New Orleans Colleges Face Huge Obstacles By JUSTIN POPE, AP Education Writer
By tradition, every Friday the sisters of Delta Sigma Theta circle around a campus flagpole and join hands to pray and sing, celebrating their closest friendships at Dillard University.
This semester, the ritual will have to take place outside the downtown Hilton Hotel, their beloved school's home through at least July, where the conference rooms are doubling as lecture halls.
The Dillard campus suffered perhaps the worst damage of the half-dozen or so major New Orleans colleges hit by Hurricane Katrina, and it is the only one not reopening on its own grounds this month.
But all the New Orleans colleges face the same challenge: preserving the spirit and essence of their institutions while their battered buildings and finances are rebuilt.
The hurdles are enormous. The combined damage to the college campuses may approach $1 billion. They have laid off hundreds of faculty and cut dozens of programs and sports teams. At a recent faculty and staff meeting, Loyola University's president implored tenured faculty, who were not laid off, to consider retiring. The public Southern University of New Orleans has had three chancellors since June.
Still, the return of students to New Orleans in recent days -- in greater numbers than expected at some schools -- seemed to inject everyone with a dose of optimism. Loyola and Dillard began classes last week; Xavier and Tulane universities start Tuesday.
"Everything happens for a reason, and Katrina was a horrible thing, but I think the school is going to be better for it," said Ashley Bell, a Dillard junior.
Her sorority sister, Joy Calloway, said the experience of temporarily attending other, more impersonal colleges made Dillard students appreciate their own.
"The students who came back are the students who really love Dillard and want to be a part of it," Calloway said.
The best-case scenario is that the New Orleans colleges will emerge stronger, with new buildings and sharper missions. They will cooperate more, and attract a crop of civic-minded students drawn to New Orleans to participate in the city's rebuilding.
The rebuilding effort offers them a unique laboratory for courses ranging from sociology to architecture to engineering. Tulane is instituting a public service requirement, and Dillard, which already required students to perform 120 hours of community service, will now require each to complete some kind of Katrina-related academic project.
Katrina "almost destroyed Tulane University," President Scott Cowen told freshmen and their parents at the university's convocation Thursday, but now, "We have the opportunity of a lifetime ahead of us, and you know, we are going to come out of this better than ever."
About 88 percent of Tulane's 12,500 students before the storm returned. Xavier says about 3,100 reregistered -- roughly three-quarters the previous figure but higher than the school expected. Dillard, with 1,100 students back, is about half its former size.
The University of New Orleans -- a public school attracting mostly local students -- is aiming for 12,500, compared to 17,000 before the storm.
"For most colleges and universities, tuition is the largest share of revenue," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "If you're getting 80 percent of your revenue from tuition and you lose half your students, you're facing enormous difficulties."
For now, housing is a challenge, even with fewer students. Tulane has rented a cruise ship, and several other housing facilities. Off-campus housing in the neighborhood around Dillard may be scarce for years, and if the college reopens next fall it will be down at least six dorms -- three that burned during the flood and three unusable because of water damage. At Xavier, President Norman Francis says hundreds more have registered than he has beds for, and he isn't sure where they'll live.
Xavier's damage is estimated at $35 million (money from FEMA could eventually cut Xavier's bill to $12 million). Francis, president here for 38 years, announced even before he saw the damage that Xavier must and would return. "We have to," insisted Francis, "the kids are depending on us."
The country's only historically black, Roman Catholic college, Xavier sends more black students to medical school than any other college, and alumni account for nearly one-quarter of all black pharmacists in the United States.
"We have moved mountains to be where we are," Francis said.
A recent campus tour revealed the scope and expense of reconstruction at Xavier. A quarter-million-dollar electron microscope lay ruined in a first-floor science room. Water damaged it severely, then attempts to move it to 'safety' did further damage. Gone are the theater seats and Internet connections of the main lecture hall of the pharmacy school, replaced for now by high-school style desks.
But 95 percent of the students in the highly competitive pharmacy program will be back.
Xavier is "not coming back just to recover," Francis said. "We're coming back to do better."
Some fear such predictions are wishful thinking, given the scope of budget cuts. Xavier laid off more than one-third of its faculty, though it has rehired some. Even relatively wealthy Tulane, with an $800 million endowment, cut more than 200 faculty (most in the medical school) and hundreds of staff, from various departments including the medical school, the library, and various 'support' functions.
Eliminating graduate programs will let faculty focus more on undergraduate teaching, Cowen said. And by eliminating adjunct faculty, colleges may indeed give students more exposure to full-time professors. Between the cuts and makeup courses, however, those full-timers may be too busy to pay students much personal attention.
Weakened individually, the New Orleans colleges could find strength in each other. Many credit Tulane -- traditionally viewed as more concerned with national research prestige than community development -- with reaching out aggressively, offering classrooms and other facilities to help the other colleges. Tulane is now leasing some of its facilties to the other schools, essentially giving away space as needed to community organizations on an 'as needed' temporary basis.
They also could benefit from the national attention on New Orleans, which may help explain why Tulane's applications are up 15 percent. And there are stronger ties to other universities; Brown and Princeton, for instance, provided extensive aid to Dillard, and are working on an exchange program.
Inevitably, the New Orleans colleges will be different. But their supporters insist they can be strong again -- and that they are poised to take advantage of the unique opportunities created by the hurricane.
"Today we think about the state-of-the-art climbing wall and about the facilities that are so much a part of a modern university," said Brown President Ruth Simmons, a Dillard alumna. "It's true that many of those things we take for granted, they will not have. But that is not to suggest that learning won't take place in a powerful way."
Touring Dillard's campus for the first time since the storm Friday, junior Ciara Jeffrey shook her head at the state of the campus, even four months into the repairs.
The elegant buildings still gleamed white, and all the pillars of the "Avenue of Oaks" remained. But the lawns were a muddy mess, and the buildings shells of what she remembered. In what she recalled as a vibrant student union, she stared through the gutted walls of what resembled a dark, unfinished basement.
"There has been a major crisis," she said. But she insisted Dillard was still there, and recognizable.
"It's still the spirit," she said. "It's still the campus."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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