These are not the sorts of road trips college kids like Darryl Phillips dream about.
Forced from his home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Southern University at New Orleans student fled the city to enroll at Texas Southern University. For the next two years, Phillips would return to New Orleans about three days a week to help his father repair their damaged home, and he still remembers the darkened streets and the stench of something he still can’t quite describe.
“At nighttime, you’d hold your hand in front of you, and you can’t see your hand in front of [you],” he recalls. “The smell was horrible … I don’t even know a word to explain it to you.”
But Phillips, like thousands of others, has returned to New Orleans to finish what he started at Southern University, or SUNO, a historically black campus that many thought might not still be operating today. There are new faces now, and Southern feels different too. Five years after the worst natural disaster in the country’s history upended Phillips’s life, he still attends some classes in makeshift trailers that have taken on a haunting permanence.
And he feels lucky to be alive.
“I just have to take it day by day. That’s life,” says Phillips, 25. “Sometimes you get dealt a deck of cards that’s a good hand, and sometimes you get a bad hand – just have to know how to work it.”
“We have to keep in mind and remember the ones who have passed [away] and went before us,” he adds, “and we have to continue to keep pushing.”
Stories of inspiration aren’t hard to come by in New Orleans, where locals have used the improvisational skills of jazz giants to reconstruct a city and its system of higher education. But there are still plenty of sour notes to be heard. That’s in large part because it wasn’t just buildings that were damaged or destroyed in Katrina’s wrath; in some cases, trust was a casualty, too.
That frayed trust is still pronounced at Southern University, where many felt early on that policymakers would use the crisis to bring about the closure of an institution often criticized for low graduation rates and subpar outcomes.
“It is very difficult to rebuild trust,” says Victor Ukpolo, Southern’s chancellor. “Credibility is something we have to use to rebuild trust. If you ask me what’s my greatest challenge now, it’s the rebuilding of trust between the state and the campus community, moving us to be able to get where we need to.”
Even now, however, there’s talk of whether Southern University can remain an independent entity. This spring, a draft plan for greater collaboration among Southern and Delgado Community College was widely interpreted as a pathway toward a merger between the two-year and four-year institutions.
“We don’t believe that anyone is going to succeed in closing this institution,” Ukpolo says. “Since [the university’s] inception there has been talk about 'Do we need it?' But we’re still here.”
Buoyed by the construction of new dormitories, Ukpolo envisions a renaissance at Southern, which he sees transitioning from a commuter campus into a residential one with greater services aimed at improving student retention. Others, however, aren’t so sure. Indeed, faculty recently voted “no confidence” in Ukpolo and his administration, citing a lack of progress in rebuilding the campus or restoring 22 programs that were “unnecessarily and unreasonably terminated” after the storm.
George Amedee, president of the university’s faculty senate, views the merger talks and the introduction of more stringent – although still low – admissions standards as part of the “slow death” of the university.
“Everyone is happy about dressing up the campus and the dormitories, but the question is who are the dormitories being prepared for? If they are being prepared for folk from the two-year college and not the students we serve, there are some questions there,” says Amedee, a political science professor.
If Southern University faculty are concerned about the direction of their campus, they have something in common with professors at the University of New Orleans, which is part of the Louisiana State University System. As the Louisiana State campus works to rebuild from disaster, it has been undercut by a series of budget cuts that are seemingly without end. Having already endured cuts of 25 percent in the past several years, the university – along with other public institutions, including Southern – is drafting plans to cut as much as 35 percent more in the next fiscal year.
“Students are not getting the classes they want. Class sizes are increasing, and now they are not getting the programs they want either,” says Neal Maroney, faculty senate president and an associate professor of economics and finance. “What I thought was a big hump to get over [after the hurricane] is nothing compared to what is coming up. I thought Katrina was a challenge, but this budget situation is horrible.”
So horrible, in fact, that budget-cutting proposals led to something of a showdown between Maroney’s former dean and Timothy Ryan, the university’s chancellor. James Logan, who was removed as dean earlier this month, says his ouster resulted in part from differences of opinion he had with Ryan on how best to cut the College of Business’s budget. Logan says he argued for preserving popular majors like finance and marketing, rather than moving toward the chancellor’s favored idea of a more general business degree with various specializations.
“I thought what we had done was to give him an alternative that was better,” Logan says. “He basically told everybody else that he knew more than everybody else. I think the people who are going to pay the price [are students], and they are not going to be able to get jobs.”
Ryan was not made available for comment, and university officials said he would not discuss “personnel matters.”
“All [budget reduction] plans went through a very specific process of creation and review that was adopted by the University Senate, and we have a high level of confidence that the plans best serve our students well in the face of continued constraints,” Mike Rivault, a university spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed Thursday.
For Logan, the post-Katrina era has been heart wrenching. While some faculty left for good after the storm, those who stayed truly believed in serving an urban area with a large population of African American and first generation students, he says. Now that mission is imperiled, Logan says.
“We really thought we were building something that was worthwhile,” Logan says with a tone of resignation.
There were tensions at the University of New Orleans before the flood waters had even dried. Citing financial exigency, the university placed employees on lengthy furloughs that some professors interpreted as tantamount to termination or forced retirement. Among them was Joe Murphy, a physics professor who – displaced by the storm – moved to live with family in Slidell, La., where he now has his own home.
“The way it was handled in a way hurt me more than anything else,” recalls Murphy, who was a faculty member at New Orleans for 37 years.
Like many who would be forced to take one-year furloughs, Murphy found out he was on the list through an e-mail that – without naming professors – provided the salaries and departments of those who’d be targeted.
“When I looked at the salaries, I knew immediately who the people were, including myself,” says Murphy, who retired rather than take a furlough.
Murphy had already made it known before the storm that he planned to retire within a few years, but he says he felt shabbily treated and insulted by the way his final months transpired. Not long after, he received a congratulatory letter on his “retirement.”
“I felt like somebody was rubbing salt in my wounds,” he says. “You’re congratulating me on my retirement, but you’ve forced me to retire.”
Those wounds are still open on some campuses. The American Association of University Professors censured the University of New Orleans and three others for violating faculty rights in Katrina’s aftermath. While Tulane University and Southern University have since been removed from the censure list for taking corrective action, the University of New Orleans and Loyola University New Orleans remain censured.
Robert O’Neil, who co-authored a report for the AAUP on the treatment of faculty after Katrina, says the censures demonstrated that the academic community – while sympathetic – would not sit back and allow tenure and due process rights to be violated, even under extreme circumstances.
“Censure is a very serious sanction, and it is not taken lightly by any of the people I’ve known who have been subject to it, and the hope is for redemption through removal,” says O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin System, who also directs the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and serves as general counsel to the AAUP.
The censured institutions have denied wrongdoing.
Private, tuition-driven universities like Loyola have faced their own peculiar challenges in Katrina’s aftermath. Ed Kvet, the university’s provost, recalls the complete uncertainty Loyola officials had in the weeks and months following the storm.
“We didn’t know early on the future of the entire city,” Kvet says.
And if there was a city, who would want to come to it? Indeed, images of devastation, stories of criminality run amok and allegations of police brutality are not the kind of selling points a Jesuit institution like Loyola includes in its promotional materials.
“These are very vulnerable students between 18 and 22 years of age,” Kvet says. “Would parents allow them to come back into the city with all the graphic images [on TV]?”
To a significant extent, the students have come back. Loyola projects an enrollment of 5,100 students this fall. While that’s down from the pre-Katrina enrollment of nearly 5,750, the university is bringing in ever larger freshman classes to bolster its numbers. And while Loyola took criticism for laying off faculty in the storm’s wake, the university has hired aggressively and now has more full-time professors than it did in the year before Katrina hit.
The Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola’s president, says the hurricane forced the university to think seriously about what its mission was. That contemplation led to some painful choices and program eliminations, including those in elementary education and computer science. At the same time, however, the storm inspired university officials to increase Loyola’s emphasis on service learning opportunities and led to the launch of an interdisciplinary minor on the study of New Orleans.
“It’s not exactly the presidency I had in mind,” Father Wildes says. “But anyhow.”
Marvalene Hughes, who took over as president of Dillard University just before Katrina, was similarly surprised by the trajectory her presidency took. Indeed, evacuating students from campus was among her first duties. Retelling the story of those tense days, Hughes says, "It's a time that I hope I never fully relive again, because it was frightening."
Since that time, Hughes says she has seen the campus bouncing back. Demolished buildings and flooded grounds have given way to new construction, including the development of a long-awaited student union, complete with a theater and bowling alley.
"It certainly feels like a different day," she says.
Iza Wojciechowska contributed to this report.
Katrina By the Numbers
|Institution||Estimated Damages||Fed Funds Received for Physical Damages||Pre-Katrina Enrollment||Projected 2010 Enrollment||Pre-Katrina Full-time Faculty||Full-time Faculty 2010|
|Delgado Community College||$58.9M||$62.6M||16,669||18,628||376||348|
|LSU Health Sciences Center||$143M||$144.7M||2,238||2,716||968||815|
|Our Lady of Holy Cross College||$2.5M||$0||1,444||1,300||50 (Estimated)||50|
|Southern University at New Orleans||$90.2M||$92M||3,647||2,900||588||117|
SOURCE: Individual Colleges
*Due to incomplete data, 2006 numbers were provided.
**Includes funds for lost revenues, physical damages.