The date is set. A message  sent to all Tulane University Law School students last week made it clear that they are expected back in New Orleans in January. They will not be permitted to remain elsewhere as visiting students for the spring semester, and Tulane will not help them transfer.
“If you all are going to have an institution around to award you a degree that is worth the paper it is written on, Tulane needs to bring back in the spring both most of its normal revenues and most of its students,” read the letter from Gary Roberts, deputy dean of the law school.
In an interview, Roberts said that Tulane “needs its customers back” to keep the law school afloat financially, and also to instill confidence in students and faculty members that Tulane hopes to draw in the future.
The Tulane letter is the first of what may be a series of difficult negotiations between New Orleans colleges and their students. In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, flexibility was the name of the game, and colleges encouraged students to find any appropriate place to spend a semester. But with colleges’ finances and reputations on the line, institutions may start bending a lot less.
Some students are enthusiastic that Tulane is re-opening so soon. Adam Dunlop, a third-year student, was at Tulane specifically for the sports law program. “If Tulane opens its doors, I’ll be there,” said Dunlop, who said he is a bit worried about his loans in light of his relocation costs. “If I can support Tulane in the coming months, I’ll do that.” Roberts said he understands how difficult it is for students who have “signed leases, or their spouses have found jobs,” but “if our students don’t come back,” he said, “we run the risk of never coming back ourselves.”
Still, some students refuse to come back.
“I’m afraid to go back. I don’t want to be on the Gulf Coast,” said Joe Bourne, who was about to start his first-year at Tulane Law, but instead will look for another law school to attend in fall 2006. Bourne did not enroll as a visiting student this fall, and will get his tuition money back.
Tulane Law asked other institutions not to take in its first-years this fall. Instead, they will be enrolled in January in a six-day-a-week, six-month intensive program that will seek to make up the first year. Many second and third-year Tulane Law students have no choice but to return, as Tulane will not release their transcripts for a transfer, or grant them continued visiting status.
Some are not following the marching orders happily. E-mail messages seeking to organize a class action lawsuit to force Tulane to release students have circulated among displaced students. An anonymous post on the Tulane law discussion board  proposes making a pitch for a story to 60 Minutes detailing what some students think is unfair treatment.
Craig Aguiar, a Tulane Law second-year is now a visiting student at the University of Louisville. He said relocating and replacing the clothing he needs for job interviews has cost him thousands of dollars. In addition, because he has to return to New Orleans in January, Aguiar is going to have to pay rent in two locations when his apartment in New Orleans re-opens next month. Aguiar chose to attend a public institution to save some money, but he was upset to find out that he cannot stay at Louisville in the spring to save some extra cash before returning. “Tulane’s a great school,” Aguiar said. “I’ll move back, but I’d prefer to do it next year.” He added that he needs to work part-time, and the restaurant he worked in in New Orleans is shuttered. “It’ll be tough to go back. People return to nothing, and emotions will be sky high. New Orleans will be scary.”
Another anonymous post on the discussion board called anyone willing to move back to New Orleans in January “stupid.” “Bring a gun though, seriously,” the post reads. “Looting ain’t over yet, baby.”
Said Roberts, the deputy dean: “There are always a few jerks, but I’m very proud of most of the students.”
Aguiar said he was unsettled when he found out that a law student at Louisville who is visiting from Loyola University in New Orleans might have more options than he does. Loyola is opening a campus in Houston on October 3, and anticipates that over half of its 800 students will be there.
Others, with compelling reasons, can do the semester elsewhere, or sit it out. If students want to be away from Loyola for the entire year, their requests will be dealt with on a case by case basis.
Nathan Steed, a Tulane Law student, had to move with his wife, Sandrine, and their children (ages 5, 3, and a baby). Steed is not happy that he will have to leave Indiana University and return in January. The Steeds first fled to Michigan, and their five-year-old son has now “changed schools three times, and it’s his first year,” Sandrine Steed said. The Steeds are willing to continue to pay Tulane, but would like to stay at Indiana indefinitely. The university offered them free housing before Tulane decided to bring students back in January.
With the decision now made, deans at law schools that have accepted Tulane students will abide by it. “We’re trying to do a service to the students and the university,” said Scott Altman, associate dean of the University of Southern California Law School, which has taken in several Tulane students. Added Karen Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland Law School which has six Tulane students: “We’ve got to be supportive of [Tulane Law School]. If they say they’re ready to take students back, then they were just visitors.”
Steed is also concerned that there might not be room in school for her child because of an influx of kids to open schools. Some students are worried about convenience they took for granted, like grocery stores, and gas stations.
“The university is going to have to build itself a little city,” Roberts said.
Gwen Davis, a third-year who is visiting at Seattle University said she is attached to Tulane, but is not eager to return for one semester. “I feel for the administration,” Davis said. “But I’m concerned about mold, grocery stores, and the roads weren’t that good even before the hurricane. It’s hard to have to move when you don’t know what to expect from the city.”
Like most of the students interviewed, Lauren Faust, who is visiting at the University of Maryland, wishes the administration was in better contact. Still, she is ready to go back. “I don’t have my clothes, my car, my friends,” Faust said. “I’m worried about the city, but we’re talking January, not October.”
Said J.C. Cronin, a second-year who is at the Widener University School of Law: “You could say that I’m excited about returning to Tulane and New Orleans. No matter what it is, it will be a character building experience.”