The Post-Katrina Path

Leaders of historically black institutions search for lessons after a challenging year.
September 12, 2006

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, leaders of black colleges devoted much time to talking about the disasters that struck their colleges in New Orleans a year ago. During a panel discussion titled “New Successes and New Challenges,” which took place Monday during this year’s National HBCU Week Conference, Hurricane Katrina was the main focus. The talk, sponsored by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, also provided some advice for colleges not afflicted by natural disasters, but most attention remained focused on supporting ailing institutions.

Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of NAFEO, said that now is the time to look at lessons learned in a post-9/11 and post-Katrina world. She believes that the two American tragedies highlight a need for more backing for minority serving institutions – beyond the people who already work for and support their missions.

“After 9/11, Americans got a glimpse of our better selves,” Baskerville said, noting that much federal, state and private aid was quickly funneled to the victims of the tragedy. “We channeled our grief into appropriate affirmative action.”

But, after Katrina, Baskerville said that leaders of black institutions, including Dillard University, the Southern University of New Orleans and Xavier University, were all too often left to cope with disaster zones on their own, while dealing with a complicated and chaotic bureaucratic system. She said that it was “disturbing” that the government didn’t free up more funds to help such institutions in ways that it did for those directly impacted by the events of 9/11.

Baskerville said that after 9/11, various scholarship funds, tuition waivers and loan forgiveness programs were rapidly created to help afflicted students. “There’s been no comparable public investment [for institutions affected by Katrina],” she said.  

Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard, said that historically black institutions have often had to find unique ways to educate students in light of adversity. After Katrina, for instance, Hughes pointed to a partnership she forged on her own with a local Hilton Hotel to house students and allow them to continue their education.

“The most traumatic circumstances can help you discover things within your university that you never knew about,” said Hughes. She said, too, that she was especially grateful for matriculation agreements her administration was able to forge with other institutions to help students continue learning and graduating after disaster struck the Dillard campus.

Hughes, whose campus was underwater for several months, said that she is the only president who has ever had a campus destroyed under his or her watch. She has also had to cut her faculty in half, conduct fundraisers, deal with insurance companies, negotiate with lawmakers, and attempt to rebuild a broken community. Her message was that if she could do all that in just one year, other leaders of black institutions should have little doubt that they can make great strides as well. “I hope you never have to go through this,” said Hughes. “But, if you do, remember that there is one who has done it.”

During his time to speak, Victor Ukpolo, the chancellor of Southern University of New Orleans, said that “without the family of HBCUs,” his institution would not be here today. He said that many leaders of black institutions came forward to give both time and what little money they could offer.

At one point, Walter Massey, president of Morehouse College, asked Ukpolo if he would ever write a book about the ordeal. “I’m not planning on writing a book,” he responded with a laugh. “I’m just trying to get through day by day.”

Beyond Katrina-related issues, Shirley A.R. Davis, president of Paine College, said that one of the greatest challenges for historically black institutions is being able to pay faculty members the salaries that they deserve, and to find ways to get more black males going to college.

Dwayne Ashley, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, an organization that provides scholarships to students who attend historically black colleges, echoed the need to help students succeed not only in college, but also post graduation. He said that he sees many students struggling to navigate the corporate environment once they become employed.

Ashley believes that more black colleges should develop leadership programs to help students understand the corporate maze and culture. “We have the numbers of students that businesses need,” he said. "And we’re giving the students the education they need to do the jobs in our new economy.”


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