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The University of the Bahamas, After Dorian

The University of the Bahamas saw a surge in enrollment this year after the introduction of a free tuition program. Then came Hurricane Dorian.

September 18, 2019
 

Exciting things were happening at the University of the Bahamas this year.

A new government program launched over the summer offers free tuition for Bahamian students who enroll full-time, plus a $500 monthly stipend for students who relocate from another island within the archipelago nation. The free tuition program -- which cost about $16 million, not including the stipends -- led to a substantial increase in enrollment. The freshman class this year numbered slightly more than 1,500, compared to 1,200 or so in years past. Of the university's close to 5,000 total students, 3,033 were benefiting from free tuition.

Then Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas earlier this month and destroyed the university’s campus on the northern island of Grand Bahama, which enrolls about 600 students. The Category 5 storm stalled the university's momentum and disrupted its plans to continue expanding access to Bahamian students and to extend its footprint both at home and abroad.

“Raging floodwaters and winds devastated the University of the Bahamas North,” Rodney D. Smith, the university’s president, said in a video appeal to raise funds for the UB Hurricane Relief Fund. “Our newest building, Hawksbill Hall residence, has been gutted. All of our computer systems and infrastructure have been compromised. Our faculty, staff and students have lost loved ones, their homes and their sense of stability.”

Classes have already resumed at the main campus on the island of New Providence -- most of the storm damage was confined to Grand Bahama and Abaco islands, which is also in the north -- but the university now faces the challenge of rebuilding its smaller northern campus and helping students, faculty and staff deal with the emotional trauma of the storm.

“We will eventually rebuild, we will eventually put things back in order,” Smith said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “The psychological and emotional healing is going to take a while.”

‘Washed Out’

The University of the Bahamas is the nation's only public university. It has campuses and centers on several islands.

In addition to the UB North campus on Grand Bahama, a satellite center on Great Abaco Island that offers continuing and lifelong education programs was also severely damaged in the storm. Operations there have been indefinitely suspended.

Smith said faculty and staff at the northern campus are working on a plan to resume classes on Sept. 30 in churches and rented space. The campus itself -- which opened in 2011 -- was swamped by storm surge.

“Even though it’s on raised land, the water actually ran up to the second floor of the buildings,” Smith said of the ocean surge. “All of the ground floors were completely washed out -- all of the windows were washed out, all of the library books were washed out, all of the administrative offices, all of the technology was washed out. We have a shell for a residential facility that was just opened last year: it’s been completely demolished.”

“It’s difficult to look at the buildings to know how much work we put into establishing the campus,” he said. “We will need a lot of help in trying to rebuild.”

Smith said the rebuilding will need to happen on higher ground. "We never anticipated that the surge from the ocean would be so high," he said.

Smith envisions using the site of the current campus as a field station for climate change research.

Relief and Support

Smith said the damaged buildings and equipment on the northern campus were insured, but officials don't yet know what will be covered. A university spokesperson said the university does not yet have a monetary estimate of the damages incurred by the storm.

In the interim, outsiders are coming forward to offer support.

Hampton University, a historically black institution in Virginia, has offered free tuition and room and board for the fall semester for students from the northern campus who were displaced. As of Thursday, Hampton reported receiving 189 inquiries about its offer. A $100,000 donation from a Hampton board member, Zachary Scott, will be used to provide an additional $500-per-student stipend for visa fees, immunizations and insurance.

Smith said the university is grateful for Hampton's support. But he suggested further gifts be directed to students still in the Bahamas. (He and his wife contributed $25,000 to a hurricane relief fund dedicated both to rebuilding and to helping affected faculty, students and staff.)

"We are deeply grateful for Hampton University’s kind and generous offer of assistance for some of our displaced northern campus students," Smith said. "Given the severity of the aftermath, most of our students and families are working to remain with each other for psychological and emotional support. The university is supporting these students with recovery and healing. Some persons, however, particularly those who have lost everything, have taken advantage of the offer from Hampton University. Given that the fall semester has commenced on campuses globally, we are asking that support be rendered directly to assist those students at home, here in the Bahamas."

A spokesperson said it is hard to estimate the number of enrolled students it has lost due to displacement by the storm. She said about 80 students have transferred from the northern campus to the main campus on the island of New Providence. Of that number, 32 have enrolled in courses.

Moving Forward

Smith said the free tuition program started this summer gave the university a jolt of momentum.

"Before Dorian hit, we were on the road, moving forward," Smith said. "We were getting ready to build a residential facility on the main campus in New Providence with 1,000 beds," a $100 million project being funded through a private-public partnership. "We also have land recently donated to the university for a 10,000-seat multipurpose convocation center. We’re still moving ahead with these projects."

The university is nearing completion of its strategic plan, which is not yet publicly available.

"The portion of the strategic plan that is focused around UB North will have to be re-examined, but everything else will continue moving forward," Smith said.

Smith also emphasized the university's growing international outlook. The university has 154 international students from about 25 countries and is phasing in a new study abroad requirement for all undergraduates.

The University of the Bahamas was founded in 1974 through the merger of four different institutions. It was known as the College of the Bahamas until 2016, when it gained university status, an upgrade that reflected a growing focus on research and graduate programs.

Olivia Saunders, a professor in the School of Business who helped lead the transition from college to university status, is optimistic the hurricane may actually help the university accelerate the development of its research infrastructure in fields relevant to the Bahamas, such as climate change and the history and economics of the Bahamas. She is conceptualizing a possible master's degree program on the economic issues facing small developing nation-states and said the storm has made her all the more certain of the relevance of the offering.

"Having such an outpouring of support from the international community, I think this is an opportunity for us to have some research collaborations and deepen our connections with some of the universities abroad," Saunders said. "I think for us it’s a great opportunity in the midst of this tragedy."

At the same time, Saunders -- who emphasized that she has no administrative role and is speaking in her capacity as a professor -- said she is concerned about whether the university will see budget or program cuts as the Bahamian government faces new, highly urgent funding priorities as a result of the storm.

"For us, a major concern would be funding from the government -- given that funds will have to be reallocated -- and whether the government will be able to continue their general funding for us as well as their funding for the tuition program that began this year," she said.

Another worry is the students whose families were hardest hit by the hurricane.

“Even though you have a tuition-free program now, for students who have nothing left, whose families have nothing left, they still probably won’t be able to access the university, because there are other expenses that come along other than the tuition," Saunders said. "I think that’s something we’ll have to address at the university at some point in discussions with the government."

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