Return to New Orleans

January 19, 2006

The debris from Hurricane Katrina has cleared, and class is in session again in New Orleans.

On Tuesday, Xavier and Tulane Universities, and Southern University at New Orleans opened the new semester. Loyola University at New Orleans and Dillard University started up last week. The University of New Orleans will start classes later this month.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was in New Orleans Wednesday to announce that the Education Department was providing an additional $30 million in financial support to colleges there -- on top of funds approved earlier by Congress.

For Tulane and Loyola, which have just under 90 percent of their undergraduates returning, the new semester is about as close to a return to normalcy as New Orleans affords these days. Never mind that about 150 Tulane students are living on the Israeli cruise ship Dream Princess, docked downtown.

For Dillard, Xavier, and Southern, historically black institutions without substantial endowments, the problem of not having a campus useable for classes has stretched the problem of re-recruiting students who were set to attend in the fall to recruiting students for next year.

Southern, which sustained about $350 million in damages – second only to Dillard’s $400 million – remains in relative disarray. Classes have begun, but registration is ongoing. Administrators would be happy to get half of their 3,700 students back. To further impede their progress, 400 Federal Emergency Management Administration trailers that were promised to Southern for housing and classrooms are behind schedule, so courses are taking place wherever they can.

Alvin Bopp, a chemistry professor and head of the Faculty Senate at Southern, is teaching in a local middle school. “All the blackboards are about a foot short,” he said. “They come up to my eyeballs.” When asked if he has the books and materials necessary for conducting class, Bopp replied, “oh heavens no. I can wing it for a bit, but only for so long. Something will have to give.”

Bopp is slated – according to the “TBA” riddled schedule -- to spend 15 hours a week in class. But with the student body and the schedule still filling out, he said the first two class sessions have been “15 minutes, in and out.” Still, he said, even without his home, he’s happy to be back in New Orleans. The one consistent thing across all the institutions is that students and faculty members who are back, sound truly inspired to be in New Orleans.

Dillard, the smallest of the pummeled institutions, has about half of its 2,150 students back, and no prospect for using its campus before graduation. Administrators hope, at least, that the graduation ceremony will be a triumphant return to the Avenue of the Oaks, where graduating seniors traditionally march.

Most of Dillard’s students are staying at the Hilton Riverside, which was as desperate for customers as students were for housing. Many Dillard classes take place in the hotel, and others are at other institutions, or online. “They have maid service twice a week, and free Cable TV, Internet and laundry service,” said Wendy Waren, a Dillard spokeswomen.

Dillard cannot directly obtain funds from the FEMA because it is a private institution, so the housing hurdle looms large. Officials are still looking for housing for many faculty members, as they start a 26-week crunch that will include two semesters of course work. Dillard officials did not have numbers available regarding applications for next year, but the number is down, and the admissions period will be extended beyond the normal period, which would close weeks from now.

Tulane roared out of last semester’s non-traditional recruiting period. Applications are up 20 percent from last year. “We believe this increase is driven, in large part, by the desire of today’s students to make a difference in the world,” said Mike Strecker, a Tulane spokesman. “Having an opportunity to be a part of rebuilding a great American city is very attractive to many students.”

Some students agreed. Curry Smith, a Tulane junior, said waiting in mammoth lines at the few open grocery stores has been fine with him. “Anything I’m doing, I’m happier to be doing it in New Orleans,” Smith said.

Some engineering students, however, have had a bittersweet return. Tulane cut most of its engineering programs as part of its reopening plan. Dave O’Reilly, a civil engineering Ph.D. student who had his program cut, helped organize about 50 students who protested, and sold about 300 t-shirts, on the first day of class. “I still have hope the decision can be reversed,” he said.

Xavier has some of its dorms, above the flood damaged first floors, available, and is housing many students there. Xavier officials said that about three-quarters of their students returned, but its future classes they’re worried about. Admissions staff members had to reprint all the recruiting material, which was lost to flooding, and Winston Brown, dean of admissions, said that about 800 applications have come in so far. Last year’s total, which does not reflect the same date a year ago, was around 4,200. “We’re hoping it’s the true believers that are applying,” Brown said. “So we’re hoping for a higher yield.” He added that, with mail services improving, recruiting is about to get a bit easier.

The University of New Orleans won’t open until January 30, but about 7,000 students were taking UNO classes online starting in October. New Orleans is expecting 11-12,000 of its 17,250 students back in the spring. Many of the buildings’ electrical systems, which were underground, are still on the fritz, and buildings that were broken in to for emergency housing are not yet fixed, but class space, if not research space, is available. Sharon Gruber, UNO’s vice chancellor for university advancement, said that she didn’t have exact numbers, but that applications are “running considerably behind last year.” She said the numbers could catch up, though.

“Our online application is up now, and we’re an urban institution, we tend to run applications up to the very end.” Housing, as with most of the institutions, is still a problem, as FEMA trailers are at least several weeks behind schedule. “We are really excited with how things are going,” Gruber said, “but it’s often two steps forward, one step back.”

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