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Village Voices

January 18, 2006

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

Murky floodwaters still lapped at the roofs of houses in some New Orleans neighborhoods. University officials did not wait long after Hurricane Katrina hit to begin assessing damage, tallying up costs and devising plans to repair the university's campuses.

Then a daunting realization came to Tulane President Scott Cowen and his senior group of advisers gathered in Houston. With 80 percent of New Orleans flooded and more than 250,000 homes substantially damaged or destroyed by the storm, what would Tulane faculty, staff and students be returning to? Grocery stores, barbershops and restaurants were coming back, but would members of the Tulane community have homes? Where would their children attend school?

"You can't expect faculty, staff and students to come back without a place to live," said Anthony P. Lorino, chief financial officer and senior vice president. And if Tulane's plight was uncertain, what about the situations facing Dillard and Xavier universities, whose campuses had been decimated by flood and fire?

The disarray and devastation throughout the New Orleans community became as great a concern as the physical damage on the university's campuses.

To come back, Cowen decided: "We have to build a village."

the neighborly thing

One week to the day the storm struck, Lorino set to work finding "absolutely critical" housing alternatives that in the months since have come to include a cruise ship that will be docked on the Mississippi River, a newly purchased $13-million apartment building, and pre-fabricated housing being erected at Uptown Square and behind the Reily Student Recreation Center.

The strong community spirit of New Orleans shines brightly among its universities and colleges, said Cowen. The institutions of higher education are beacons of hope -- and powerful economic engines. If they didn't recover, the New Orleans economy could falter for a long time.

Hearing about the situation at Dillard University, whose Gentilly neighborhood campus had suffered catastrophic flooding and for who three of its buildings had burned to the ground, Cowen instinctively reached out to Marvalene Hughes, Dillard's president.

Rumor had it that Dillard, a historically black college whose history dates to 1869 and that had in fact been named for 19th-century Tulane dean James Dillard, might in the aftermath of the hurricane move with its 2,155 students to Atlanta. Cowen called Hughes and said, "Join us. We'll help you recover as we recover. I don't how we're going to do it, but I'm making the offer to you. You deserve to be in New Orleans. We'll figure it out."

It was the neighborly thing to do.

Ultimately, Dillard and two Catholic universities, Loyola and Xavier, joined with Tulane in a consortium that has helped all four institutions open in New Orleans. Adjacent to Tulane's uptown campus, Loyola University is a Jesuit-affiliated institution with 3,300 undergraduates and 800 students in its law school. Xavier University is the nation's only historically black Roman Catholic college, whose roots go back to 1825. It had 4,000 students, pre-Katrina, on its campus near the triangle of Carrollton and Washington avenues and Interstate 10.

The consortium "affords an unprecedented level of cooperation" among the universities, said Ann Banos, chief of staff and vice president at Tulane. Tulane has offered administrative and classroom space to Dillard and Xavier, while each institution's students primarily take classes from their own faculty. And there is expected to be a stepped-up and fruitful exchange of ideas among faculty members across the universities.

Banos, first on the ground in Houston after the storm, said Tulane officials made decisions quickly and with a focus on survival. It became obvious almost immediately that in terms of the renewal of the city and the higher education community, it was important to create this partnership [with Dillard, Loyola and Xavier].

"We all have the same issues," said Banos. "As the institutions strengthen collectively, we will strengthen individually."

bring new orleans back

Before Katrina, Tulane students had the opportunity to be involved in tutoring or other service-learning activities in more than 30 public schools. But Katrina nearly annihilated New Orleans public schools, both in terms of buildings damaged (according to the Times-Picayune, 47 beyond repair, 38 with moderate damage and 32 with light damage or none) and students and teachers gone from the city.

Talk was that the public schools wouldn't open for a year. Cowen and his advisers in Houston worried that displaced Tulane faculty and staff would not come back without a place to send their children to school. At that point, Paul Barron, a law school professor, reminded Cowen that prior to the storm Lusher School, a K-8 public school located on two campuses in the Tulane neighborhood, had a charter application in process before the Orleans Parish School Board. With Barron as its point person, Tulane had also been involved in a previous plan for Lusher, with its successful, arts-based curriculum, to expand to a high school, but the school board had turned down that plan. But the time could be right for bold action, and the designation of Lusher as a charter school affiliated with Tulane would provide a place for the children of Tulane students and employees to attend school.

"Scott decided to entice the school board to approve Lusher as a charter school in partnership with Tulane by offering $1.5 million," says Barron. Tempted by the ability to replace the local funding lost by reduced tax proceeds, the Orleans Parish School Board agreed.

Flozell Daniels, Tulane's executive director of state and local affairs, testified at the early October school board meeting in which the plan to form Lusher as a K-12 charter school was approved. In exchange for Tulane's support, children of faculty, staff and students of Tulane, Dillard, Loyola and Xavier were guaranteed a slot at Lusher when it reopened in January. The school board also approved the site of a new Lusher high school at the old Fortier High School building at the corner of Nashville Avenue and Freret Street.

"Lusher has proven success," said Daniels. It was designated a five-star school in the school accountability assessment by the Louisiana State Department of Education in 2005 and earned the highest school performance score of any Orleans Parish school.

"In the short term, the educational needs of the children of Tulane faculty and staff had to be considered," said Daniels. "But in the long run, Tulane is committed to improving public education throughout New Orleans."

Recognizing Cowen's and Tulane's commitment to help rebuild Orleans Parish public schools, Mayor Ray Nagin appointed Cowen as one of 17 commissioners on the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Cowen heads the subcommittee on education that is drawing on the expertise of successful educational reformers and interested community members with the goal of devising the best model for public school education in the city of New Orleans. Other than a few shining stars such as Lusher, the Orleans Parish schools have become a symbol of what is wrong in public education. Cowen and his committee, in conjunction with state and local education officials, are working to change that.

For all these efforts, "Scott is the hero when it comes to education in New Orleans," said Walter Issacson, chief executive officer and president of the Aspen Institute, whose mission is to foster enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue. Issacson is also on the Tulane Board of Administrators and is chair of the national board of Teach for America.

the wounds of race and poverty

In the days after the storm, images of desperate and distraught victims of Hurricane Katrina, wading through water, gathering outside the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center or trudging down Interstate 10 shocked viewers around the nation and world. The vast majority of the stranded victims were black and poor.

"The wounds of race and poverty got taken to the surface," said Cowen. "There is not a city in America that does not have race and poverty questions but, for the most part, we don't talk about them. They're below the surface. This brought everything to the surface."

Tulane as an academic institution cannot "fix" poverty and racism, said Lester Lefton, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. What Tulane can do, and what it is redoubling its efforts to do, is study the issues of poverty, race and class to help provide solutions for sound public policy and deeper insight into these concerns.

In the post-Katrina world, Tulane faculty members are re-thinking their roles as scholars in an urban community. They, on a personal level, also face the same problems as other displaced New Orleanians -- lost homes and disrupted lives. "The Tulane faculty has a deep commitment to helping rebuild New Orleans and to ensuring a first-class educational experience for our students," said Lefton. "We're looking forward to academically engaging with our students."

a nola mode of mind

The return of 11,000-plus Tulane students to New Orleans, a city with a population of approximately 100,000 in early January (diminished from its pre-Katrina population of 480,000), "adds to the nature and vitality of the city instantly," said Lefton. Students are encountering a small-town environment in rebuilding mode. New Orleans offers Tulane students a learning laboratory in policymaking and hands-on experience, from architecture to coastal erosion, jazz studies to public health.

The village envisioned by Cowen and others will thrive, Lefton predicted, recalling what Richard Whiteside, dean of enrollment management and institutional research, always has said when he recruits students to Tulane: "There's no place like New Orleans."

Winter 2006

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