He never slept much.
But lately, the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University in New Orleans, has been getting only about three hours a night. "I’m not much of a worrier," he said. “But once I start thinking about things, I can’t just roll over.” And he’s had plenty to think about. He’s been crossing the country -- 16 cities in about 40 days -- meeting with alumni clubs, parents, and displaced students, assuring them that the doors will reopen in late January.
Father Wildes already had to make a decision no president ever wants to grapple with. Try to ensure the fiscal health of the institution by requiring students to come back, and not facilitating their transfers? Or leave the choice to the students, and hope for few empty desks on opening day? The health of the institution is hanging on the outcome. Decide.
Tulane University bred some bad blood -- especially in its law school -- by requiring students to return in the spring, but felt the decision was essential to the vitality of the university. Loyola has charted the other course. Which means it’s time to pray, or at least to put sleep aside and trek the nation with a message: “Come on back,” Father Wildes said with a smile worthy of the Big Easy. “I think it will be a great adventure.”
Father Wildes frequently tells people he sees the coming months not as a “resuscitation,” but as a “resurrection,” a chance to come back better, and to play an integral part in the raising of New Orleans. He points to some of the unique programs at Loyola, like the music industry studies program, which could provide unparalleled opportunities for students as the music community dusts itself off to play once again. Like Father Wildes, in disaster, some of the students see opportunity.
Shannon Campanelli’s son was only at Loyola for three days when Katrina visited campus. Stephen Campanelli is doing fine at James Madison University now, which has offered to take him in permanently. But he chose Loyola for the music industry studies program, and plans to return. Shannon Campanelli, though, showed up to hear Father Wildes speak at Georgetown University last Wednesday night because “there are a lot of questions to be answered.” At the meeting, Shannon Campanelli was assured that her son’s scholarship would continue.
The flow of money to all full-time faculty and staff members has also continued even though class is out. That amount is around $30 million. "I didn’t think twice about [paying them]," Wildes said, “which should worry the Board of Trustees,” he joked. Father Wildes has also pledged not lay anyone off before January, while Tulane, with a $720 million endowment to Loyola’s $300 million, and other universities in New Orleans have used the axe already. What is not clear is how much tuition money will be incoming. Father Wildes promised that no one will pay twice, so if colleges that accepted Loyola students didn’t give them a free ride, then Loyola will be picking up the tab. Loyola officials are still going institution to institution trying to work it out.
Father Wildes said that, while “east New Orleans is gone,” uptown, where his campus is located, was not flooded, and he estimates the total cost of physical damage to Loyola at about $5 million. “The skylights on the rec plex were slated to be taken off,” he said. “Katrina did that for us.” At Georgetown, Father Wildes assured the crowd of over 100 students, parents, and alumni, peppered with a few university employees, that the university can weather the hit next semester, even in the worst case. Of course, it will be easier if most of the 5,500 students return to campus.
With the future uncertain, Wildes has begun considering different scenarios, and trying to figure just what level of survival the university can accept. If most of the students, and full-time faculty and staff members return, there may be no cutbacks made. But Father Wildes knows that some employees lost everything, and have set up shop elsewhere, for good. If a darker scenario emerges, and tumbleweed is blowing across campus, Loyola may have to resort to a university-on-a-shoestring model. “We may have no part-time faculty,” Wildes said, “and get maximum use out of our full time faculty. But we can’t do that for long, it would cut down on research.” Some of the permutations are “not particulary pretty,” Wildes said. He knows that, though Loyola can forge ahead next semester for sure, enrollment can’t dip for too long before the endowment starts evaporating.
At the Georgetown meeting, Father Wildes told students that they could make $8-an-hour making phone calls soliciting donations. He also encouraged them to tell whoever might listen that Loyola is a great place. To help recruiting, Father Wildes will be opening an office on campus this week.
Also at the meeting, parents who had recently visited campus to collect their childrens’ belongings had encouraging words. “Physically, the campus is fine,” said Soley Boland, whose daughter Monica is temporarily at Georgetown. Monica had originally wanted to go to Emerson College, but opted for Loyola when she received a scholarship. She is concerned about New Orleans infrastructure -- the Loyola Web site is updating, noting that three hospitals and numerous restaurants in the neighborhood are open -- and the fall has been a time for her to reconsider Emerson. Monica said, though, that she has formed a strong bond with other displaced students, and her mother, infused with the spirit Father Wildes is banking on, remarked that she now “feels a desire to help that city get back.”
Other parents are looking at the bottom line. Loyola plans to use a second, 10-week, intensive semester – “Spring Two” – to get everyone up to speed. The tuition situation for that is not fully worked out yet. “So you can’t make the commitment that Tulane is making that you’ll have the same rate?” a parent asked last week. “That’s correct, it would be irresponsible,” Father Wildes replied.
So far, the signs are encouraging. Of the 469 students who showed up to pick up belongings, 83 percent said they would definitely return, with nearly all the others answering “maybe.” Some of the students, though, are still testing the waters. Molly Thomas, a freshman who relocated to American University, asked if it’s drinkable. Father Wildes paused. “It’s drinkable,” he said. “I’ve done that,” to laughs from the crowd. But Thomas was not reassured. She wants to hear it from the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the EPA has cleared the water, as noted on Loyola’s site, but getting the word out to worried students is not easy.
Even with all the uncertainty, Father Wildes, a bioethicist by trade, is committed to considering exceptions. Generally, if students do not return in January, they will no longer be Loyola students. Wildes talked about an older law student he spoke with recently. She lost her home, and had to relocate a family. So Father Wildes told her she can remain away for the spring to consider a return. “I’m willing to take a gamble that we win more in the end,” he said. “I think she will come back to us. And she’ll be a more loyal alum.” Father Wildes’ cards are on the table, and he calls. What hand are the students holding? Father Wildes has three months of restless nights to guess.