March 22, 2007
If Earl Retif thinks about it, he may lift a glass tomorrow to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his post-Katrina homecoming. Trouble is, he hasn't got a lot of time to think much about anything but an unruly and unpredictable set of numbers that swirl inside a crystal ball given to him by Tulane President Scott Cowen.
The two men have a lot riding on those numbers, as does the university and, to a large extent, the city of New Orleans. Good bet that tomorrow's going to come and go without much fanfare in the Office of Enrollment Management, aka undergraduate admission. Too much work and worry at the moment.
It's Nov. 20, a week before Thanksgiving and, thankfully, a week before the end of what is likely the most intense and exhausting recruitment phase for this or any other university in the history of forever.
Retif, vice president for enrollment management, and his staff have been working six- and seven-day weeks since August, bringing prospective students, their parents and high school guidance counselors to campus, as well as criss-crossing the country in a massive campaign to get out the message that the water has indeed subsided and Tulane and the city in which it's located are alive and well. Not ideal mind you.
The city could use a fail-safe levee system and Tulane could do with a 2007 freshman class that in terms of size approaches pre-Hurricane Katrina numbers. In late August 2005, Tulane had 1,679 freshmen--the largest enrollment in the university's history--on campus for a fall semester that was canceled before it ever began. Katrina chased that class, as well as the entire Tulane student body, faculty, staff and everyone else, out of southeast Louisiana and to the four corners.
When the university reopened its doors in January 2006 for the spring semester, 87 percent of Tulane's students returned to take up where they left off. The number of new students recruited for fall 2006, however, was not nearly as encouraging and far shy of what the administration was hoping for as the university enrolled only about 900 students into its freshman class. That's a fall-off of 53 percent from the previous year and not the kind of numbers Cowen wants to see repeated. He's gone on record, in fact, predicting that the '07 class will come in at 1,400.
"That would be phenomenal," says Retif, "and that's our goal." But it's a pretty ambitious goal, he adds. Cowen smiles at his VP's gentle reality check. "It's Earl's job to try to diffuse my optimism," he says. "But I am optimistic. It will be a great thing and I think it's going to happen."
Last summer, Cowen announced that Retif, the longtime university registrar, had accepted an offer to become the next vice president for enrollment management. For Retif, a native New Orleanian, it is in many ways the chance of a lifetime--to lead Tulane in rebuilding its ability to attract students in pre-Katrina numbers, despite having to do it as squalls of uncertainty and misinformation continue to disturb the comfort zone of parents of prospective students.
Still, the offer must surely have come as a surprise to the 30-year veteran of the university, who is at the stage in his career where, frankly, it's easier to tend to a familiar garden than to scramble up the slope of a mountain for which there are no trails, markers or signposts. Just a swirl of numbers about applicants and possible applicants, demographic breakdowns, five- and 10-year trends--and given the historic and unprecedented nature of things down here, Retif isn't sure what those numbers are saying.
"I think the numbers so far are encouraging and it looks like we are doing OK," says Retif. "The scariest part for an old registrar like me is the elusiveness of the numbers and not knowing how much you can depend on them."
For fall 2006, Tulane received 21,000 applications and accepted about 7,500 of them. The little more than 900 students who actually came to the institution made this the smallest yield ever for the university. Chalk that up to the Katrina factor and how even today it continues to bedevil recruitment efforts. Everyone working in admission knows that if you can get a prospective student onto campus soil, the odds go way up that he or she will enroll.
"Last spring, our numbers show that of those students who visited campus and who were accepted for the fall, 60 percent of them actually came," says Cowen, repeating the numbers "Six-Oh" in homage to the power of that figure.
Trouble is, the campus wasn't officially reopened until January 2006, five months after Katrina and a good two months after the critical fall recruitment season had run its course. Keep in mind that the city itself was officially closed until mid-October and things like air traffic, hotel accommodations and even public utilities didn't approach anything resembling an American city until the new year.
"By the time we were able to bring students here, which was February-March, most seniors had already made their choice," says Cowen. "The time when kids really begin to zero in on where they want to go is in the fall, and we missed the opportunity to be able to bring them here."
As they move toward the Thanksgiving 2006 holiday, Retif and his staff have already hosted three successful campus visits for prospective students and their parents. And so here is another set of numbers Retif can chew on. In fall '05, zero prospects visited Tulane. In fall '06 more than 500 seniors and some juniors, with parents in tow, arrived on campus in three "VIP" events in which they toured campus and participated in several sessions to learn about Tulane.
"In terms of fall visits, that's a pre-Katrina number," says Retif, employing the new calendar system adopted by most New Orleanians--that of dividing time into everything that happened before the storm and everything that's happened since. "Still, it is very hard to use this one thing as a projection [for the size of next year's freshman class]."
There is always some degree of voodoo involved in why certain students apply to certain schools and why they choose to enroll in a particular one. But during the last recruitment season, Tulane discovered that Katrina cast her own peculiar spell.
"Uncertainty was the biggest factor in last year's recruitment," says Retif. "All those pictures on television were fresh in people's minds, as was the condition of the levees and whether or not New Orleans or Tulane were going to make it back."
Two things emerged from surveys of prospective students who were accepted but who did not enroll at Tulane for fall 2006. Parents played a significant role in the decision, and parents could not be moved off the Katrina issue.
"It's not so much the students," says Cowen. "The students want to come here but if in the end the parents say no because they are worried about some potential environmental health issue or something else, then we have to properly educate them."
So as Recruitment '07 continues to roll out, it does so with a focus, message and methodology tailored to these most unusual of times.
The first thing you notice about Earl Retif is his easy smile and a twinkle in his eye that suggests he is smiling about more than to what he is letting on. Holed up in Houston for two months with a core group of administrators planning the survival of Tulane amidst the greatest urban disaster in the country's history, Retif returned on Nov. 21, 2005, to a campus that was still in cleanup mode.
He soon became one of the media's go-to sources, providing realistic and at the same time reassuring comments about the university and the city. Retif appreciates the seriousness of the task handed to him and his staff.
"It's a scary thing. Of course it's scary," he says--with a smile. "I think about all the people who tell me that Tulane is dependent on its students and that it's my job essentially to get them here. They remind me the budget is dependent on the students." So why did he change job titles? "I'm not sure I chose to switch," he says. Twinkle.
Cowen may have made Retif an offer he couldn't refuse, but it's clear that the president regards his VP warmly. During the dark days of Houston, Retif stepped up to the plate, says Cowen.
"Earl and his wife, Ann [Salzer], were an important part of a small core team. No matter what task you'd throw at Earl, he met the hurdle. He just has a can-do attitude. ... And Earl knows New Orleans and knows the institution very, very well."
The fact that Retif was raised in the Upper Ninth Ward has been particularly helpful in one of the most important new recruitment strategies. Along with parents, high school guidance counselors are being targeted as recipients for receiving the Tulane message. By the time the drive for new students is over, the university will have brought more than 100 guidance counselors from around the country to Tulane for a long weekend in which they are exposed to both school and city.
Retif has led a number of these tours, which depart from the Tulane area (that is essentially up to pre-Katrina speed) but then wind their way into the Ninth Ward and other devastated areas.
"We take them to the worst of the worst," says Retif, in order to show not only how much the city has bounced back, but also how much it hasn't. "We've received nothing but positive feedback," says Retif. "You can see a change in the attitude of the people in the van when we enter those areas; they are really quite affected by it."
Robert Alexander (TC '99, B '05), assistant vice president for enrollment management, is in charge of overseeing the weekend visits and says it's important for the counselors to come away with an understanding of Tulane's involvement in the city's rebuilding through projects such as UrbanBuild, where students and faculty are involved in designing and constructing innovative housing in local neighborhoods.
"We show them how our students are making a contribution--something that is good for the city but also is an asset and resource for our students," says Alexander.
It's part of what Cowen calls a "counter-message" to the scads of negative publicity the city has received in the 15 months since Katrina.
"I don't think there is any better place in America to get a college education than Tulane University," says Cowen. "Because you are going to continue to get the first-rate in-class experience you had before Katrina--and maybe in an even more intimate setting, and you are also going to be able to participate in the largest recovery of an American city in the history of the United States."
If that has the ring of a sound bite, it is because Cowen closes every talk with prospective students and their parents with that message. And it's a message echoed in every presentation made by Tulane's dozen admission counselors who, as of November, had visited more than 800 high schools to "show the flag and show Tulane is alive and well," says Retif. That's 200 more school visits than in a typical year.
"The staff is aware that we have a daunting challenge and they have steeled themselves," says Retif. "Where they might finish the day at a certain time, they are stretching it to go to one more school or recruitment event that day."
"I spend about six weeks living in hotels from August to October," says Ian Watt, assistant director of admission. Once spring comes, he and his colleagues will be out on the road again, encouraging students and their parents who have been admitted to put their shoes on Tulane's lawns for a visit. Watt says that selling New Orleans has always been part of the challenge.
"If it's not that it is Mardi Gras 24/7 then it's that Tulane is located on Bourbon Street," he says of the misperceptions. But now parents are also asking what the city and state are doing to prevent another flood or the status of Tulane's physical facilities. "There's always the mama factor," says Alexander. "They want to know if anyone is coughing from mold."
As part of a stepped-up print and DVD campaign targeting parents, the enrollment office created a video addressing common concerns. The video included officials from the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine addressing the over-hyped and sometimes inaccurate media reports about "toxic soup," a city overrun with mold and other environmental hazards.
"The concerns have diminished," says Retif, "but there are still people who ask about mold and air quality and some probably still think there is water on some of the streets."
Despite the challenges and long hours, Alexander says he and his colleagues are on something of a mission, and says everyone in the enrollment office has worked harder than anyone could have asked.
"Everyone understands that we are the linchpin in the future of the university," he says. "We carry a lot of burden, but that is a great motivator for us."
Like just about everyone else in town, Cowen and Retif found a new hobby over the summer and early fall--watching the tropics. Few doubt that the absence of even a single storm threatening the central Gulf Coast provided a huge psychological boost to the area's recovery. And the fact that the New Orleans Saints nearly went to the Super Bowl didn't hurt either. Maybe there is a little voodoo mixed in with the numbers when you're watching how the wind stirs or the ball bounces.
"Symbols are important," Cowen acknowledges, indicating he'll take whatever help he can get in putting Tulane back on solid ground.
Retif likes symbols, too, but he still doesn't trust the numbers, even though increasingly they are making 1,400 look like a doable thing. In any case, he has to be gratified that 30 years of solid service has been rewarded with the confidence and trust of the university, right?
"No good deed goes unpunished," says Retif, smiling, twinkling.
Nick Marinello is a senior editor in the Office of University Publications and features editor of Tulanian.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org