Rita bullet, and three days later Tulane-Houston was back in operation. The good news came on Sept. 28: there would be a spring semester that would open as regularly scheduled on Jan. 17.
But how many students would return to campus? "We had to build it for the best outcome, assuming that 90-plus percent would come back," said Ponoroff. In early December, with registration numbers nearly hitting that mark, he added, "It turned out to be a good assumption."
On Oct. 31, Gibson Hall reopened on the Tulane uptown campus as Cowen and much of the Houston staff permanently returned to New Orleans.
The months of Texas teamwork made a lasting impression on many who participated, including Banos. "I've been associated with this institution for more than 25 years -- as a student, an alumna and a staff member -- and I have never been as proud to be associated with Tulane as I have been during this crisis."
She singled out Cowen and Jones for showing "phenomenal leadership -- if we had to go through this crisis, I'm glad they were the ones leading us down the path."
Volunteers such as alumnus Katie Yulman, NC '05, who came to Houston from New York to help out any way she could, also were forever changed by the experience. "I think what will stay with me longest is the unbelievable strength of the staff and Scott Cowen," Yulman said. "They had lost so much of their lives in the hurricane, yet were so incredibly committed to saving and rebuilding Tulane University."
Ponoroff said he sees Tulane's renewal as a "product of good leadership, hard work and, frankly, some luck. There was no manual for this, nothing to go by.
"Now the slate has literally been blown clean. In a lot of ways we have an opportunity to do things right and make things better."
As Cowen reflected when he returned home, "Out of any great tragedy comes opportunity."
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org