Two presidents of universities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina were in Washington on Wednesday to ask lawmakers for more federal assistance. Politicians from across the aisle said they understood the concerns, but it remains to be seen whether legislative action -- of the truly helpful sort -- will be taken any time soon.
At a hearing sponsored by the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, Marvalene Hughes, who became president of Dillard University two months before Hurricane Katrina struck, said that colleges in the area appreciated the governmental support they'd received so far, but that many challenges still fester. She asked that the committee support provisions in another supplemental spending bill approved this month  by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which provides for an “Education Relief Loan Program” for institutions of higher education. It also amends the Historically Black Universities Capital Financing Program to provide loan terms favorable to HBCUs affected by the storms of 2005, which, she said, would aid her institution’s recovery efforts.
“While Dillard is pursuing all of its options through insurance, [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], and private philanthropy, Dillard still needs Congress’s assistance,” she said. “Dillard University, and many other institutions similarly situated, have not received funds from FEMA and the university is not in the position to wait for insurance settlements that could be months or years away to rebuild, if the university is to survive.”
Hughes thanked Congress for the federally appropriated funds received thus far, but said that Dillard’s estimated rebuilding costs greatly surpass what it has received, and its needs far exceed the monies the institution expects to receive from FEMA and insurance.
Scott S. Cowen, president of Tulane University, also testified about his institution's need for more Congressional support. “We have seen no money at all from FEMA and little support from private insurance,” he said.
He, too, testified in support of a Senate relief program for affected instituions in the Gulf region. “I realize such a program may be difficult in these tight budgetary times, but we ask the committee’s careful consideration," Cowen said. He emphasized that the education loan relief program proposed by the Senate would be a repayable loan program for colleges and universities that were forced to suspend operations and were unable to fully reopen in existing facilities due to the hurricanes.
Both presidents criticized FEMA’s management of the financial situation and had kinder things to say about the Department of Education’s efforts on their behalf.
Cowen said that if the House were to support a supplementary relief program, he would want the secretary of education to administer the program and provide support directly to the institutions. He said that action would be “critical to get the relief only to those who need it and to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely.”
The anti-FEMA message resounded strongly with several Democratic legislators on the committee, who recently toured the hurricane affected region. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House committee, said that President Bush has failed to provide adequate funding and made a mistake in designating FEMA as the agency responsible for education recovery.
Democrats on the committee released a report to coincide with the day’s hearing that sharply criticizes the Bush administration for “its continued failure to help schools and colleges in the Gulf Coast region recover from Hurricane Katrina.” They called for the establishment of an “Educational Recovery Czar” within the Department of Education and a shift of responsibility from FEMA. They also proposed eliminating barriers to immediate access of federal funds and increased flexibility over the use of the funds.
Miller said that it would not require legislation to make these changes. He suggested that the Bush administration had the authority to do so.
The education committee's chairman, Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), took issue with the Democratic criticisms.
“It’s no secret that there have been many bumps in the road during the recovery. Difficulties have been well-documented and constructive criticism has been appropriately delivered -- all with the hope and the expectation that we have learned valuable lessons along the way,” he said in a statement after the hearing. “But at the same time, we must be cautious not to concentrate solely on what went wrong after the hurricanes. Rather, we should balance those lessons with an understanding and an appreciation of what went right....
“The bottom line is we need to find ways to ensure bureaucracy remains apart from the education recovery process as much as possible,” added McKeon. “Some on the other side of the aisle complain about the slow response, but then support adding more government into the equation. That only complicates the problem. The correct approach is to focus on speed, efficiency, and less -- not more -- layers of bureaucracy.”
And while this new round of partisan bickering begins, the presidents returned to their respective institutions, ready to face the next challenges around the corner -- rebuilding of their physical campuses, the threat of declining enrollments and departing faculty members and, little more than a month away, the start of the 2006 hurricane season.