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Higher Ground

Higher education institutions hit by Katrina are deploying funds to resurrect a sense of community

By Clay Edwards


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Fundraising is a big part of the story of the post-Katrina recovery, and it's certainly about the good that philanthropy can accomplish. But it's more about community-the community of institutions themselves and their role in their larger communities.

It has been almost a year and a half since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. While no one predicts recovery will be complete or rapid, it is under way. This resurgence is being driven in large part by the area's universities and independent schools. Higher education, and its leadership, will be a critical factor in how quickly and effectively the recovery occurs.

New Orleans now has less than half of its pre-Katrina population, but higher education student populations are replenishing. Enrollment at Loyola University New Orleans is 87 percent and is nearly 82 percent at Tulane University. Faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends have pulled together to rebound. Here are several stories that can help your campus prepare for a disaster and create a cohesive, indestructible community among your institution's many constituents.

Sustaining community

The New Orleans tax base has plummeted, causing local schools to be underfunded. Charter schools, with private and federal money, have become the means to educate New Orleans' children. The University of New Orleans now operates a network of public schools that is providing a seamless preK-through-college learning community. The UNO Charter School Networks also hopes to be a catalyst for mixed-income families to repopulate neighborhoods damaged by Katrina.

This is a new model for the city's schools, and Tim Ryan, chancellor of UNO, is proud of the university's role. "To be successful we must first take care of our neighborhood. Our university must be in a leadership role for the community." When Ryan stood on his campus just after the storm, he looked out on a neighborhood under water. As a native New Orleanian, he realized that if the university was to be part of a vital community again, the community had to be a major focus of the campus. "Research on urban issues and problems could, and should, start right here," says Ryan.

And it has. Graduate students in UNO's School of Urban and Regional Studies are working with residents and civic associations on plans for community revitalization in Gentilly and Lakeview, suburbs of New Orleans flooded by the levee breaks. In addition, UNO's College of Business Administration has launched an entrepreneurship program aimed at strengthening the local business community.

Ryan notes that his energy to continue in the aftermath of Katrina emanated in part from students' text messages saying, "We want to come back." Text messaging was necessary while cellphones weren't working, and Ryan and his senior staff admit they had to learn how to do it from their teenaged children.

Not wanting to interrupt classes any longer than necessary, staff and faculty found a facility miles from the UNO campus. Administrators let faculty and students complete the semester in the best way they could, mostly via the Internet. Students dispersed to live with relatives or friends in other locations, as did faculty, many of whom learned quickly how to deliver courses online. Yet, remarkably, at the end of what has been called the "Katrina semester," UNO graduated several hundred students. And by the end of fiscal year 2006, about a year after Katrina struck, UNO had raised 28 percent more funds than it did in fiscal year 2005.

Staying connected

Tulane President Scott Cowen has tirelessly communicated to people how important it is to stay focused on the mission to update disaster plans to address "the unthinkable" and to help students and faculty return as quickly as possible. Tulane is also reshaping itself for the post-Katrina environment to benefit New Orleans' recovery by emphasizing programs such as public health, architecture, social work, and involvement in the public charter schools.

"Opportunities will present themselves locally that will allow us to engage our resources at a high level and in unique ways," says Cowen. He has challenged faculty to become change agents, the board to be responsible leaders in a fiscally challenging time, and students, most from out of state, to come back and be part of the recovery.

More than encouraging is that Tulane ended fiscal year 2006 with a record-breaking $76.2 million in new gifts. Cash was up 3.9 percent at $71.5 million, and unrestricted cash was up an astounding 269.8 percent at $27.9 million. The Qatar Katrina Fund donated $15 million to Tulane (and millions to other institutions), $10 million of which will provide scholarships to students affected by the storm. The remaining $5 million went to the university's Community Health Center at Covenant House, founded when a Tulane physician set up a card table on a French Quarter street as a makeshift "clinic" for Katrina first responders.

When the storm was poised to hit, Cowen and his leadership team put their disaster plan into action and stayed engaged with parents, students and faculty who were planning their exit strategies, and faculty who manage a major part of New Orleans' health care sector.

"Communication was key," Cowen says, emphasizing the need to be positive yet realistic with parents who had no context, beyond television, for what was actually happening. The Internet was critical. Tulane's Web presence, with daily blogs by Cowen, gave students and parents a lifeline of accurate, current information.

Another lifeline, CampusRelief.org, a Web site created by the American Council on Education and the National Association of College and University Business Officers, served to match resources with needs across the United States. Tim McDonough, director of public affairs for ACE, cites the example of a Tulane researcher who made connections through the site to transfer what remained of his lab samples to Northwestern University.

Immediately after Katrina, ACE experienced an outpouring of offers from colleges and universities. "These responses were not in any planning documents," says McDonough. "They threw out the book, opening dining halls, residence halls, and health centers."

"The higher education community has coalesced more than ever before," says Cowen. Thoughtful deliberation among his colleagues over funds disbursal and the generosity of unaffected institutions were "an extraordinary source of pride," he says. "Everyone was working to keep the mission and constituents first."

Students first

"When the lights came back on at Xavier in December, in a darkened New Orleans neighborhood, everybody said it was a great sign of hope," says president of Xavier University of Louisiana, Norman Francis.

"Students and mission first" is the theme of the Xavier recovery. The university has some of the premier science, pharmacy, and premed programs in the United States. "Our students will come back because we are known for this. Students in these [study] areas are very driven," says Francis. "The students who came back in the spring are heroes. This campus was five to six feet under water.

"We have completed 90 percent of our recovery plan," Francis continues. "FEMA funding takes about 18 months. While we are not blaming them, the burden has been on us to pay the operational costs of restoration prior to reimbursement." That has pressed Xavier and the rest of the storm-ravaged campuses to emphasize fundraising, reorganization, and retention. Faculty, staff, and program cuts were necessary at affected institutions to different degrees, but grants to Xavier from the Mellon and Bush foundations enabled it initially to retain most of its faculty and staff.

Clearly, fundraising operations shifted into an immediate crisis mode-no time for traditional, patient donor cultivation and solicitation. In fact, the funds came to them. Various charitable organizations, foundations, the U.S. government, and foreign countries provided millions upon millions of dollars in response to the dire circumstances.

The role of leaders

Once the flooding subsided, other issues surfaced-such as cash flow, project management, and reconstruction of lost records. Add to that the problem of students without homes and students whose parents lost their jobs. Xavier's Francis led efforts to provide unprecedented help to students who couldn't afford to continue.

"We had great assistance from the U.S. Department of Education in meeting the financial challenges of our students," Francis says. "Students whose families lost their homes or jobs were given extra help. This was a remarkable gift to the schools across the Gulf Coast and will continue this year because these families still have great challenges."

With funds from the Qatar government, Xavier plans to enlarge its pharmacy program and buildings, as well as construct additional neighborhood clinics. "The ability to expand an area of great need in the midst of this disaster gave us great hope," says Francis, "and it sent a positive message to our current and future students."

Another source of aid was other institutions. "They have been very helpful because their CEOs and chief leadership reached far beyond their roles," says Francis. In addition, area higher education institutions convened regularly to determine how to use collective resources to help each other, government agencies, and other institutions. "It really shows how dedicated the leaders of our universities are to getting New Orleans back," Francis says.

Defining a school

Metairie Park Country Day, in a suburb of New Orleans, has been a K-12 college preparatory private school for more than 75 years. Two-thirds of the campus was flooded, and an odyssey began for faculty and students alike.

Country Day has always been central to the daily lives of students and their families. Missing school meant missing families and friends. With students and families scattered across the United States, one of the first issues the faculty and David Drinkwater, head of school during Katrina, had to address was, what is a school? "It was, and is," Drinkwater says, "the people, no matter where they are, that make up the school."

Carolyn Chandler, current head of school, agrees that it was of utmost importance to reconnect the families and students to the school and to each other. Country Day used its Web site to communicate with families, build a new directory, and deliver the directory to families, faculty, staff, and alumni. Medical records were an important supplement for locating families who did not have access to the Web site.

Like for Tulane, Country Day's Web site became a fount of information, giving families some sense of control in the storm's wake. A prescient decision was to have the site hosted by a service in Texas, at a protected site with triple backup in case of potential communication problems in a disaster. This decision ensured a central meeting place, however virtual, throughout the crisis.

Gary Lotz, head of facilities at Country Day, explains that the campus has some older, elevated buildings that escaped flooding but some newer buildings and athletic facilities at ground level filled with several feet of water. Responding to a charge from the trustees to get everything back to normal before students returned, Lotz quickly analyzed the campus problems and pursued the disaster recovery company. It was on site almost immediately.

Katherine Dinh, now principal of the Middle and Upper Schools, temporarily relocated to Houston, and created a lower school from scratch for Country Day and other displaced students in a space lent by a church. Chandler advises, "Trust the students to help each other, and use their network," adding, "and study your business interruption insurance to see if it will cover you in a disaster."

Chandler says that listening was the first skill she and the faculty needed to exercise-with students, parents, and each other. "People wanted to talk about themselves, their family, and what they had been through. Everyone had a story they needed to share-everyone."

Rethinking your plan

Patricia Knight, head of Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center, says, "We had a hurricane plan. We thought we had planned for the worst possible scenario. I would suggest after this that you think in even worse terms. We had no idea that our power would be lost statewide."

Knight cautions that you can't plan for every contingency or even imagine some of the things that might happen. People adapted quickly, Knight says. "You plan for one contingency, and something else happens. Be flexible." Knight notes that counseling staff "helped us accept that while it will never be the same, it will be OK."

Knight adds, "Our core mission allows us to address immediate community issues while still focusing on the long term of five to 10 years. It's just that immediate needs became more compelling and key to the survival of families who rely on us." MSU at Starkville formed Bulldogs in Response, named for the university's athletic teams. The task force raised more than $750,000 to help students and employees in need.

"The university had a role to help the citizens of our state, and we were ready to be part of the recovery," Knight says. "Our staff didn't think twice about fulfilling our land-grant mission, in a different but important way. We hauled water, penned cattle, and hauled hay."

Knight's words exemplify the spirit of the institutions' role in the Katrina recovery-working together as one community to do whatever needs to be done, above and beyond the usual scope of campus responsibilities, with an optimistic view of the future.

About the Author Clay Edwards

Clay Edwards is associate vice chancellor for development at the University of Arkansas and a native of New Orleans. Anne Greene and Brenda Brugger in the University of Arkansas development office assisted with this article.

 

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