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Where Are They Now?

August 24, 2006

When Inside Higher Ed talked last September with Judith Schafer, visiting professor of history and law at Tulane University, her electricity had recently been knocked out by Hurricane Katrina, and she and her husband had grabbed Schafer’s 96-year-old mother-in-law and headed for Ohio.

Schafer landed in Columbus -- where her daughter teaches at Ohio State University -- “without a job, or much of a life,” she said at the time. She knew that the New Orleans Public Library had flooded, and that the historical court records that she was using for her book, about prostitution in New Orleans before the Civil War, were in the basement.

With the year anniversary of Katrina approaching, Inside Higher Ed checked back in with some of the people who took time amid the chaos of the hurricane’s aftermath to talk about how the storm affected their work and lives. Nearly a year after they were first quoted in Inside Higher Ed, some of these faculty members, students and administrators have left the institution they were at when Katrina came; some are still fighting for their institutions' survival on a daily basis; and some are busily reconstructing their research, and in some cases their homes.

Last October, Schafer called her office, and when the answering machine picked up, she knew the electricity was back. So she headed home. To her delight, upon her return, she learned that the library had been built as a bomb shelter during the cold war, and it didn’t flood. “It was like a miracle,” Schafer said.

Historical property records -- which include documents about transferred and freed slaves -- did get wet in the basement of a court building, but Schafer said that many are probably salvageable, and have been sent to a Scandinavian company for restoration.

Schafer said that some parts of the city are completely abandoned, and that “they’re still finding bodies in the 9th Ward.” She and her husband thought about moving, but “we’re both natives. This is home.”

Schafer’s mother, however, didn’t make it home. “There were no nursing homes open [in New Orleans],” Schafer said, “and she ended up staying with a companion in Tennessee,” where she passed away. “It’s sad that she never got to come back to the city.”

Schafer said that most of her colleagues returned, but that some, even full professors, left.

*****

Richard Whiteside, Tulane’s vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions, was hoping that more students would flock to New Orleans. Whiteside said that 1,680 freshmen were ready to begin classes before Katrina. After the hurricane, Whiteside hoped that Tulane, which was planning to do a slight downsizing anyway, could get 1,400 freshmen for 2006-7, even though prospective students would have to forgo a campus visit. Things looked good when Tulane got 21,000 applications for this fall, a record. But normally about one in four accepted students enroll at Tulane. This time, it was only one in seven, and Whiteside said that the incoming class will be about 900.

Whiteside observed focus groups of parents, and said that “it became clear that, because of the kind of press New Orleans had gotten, parents had lingering concerns.” Whiteside said that one parent in a focus group held in Chicago in June thought that the city was still flooding. “This generation of students cares a lot about what their parents say, and we’ve learned we have to be more proactive with the parents.”

*****

Some parents, though, had little choice. Bronya Keats, chair of genetics at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, which is in New Orleans, said that her department is in good shape, having lost only two of 11 faculty members. One of those had a child who needed ongoing medical care, and “New Orleans is not the place you want to be if you need medical help.” Multiple large hospitals in New Orleans were forced to close.

Keats just about gave up another parent and her children who lived in her department for dead. Keats was cultivating a population of mice specifically bred as a model of a population with the genetic mutation for Usher Syndrome, an illness that causes children to be born deaf, and then to go blind in their teenage years. The mice were on the first floor of the Medical Education Building, and Keats figured that up to a year’s work would drown with the mice.

About three weeks after the hurricane, though, Keats got an e-mail saying that her mice were alive and in Baton Rouge. The university’s animal care workers had stayed behind to feed the lab animals with what moldy food and little water they could find, according to Keats. Among the animals they moved above the level of the flooding were Keats’s mice. The workers were stranded for about five days, and when they were rescued, the animals did not come along. Keats said that they must have left as much food as they could find in the cages, though. The mice were stranded for another 10 days.

“The mother mouse took care of the babies,” Keats said, and then they were rescued and taken to LSU’s main campus. “I didn’t believe my eyes when I saw them,” Keats said. Though her mice were saved, Keats did lose her house, and now lives “well north of New Orleans,” she said.

Katsumi Sohma, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at Dillard University, cannot return to the house she lived in, either. When Inside Higher Ed first reached Sohma, she had been laid off as part of massive cutbacks at Dillard University. She, like many other faculty members, was rehired, but at three-quarters of her original salary. Sohma taught class last semester at the Hilton Hotel, and said that she is “relieved” to be returning to a campus and an office and her full salary, even if she has yet to find a place to live.

Sohma said that her department expects just about all of its 15 students – out of 30 before Katrina – who came back after the hurricane to return for this fall. But she’s worried about attracting new students. Dillard graduated its second largest class ever last year, with 354 students receiving diplomas. But attracting new students has been difficult, and the university, which suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, is expecting about 1,000 students in the fall, compared to about 2,100 last fall.

*****

 

Southern University in New Orleans is hoping for more than 2,000 students, from a pre-Katrina figure of 3,800. Alvin Bopp, a chemistry professor and head of the Faculty Senate at Southern, painted a chaotic picture when Inside Higher Ed first reached him last December.

“Chaos still reigns,” Bopp said this month. Southern was forced to gut some of its academic programs, and many, including chemistry, are no longer degree granting. Bopp said that Southern has lost 40 percent of its faculty members, and that his department went from eight instructors 15 months ago, to three now. “Two left, another resigned, and two retired because of the hurricane,” Bopp said.

Southern is now operating entirely out of trailers. For an experimental chemist like Bopp, any lab space for research has disappeared. The lack of permanent facilities also means that faculty members only spend time on campus when they teach or have office hours. “It’s certainly not as fun as it used to be,” Bopp said. He added that there is a sense among people that “we’re not getting leadership from the city in terms of how we’re going to bring the city back,” and there has been little progress on rebuilding the main campus. “Week after week, when nothing is new, that weighs on people,” Bopp said.

At Loyola University in New Orleans, where the water stopped just across the street, the campus is perfectly pristine, but Kristine Lelong, a spokeswoman for Loyola, said that the university’s enrollment, particularly with out-of-state students, is suffering because people are inundated with images of the devastated parts of New Orleans. Lelong said that Loyola expects about 2,600 undergraduates this year, down from 3,100 before the storm, and about 550-600 freshmen, down from around 850. Transfer applications to Loyola, however, hit an all time high of 500, up 36 percent from the previous year. “A lot of people want to be part of the recovery,” Lelong said.

When Inside Higher Ed first reached Lelong last September, she was trying to locate university employees, operating from a laptop she placed on a card table at her mother’s house. “It’s definitely nice to be operating out of an office again,” Lelong said.

*****

Inside Higher Ed last spoke with Calvin Tregre, the senior vice president for administration at Xavier University, in December. Tregre said that Xavier had been underinsured, and he was in the process of trying to get a $30 million private loan. If the loan didn’t come through, he said at the time, “I’m in major trouble. Frankly, I don’t have an answer today.”

Things took a while with the loan, and Xavier had to reach about $20 million into its $50 million endowment. Just as the loan deal was about to be sealed, Congress passed legislation that will make low interest loans available specifically for historically black colleges and universities damaged by Katrina. Tregre said that a subsidized loan would be preferable, so now he’s waiting for that instead. The Department of Education, however, has been slow to issue guidelines for how the loan program will proceed. “I’m anxiously waiting,” said Tregre, who said he is still months away from being able to live in his own home. “We’re getting to a point where we may have to make a phone call ourselves and see if there is anything coming soon,” Tregre said.

Tregre estimated that, based on deposits, Xavier would have 500 freshmen, down from 1,000 a year ago, and 2,200 students total, down from a little over 3,000. The renowned Xavier College of Pharmacy, however, had practically all of its students return, and looks to be at full strength with 600 students.

Tregre said that “making personnel adjustments” was the hardest part of post-Katrina recovery. “Knowing that it would affect us not only in the short term but in the long term was difficult,” Tregre said.

*****

When Inside Higher Ed first reached Kirstin Noreen, then an assistant art history professor at Louisiana State University, it was August 30, 2005, and she was hunkered down with a colleague in a building on the Baton Rouge campus where they happened to answer the phone when an Inside Higher Ed reporter called looking for a hurricane expert who wasn’t around. Noreen and her colleagues made sandwiches and watched "Million Dollar Baby" as sheets of rain hurtled through the treetops outside.

Noreen is now an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a move she said has nothing to do with the hurricane. Beyond some extra students who migrated from New Orleans, and having to cut back on expenses like photocopies in an effort to support those new students, Noreen said that she came away from the storm relatively smoothly. “For many of us in Baton Rouge,” Noreen said, “the most striking thing was how normal it was for us, while an hour and 15 minutes down the road you couldn’t get water.”

Dave O’Reilly, founder of Save Tulane Engineering, also changed institutions in the last year. O’Reilly, a civil engineering Ph.D. candidate and native of New Orleans, wanted desperately to remain at Tulane. Shortly after Katrina, Tulane was trumpeting the opportunity that engineers would have to rebuild the city. But that was before Tulane announced a post-Katrina plan that included cutting civil engineering, environmental engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

O’Reilly was disappointed by what he saw as a missed opportunity for Tulane to help bring the city back. He recently transferred to the University of New Orleans -- which is expecting 11,750 students, compared to to 17,140 pre-Katrina -- where he said the faculty members tend more often to be local than those at Tulane, and they “have a vested interest in New Orleans,” O’Reilly said.

“The engineering dean saw what was going on at Tulane and he contacted me.” O’Reilly added that “to Tulane’s credit,” he said, the university transferred his fellowship to UNO, even though Tulane was not obliged to do so. O’Reilly said that New Orleans “has been through this before, and we’ll probably go through it again.” He added that he’s excited to help rebuild the storm infrastructure, and hopes to help forge ties between academics and the Army Corps of Engineers, so that New Orleans doesn’t suffer from another “manmade disaster,” he said.

*****

As Hurricane Katrina swept away some peoples's homes and jobs, it left in its wake hard feelings from some faculty members who spent their professional careers at New Orleans institutions.

Stephen D. Cook, formerly Tulane School of Medicine’s director of orthopedic research, had been a Tulane undergraduate, a graduate student, and then a faculty member for 27 years. His entire life had been spent at Tulane, but he was one of 180 medical faculty members who had their jobs eliminated in December. “Twenty-seven years,” Cook said, “and all I got was a phone call while I was out of town,” and a year of severance pay.

Shortly after the hurricanes, Cook developed myocarditis, a heart disease usually caused by a viral infection. Cook thinks he may have contracted the virus from something in the water or garbage he was wading through in a home he owns in Mississippi, which is currently uninhabitable. Cook went into heart failure and had to have emergency surgery. “I woke up three days later,” he said. “Now I’m doing fine.”

Cook’s home in New Orleans is on high ground between the London St. and 17th St. levee breaches, and he said he’s on a dry island with a few neighbors, but that most of the area around him is abandoned. He has a generator for the several times a week when his power goes out.

Cook routinely brought in $1.5 million to $2 million a year in industry money from companies like Medtronic, which Cook said has been very understanding. Laying off Cook might cost Tulane, as he happens to be a trustee of the Marshall Museum and Library Trust, established by J. Howard Marshall II, a billionaire businessman who passed away in 1995. Cook said that some of the money has been tied up because of protracted court proceedings stemming from efforts by Anna Nicole Smith, who was briefly married to Marshall, to get a big piece of the pie. But Cook said that the foundation will soon give out about $20 million a year. “Guess how much Tulane will see of that?” said Cook, whose wife is a graduate of Newcomb College, a women’s institution within Tulane University that was eliminated as a stand-alone college after Katrina. “I’ll do everything I can to go around Tulane,” Cook said.

Things have not returned entirely to normal for any of those who spoke with Inside Higher Ed a year ago. And many of them expressed frustration at the lack of tangible progress in rebuilding New Orleans, even while Mississippi, which was ground zero last hurricane season, is forging ahead. Inside Higher Ed was not able to track down a few students and faculty members who spoke last year, and a few had retired. But most, like Cook, who may soon take an endowed chair at LSU, have climbed back into higher education, and much of the ill will among dismissed faculty members is tempered with fond memories. “As bitter as it is,” Cook said of his feelings toward Tulane, “I still have a lot of feelings for the university.”

 

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