Uphill Climb

While all colleges in New Orleans struggle to recover, black institutions have some of the greatest challenges.
December 15, 2005

As anyone who flipped on the television in the days after Hurricane Katrina can attest, many of the people hurt the most were black. The same is true for colleges.

New Orleans’ historically black institutions, with their relatively slight endowments and heavily damaged campuses, face a steep uphill climb if they are to survive as anything more than a shadow of their former selves. As was the case with people in New Orleans, geography and economics did not favor black institutions, which were in parts of the city that suffered extensively, while wealthier, predominantly white institutions were relatively dry. And insurance was common at the wealthier, but less prevalent at the black institutions.

Even Tulane University, with its $810 million endowment, and 12,700 students – pre-Katrina – decided to cut 230 faculty members recently, and to do away with four of its six engineering programs. With the devastated areas of New Orleans still barren, what fate will befall Xavier University, Southern University in New Orleans, and Dillard University when classes start in January?

Getting precise information about the campuses is difficult -- and puts the colleges themselves in awkward positions. While seeking help from the government and donors, the colleges stress their dire circumstances, but while trying to convince students to come back, the colleges are upbeat. Generally, educators in New Orleans and elsewhere say that Xavier has made the most progress toward recovery, Dillard suffered the most physical damage, and changes already approved for Southern may have wiped out most of its academic programs.

Xavier, which initially feared it would lose half its student body, is now expecting 3,100 of its 4,100 students to return. Administrators are encouraged by that figure. If 3,100 students actually show up, Xavier officials, who cut 73 of the 246 faculty members, would like to bring some of those professors back.

In the meantime, Xavier is at work repairing some of the about $35 million in damages done by 4 to 6 feet of standing water. All told, with students needing more financial aid, and lost tuition revenue, the real damage could approach three times that figure. Xavier is currently paying $5-6 million every two weeks to a contractor in an effort to restore its campus, according to Calvin Tregre, the senior vice president for administration. With no federal aid, and none of the $500,000 insurance maximum for each building yet paid by insurance companies, Xavier has had to tap over $10 million of its $54 million endowment. “We were very much underinsured,” Tregre said.

Still, administrators are encouraged by signs like the fact that most of the 600 students in Xavier’s pharmacy program, which produces at least a quarter of all black pharmacists, and nearly all the faculty members, will return.

Even though it has been costly, Tregre said that aggressive rebuilding has been necessary to ensure Xavier’s long-term vitality. He said that, above the first-floor, buildings on campus should be ready to hold classes in January, and dormitories have been dried out and cleaned. While classrooms at Dillard and Southern remain darkened, lights began to illuminate Xavier’s campus again beginning in mid-November, an encouraging sign, but one that also brings utility bills at a time when energy is especially costly. Tregre is currently trying to procure a $30 million loan, and said that, based on his conversations with his banking contacts, the outlook is good. If the loan does not come through, however, “I’m in major trouble,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t have an answer today.”

One of Tregre’s biggest concerns is housing. Student demand for dorms has increased, and all the beds on campus will be used for students. Tregre will be living in a FEMA trailer, and he said that “if you can find a place that’s reasonably priced, it’s in a neighborhood with destruction around it.” Xavier is asking FEMA to supply trailers for faculty members who don’t have housing.

Dillard had over 10 feet of water even two months after the hurricane. The university has a $46 million endowment, according to administrators, and suffered $400 million in damage and lost revenue. Initially, Dillard laid off almost 60 percent of all employees, including 89 of 132 full-time faculty members. Administrators have begun to hire some faculty members back as they determine which programs will have students. Dillard officials said that a little more than half of the about 2,200 students are currently slated to return.

Katsumi Sohma, a Japanese studies assistant professor at Dillard, was initially laid off, and then hired back on a plan that will pay her about 75 percent of her former salary for the academic year. She is expecting 17 of the 30 students in her department to return. Sohma has procured some money from the Mazda Corporation to help with student aid. Similar to the experience reported by many programs at Xavier, Dillard, and Southern, Sohma said that all of her upperclassmen will return, but only about half of the freshmen. “We could fix the buildings,” she said, “but it’s a good question whether we can build the confidence of [new] students and their parents.”

Dillard’s campus is still unusable, so some classes will be taught at Tulane, Xavier, and Loyola, some could be online, and others will be at the Hilton Riverside Hotel, which will also serve as housing. The agony of an uncertain future could drag on, though, as a small freshman class begins to matriculate, and faculty members think about their own lives and careers. Sohma has been talking to people about other job opportunities. “Nothing is finalized, but just in case, I have to explore,” she said. Dillard officials said it is unclear which classes will be offered, or how many more faculty members will be brought back.

Maureen Larkins, a spokeswoman for Dillard, said that the university has not touched its endowment. But, it also has only taken the first baby steps toward resurrecting its campus by removing water and clearing downed trees. Larkins could not give details about the amount of insurance money that Dillard is expecting, but she said that it will be an important part of rebuilding. In an open letter, Marvalene Hughes, Dillard’s president, wrote that “insurance will not cover nearly our needs or replace what we have lost.” Hughes has been working around the clock to raise funds that she hopes will be supplemented by significant federal aid.

Clearly, students who do return will not find the institutions they left. Xavier is planning on renting vans to ferry students to and from grocery stores. The social life on campus, which relied on the now-shuttered gym for dances and sporting events, won’t be the picture of college life, and academic support, a key component in historically black colleges that serve many first-generation college students, will be diminished. Joseph Byrd, Xavier’s vice president of student services, said that one English tutoring program that consisted of about 10 staff members is completely gone. Community service and leadership programs, however, remain intact.

Southern University in New Orleans may rival Dillard for damages. Visitors to the Southern Web site are greeted with bold-faced words that quickly fade: “SUNO is coming back!...BIGGER and BETTER.” But any prospect of Southern becoming bigger is not in the foreseeable future. Estimates for the amount of damage Southern sustained hover around $350 million, and officials said they may get fewer than half of the 3,700 students back. Southern officials have said that the institution will now focus on community development and worker training. On Monday, the university announced that many employees would be placed on furlough beginning January 1. Student registration is continuing, and decisions about which faculty members to retain will be made in January, as a picture of class demand emerges. “It’s going to be student driven” said chancellor Robert B. Gex.

According to the initial cuts, though, the list of academic programs is severely diminished. Staple departments like English, physics, chemistry, and math will all be gone. Courses will still be offered, but no degrees will be given in those and 15 other areas. Faculty members are still hoping that some of those programs will be reinstated, and Gex said that it is a possibility.

Unlike Xavier and Dillard, Southern is public, and can count on some state funding, though the state budget is severely decreased. If the academic program slashes remain in place, faculty members are concerned that Southern will cease to be a comprehensive institution of higher education. Alvin Bopp, a chemistry professor and head of the Faculty Senate, said that Southern’s “nucleus is just gutted. That does not, I think, bode well for the longer term future.” Bopp said that most of the faculty members he’s talked to want to return, but they have had to explore other options. He said that Southern still posted most of its normal courses for registration, but that “in retrospect, that may have been a bad idea,” given the cuts that now appear imminent.

None of the buildings at Southern are operational, and administrators are relying on FEMA to provide a university worth of trailers for housing, laundromats, cafeterias, and classrooms on a 38-acre site just north of the main campus. FEMA has already promised Southern 200-300 trailers, and more if need be, but so far they have not been delivered. Gex said that, so far, Southern hasn’t lost a lot of money due to Katrina, but that’s not a good thing. “We don’t need as many maintenance men because there are no buildings to maintain,” he said. “And we don’t have any utilities to speak of.” Some of Southern’s students relocated, many to the university's Baton Rouge campus, and Gex said faculty members have been preparing online courses for them. He added that, though he didn’t have an official number, applications for next year are way down compared to last year.

Avis White, 42, head of the student government at Southern, is excited to return with her daughter, also a Southern student, and said that some students feel a stronger bond than ever to New Orleans. But, with plans hinging on hundreds of FEMA trailers that exist, so far, only in her hopes, even White is beginning to wonder if there will be space for classes. “I have great concerns for that aspect,” she said.

Even if FEMA comes through, you’re not even beginning to talk about quality of education, and what a student can do with that education,” said Arnold Hirsch, a University of New Orleans history professor who has studied the black community in New Orleans. Practically all the focus thus far has been on simply keeping the doors open. “I give administrators credit,” Hirsch said. “They’re trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but they’ve got a wet rabbit, and no hat.”

All three of the institutions have been getting some aid from foundations and private donors. The United Negro College Fund -- which supports private black colleges -- has raised several million dollars, and last week the Teagle Foundation gave Dillard $500,000. But those contributions are nowhere close to meeting the needs on the campuses and nothing like the $500 million that the American Council on Education and other education groups are asking Congress to provide for all affected colleges.

Trailers or no trailers, New Orleans’ black colleges will hold class in January, and all agree that the semester will be critical to institutional trajectory: whether a college sputters and sinks, or gets back on its feet. To the surprise of some administrators, that crucial semester will begin without federal aid, so the pressure is on university employees. As Bopp said, “it won’t be FEMA who faces the students, it will be us.”


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