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A Recovery at Risk

August 27, 2010

Five years after Hurricane Katrina left Delgado Community College underwater and in shambles, the largest institution of higher education in New Orleans is beginning to look like its old self again. Student enrollment and the number of full-time faculty members are now greater than they were before the storm. Demolition of the last few damaged buildings and their reconstruction on the college’s main City Park Campus are imminent.

Many Delgado administrators and instructors are hesitant to talk about the storm and their rebuilding efforts these days, either because they still get emotional about the subject or they are simply tired of being asked about it all the time. As bad as the natural disaster was, some now see a financial disaster looming that could undercut their post-Katrina progress.

Ron Wright, Delgado's chancellor, is one of those who don't like to talk about Katrina much. And with good reason: he was not the institution’s leader when the hurricane hit. He took the job of chancellor two years ago, coming from Cincinnati State Technical & Community College. And though many might have shied away from such a role, especially at a time when the college was struggling to win back students and faculty, Wright said he reveled in the opportunity.

“I’m a community college graduate,” Wright explained. “I graduated from a two-year school and ended up with an Ivy League education. I understand the heart and soul of the community college movement. This was just the greatest opportunity I had ever considered. The idea of coming and helping a college reestablish itself as a leader in the community college movement and as a vehicle helping people after the storm recover and regain life skills was powerful. If it weren’t for these challenges, what would be the fun of waking up every day?”

In the past two years, Wright has overseen most of Delgado’s repopulation. In fall 2004, Delgado served nearly 16,700 credit-seeking students. The year after the storm, in fall 2006, the college’s overall enrollment dropped to about 11,900. This year, its enrollment is at an all-time high, around 18,600.

Photo: Delgado Community College

Students removing moldy books from the library.

“We made the pitch for students more than usual,” Wright remembered. “I went on several radio stations, cable access shows and community news shows. I went to churches, essentially preaching the gospel of getting an education. I think we did a good job of getting people to hear the story of Delgado and how we can help them.”

Numbers of faculty have experienced similar growth. In fall 2006, a year after the storm, there were 334 permanent full-time faculty and 248 adjuncts. Now, there are an estimated 348 permanent full-time faculty and 483 adjuncts. Though also evidencing a recovery of professors, some of the growth in faculty, especially adjuncts, can be attributed to Delgado’s recent absorption of a local branch of Louisiana Technical College.

Another challenge, beyond attracting both students and instructors back to the college, was giving them a place for teaching and learning to happen. Delgado suffered an estimated $58.9 million in physical damage and received nearly $62.6 million in federal funds for its losses. Last year, though, Delgado had to turn away students for the first time in its history — about 1,500 of them — because around 42 percent of its main City Park Campus was still unusable, four years after the hurricane.

This year, however, all comers were welcome at Delgado. Its student services building, student life center and a major instructional building finally reopened this spring and summer. At present, three more storm-damaged buildings on the City Park Campus are awaiting demolition, and four others are in stages of construction.

“It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be,” Wright said of the main campus. “When I arrived here two years ago, it used to be a war zone. There were buildings still in collapse, buildings that you could still look in and see the devastation and what needed to be repaired or replaced.”

Photo: Delgado Communtiy College

A water-damaged classroom.

Though certainly pleased with how far the college has come, Wright much prefers to talk about where it is going. Now that Delgado has Katrina mostly behind it, Wright has already identified another oncoming storm, a metaphorical one this time — severe state budget cuts.

“A 38 percent cut to our budget will cause much more devastation than what Katrina did,” said Wright, referring to a potential figure that some state officials have peddled as Louisiana hopes to fill a major budget deficit. “We’re about to cut the heart and soul out of what we do. We’re going to have to stop some of the forward progress we’ve been making since Katrina. … Now we’re in the same boat as every other community college in the country. It’s just that we happen to have been through a natural disaster.”

Wright said he was unsure whether having not been around for the storm will have a positive or negative impact on his ability to lead Delgado into the near future, given the prospect of having to cut back on programs the college just recently brought back to their pre-Katrina health.

“I can be more cold and calculating with what we have to do with these budget cuts than people who went through the emotional story of having to recover after Katrina,” Wright said. “So many people have emotional ties to things that I guess I can make a more detached business decision. I think that’s a good thing, but it’s not always seen that way by the people I work with and my leadership team.”

Deborah Lea, Delgado’s vice chancellor of learning and student development, has a different take on life at the college after the storm. She has been at Delgado for 32 years and noted that her Katrina experience will always influence her decisions at the institution.

“It’s so surreal that unless you experienced it, you don’t know what it’s like,” Lea said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for Katrina. We are who we are now, and it’s because of Katrina. We’re stronger than we ever were before. You can’t go through what this college, this community has gone through and not let it affect you. For instance, I never would have been vice chancellor.”

Photo: Delgado Community College

Flooding near the student services building.

Before Katrina, Lea was director of curriculum and program development and a professor of radiologic technology. When the storm hit, due in part to a mass shuffling of administrators and faculty, she was thrust into her current position, helping instructors and students continue taking courses online despite the severe damage on the college’s campuses.

“I’m an x-ray tech,” Lea explained. “I never thought I’d be in the administration at a community college. The storm was a very empowering experience. I made decisions. I learned how to make decisions. That’s what it helped me to do. Before, I would work and take a long time to come to a decision. … Now, I’m so empowered. I can always close my eyes and hear [our former chancellor] say, ‘Debbie, make the right decisions for the right reasons and you’ll never be wrong.’ I embrace that.”

Lea argues that moving forward in the face of severe state budget cuts, with the hindsight of having lived through Katrina, gives her both a sense of duty and perspective.

“Education always gets the hit in Louisiana,” said Lea, noting that it and health care are two of the major state spending items not protected by its constitution. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. But, when faced with the decisions that have to be made, hopefully we’ll endure. I feel supported by what we have gone through by saying we’ve survived.”

Joan Hodge, professor at Delgado’s Charity School of Nursing, recognized a certain twist of fate in her college’s state five years after Katrina.

“We were so worried if we could survive at all,” Hodge said. “Now, we’ve survived the flood. We’ve increased enrollment, and now there’s a different problem with the potential cutting of our budget. It’s a double-edged sword. We’re glad that we lived to see this and that we’re surviving, but it’s just one of those things. This too will pass, and we’ll see a better day. We’ll be stronger and live through these budget cuts. I mean, you’re always adjusting to adapt to get by the next crisis.”

 

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