Katrina-hit campuses try to return to normal

October 5, 2007

Two years on from the New Orleans hurricane, Jon Marcus reports on a higher education sector still in turmoil

The biggest drama at Tulane University in New Orleans during its first few weeks of term last month was the dispute over whether students preferred hip hop or rock music for their season-opening campus concert.

It was a conflict typical of residential universities, where small disagreements can be magnified into all-consuming controversies. It also seemed to suggest that Tulane was moving beyond the legitimate trauma unleashed two years earlier by Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in American history.

In fact, beneath the surface of their newly whitewashed buildings and carefully choreographed proclamations, New Orleans universities continue to contend with the aftermath of the storm and the devastating flooding that came with it. They are still short of hundreds of millions of dollars needed to complete repairs, enrolments are rebounding but sluggish, and the nation's largest professors' union has claimed that the universities took advantage of the ordeal to sack faculty members in violation of traditional job guarantees.

"Two years after the hurricanes, help is still needed for the colleges, universities and other post-secondary schools in New Orleans," US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said when she announced last month that $30 million (£14.7 million) in aid was to be shared among 22 institutions, whose combined repair costs remain in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tulane alone suffered damage totalling $650 million. Insurance and earlier government grants have covered only about half that amount. The storm cost neighbouring Dillard University $400 million.

The revival of the universities is about more than higher education. Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane, has said that the schools are nothing less than the "economic and intellectual underpinning of the city's recovery".

Yet the most comprehensive study of the effect of Hurricane Katrina on higher education, by the Southern Education Foundation, reports that some 26,000 students in Louisiana - which includes New Orleans - and 9,000 in Mississippi had failed to return to public universities in those states because their own lives remained in tumult. Nearly 70 per cent of the 76,000 public and private university students in and around New Orleans itself dropped out for at least a semester.

"Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has the US witnessed so many of its own students thrown out of school," the report said.

New Orleans universities are still struggling to return to their pre-Katrina enrolments. And while they have trumpeted the fact that the numbers at most institutions have grown this year, enrolment remains below where it was before the storm hit.

The University of New Orleans, for example, has 11,363 students this semester, down from 17,350 before Katrina. Loyola University New Orleans has dropped to 4,585 from 5,423.

"While I would have liked to see a stronger growth in our undergraduate enrolment, there are positive signs," said Loyola's president, Kevin Wildes, who noted that in some subjects - mainly music and the arts, for which New Orleans itself remains a powerful draw - student numbers are up.

The ranks of first-year students are also rising, portending a gradual increase in total student numbers. "There is a gradual perception of real improvement and a sort of getting back to normal in the post-Katrina environment in the Greater New Orleans region," said Tim Ryan, chancellor of the University of New Orleans.

Tulane saw more than a 50 per cent increase in the number of first-year students, Loyola 18 per cent, and Xavier University 30 per cent. Still, these figures remain below where they were before the hurricane. Tulane, for instance, was aiming for a first-year class of 1,400 by autumn 2009, down from 1,652 before Katrina - and has already nearly reached that target, with 1,325, through initiatives such as flying in 125 college advisers from across the country to show them that the school was back to normal.

"If this time last year you had told me that I would be announcing these kinds of enrolment numbers, I would have not believed it," said Dr Cowen.

But for now, fewer students mean fewer faculty are needed to teach them, and New Orleans schools have been quick to pare down the ranks of professors. This has resulted in a censure from the American Association of University Professors directed at Tulane, Loyola, the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans.

The union charged that the universities demonstrated "nearly universal departure from, or in some cases complete abandonment of, personnel and other policies". It said that the faculty firings "exceeded the inescapable or minimal needs of the institution, sometimes substantially", and that faculty were sacked without the required notice or due process. The number of fired professors ranged from 17 at Loyola to 200 at Tulane (see box, below).

The universities dispute that they took advantage of the emergency to reduce their payrolls, but David Rabban, chairman of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said "policies at these institutions that were already in place when Katrina hit would have worked in response" to the situation.

Professor Rabban, a law lecturer at the University of Texas, said the union recognised that "even tenured faculty members may lose their positions under extraordinary circumstances", but he said the New Orleans universities simply ignored the rules.

On some New Orleans campuses there are more than hurt feelings remaining to remind people of Katrina. The storm's toll is still evident at Southern University at New Orleans, for example, where every building was affected. Courses now are taught in 45 Government-issued trailers - 26 of them used for classrooms and 19 as computer labs. Southern is the only university in the area that has not returned to its original campus. Another 400 trailers are being added to house students, faculty and staff who are living temporarily in a hotel. The university has received a $44 million low-interest loan to build permanent dormitories scheduled to be completed by next autumn.

Katrina hasn't just affected how students in New Orleans are being taught. It has become a subject of scholarship.

The University of New Orleans has hastened to create the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank to collect and preserve stories and images from Katrina for future historians to use. Southern University was given $100,000 by the Getty Foundation to restore 728 pieces of African and African-American art that sat in flood water for nearly five weeks after the storm.

For all of their problems, New Orleans universities have recovered in another way, too: on nationwide league tables. Loyola moved up to sixth place among Southern universities in masters degree programmes in the all-important US News & World Report rankings, and Tulane was ranked among the 25 "hottest" schools in America by Newsweek, in the special category "Hottest on the rebound".

THE HURRICANE SACKINGS: WERE FACULTY WRONGLY FIRED?

The American Association of University Professors has censured four New Orleans universities for firing faculty in the wake of Hurricane Katrina without - according to the union - required notice or due process.

The institutions cited in the AAUP report are Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans.

The AAUP said that while some reduction in staff numbers was "inevitable", given sharp enrolment declines, the number of dismissals - from 17 at Loyola to 200 at Tulane - was more than was called for by the budget crisis.

The AAUP said that Tulane had failed to conduct a required hearing in at least one case and refused to move affected faculty to other suitable positions.

The universities dispute the charges.

"The AAUP report is a disservice to the thousands of individuals, including those at Tulane, who have suffered through the worst natural disaster in the history of the US," Tulane said.

In a letter to the faculty, Tulane president Scott Cowen said: "Given the AAUP's inability to understand and appreciate the consequences of Katrina, which led to its distorted and inaccurate final report, I can only conclude that the AAUP's decision will not have any practical impact."

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