After the Storm

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama had to quickly regroup their administrative teams, working from multiple sites in far-flung cities to communicate, plan their next moves, and even hold a semblance of a fall semester online.
After the Storm

On September 7, the Tulane University campus in New Orleans is covered by floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina. (Photo courtesy of David J. Phillip/AP Wide World Photos)

WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in August, Angelo DeNisi had been dean of the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University in New Orleans for just under two months. But Katrina’s arrival wasn’t just an overwhelming test of leadership for one new dean. School administrators in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have had to cope with the devastation and flooding caused by Katrina and her aftermath. Some schools sustained minimal damage and soon reopened. Others, particularly those in New Orleans, were forced to shut down as they faced a city in tumult, a student body scattered, and a host of questions about what happens next.

These schools moved quickly to set up blogs, chat groups, and emergency websites to keep students, staff, and faculty informed and connected. “What everyone wanted most was to know whether everyone was safe,” says J. Patrick O’Brien, dean of the College of Business Administration at Loyola University New Orleans. In fact, the near-miraculous power of the Internet has allowed these schools to regroup their administrative teams, working from multiple sites in far-flung cities to communicate, plan their next moves, and even hold a semblance of a fall semester online.

One of the first orders of business for these schools was to reassure students that they would not be forgotten and faculty that they were still employed. For instance, at the University of New Orleans, full-time faculty were told they would be paid at least through the end of the fiscal year. Adjunct faculty received salaries through September 30 and some were rehired on a case-by-case basis, particularly those who could conduct classes online.

The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg not only guaranteed faculty a payroll, it worked with FEMA to help find housing and other necessities for staff members whose homes were destroyed. “We’re trying to keep people engaged in their lives and moving forward,” says Harold Doty, dean of the College of Business.

A major goal for all affected universities has been helping their students find places at other academic institutions. Many Loyola students were able to enroll as transient students at other Jesuit universities, and thousands enrolled in Louisiana’s state university system. In fact, according to Paul Hensel, interim dean of the University of New Orleans’ College of Business Administration, so many UNO students enrolled at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge that some UNO faculty began teaching LSU classes to help with the overflow.

But schools across the country and around the world have offered academic homes to the evacuated students, either waiving tuition altogether or charging only a minimal fee. “I want to thank sincerely all those universities that have opened their arms to our students,” says Hensel. “We’ve got students at Brown, Oklahoma State, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and North Texas State. I have six French speaking students here from Africa, and the University of Montreal wanted to take them in.”

Southern Mississippi is one of the dozens of schools that have accepted displaced scholars as “visiting students.” Although the Gulfport campus sustained enough damage to be closed at least for the semester, the Hattiesburg campus was up and running again in early September and poised to hold a full semester of classes.

According to Doty, “I’ve declared that any student who was enrolled in higher education at the start of the semester will be admitted. That’s without benefit of transcripts. We’re fudging on some rules, and we know there’s an accreditation issue. But for these visiting students, we’re willing to stand up and look three other AACSB deans in the eye and explain our decision.”

Educators realize it will be an administrative nightmare to determine which students have earned credit where. “We are committed to being as flexible as we can to make sure that any relevant course a student takes during this semester can be counted as credit toward the student’s degree,” says DeNisi. “It will be a huge task, but it’s what we have to do.”

In some cases, students didn’t have to continue their education elsewhere: Some hurricane-ravaged universities were able to quickly start offering courses electronically. By mid-September, UNO as a whole had more than 50 classes online, and more were being readied every week. Says Hensel, “We have a Web site where students can sign up for online classes, and we’ll have rolling enrollments. Classes have to be finished by December 31, but that’s easier to do online where students are self-paced.”

At Loyola, the majority of CBA classes were made available online, commencing in late September. Meanwhile, the school was dealing with its other challenges. “By one week after the hurricane hit, we had laid out action plans for all faculty and staff members—teaching of online courses, revision of five-year faculty development plans, continuation of the development of assessment programs for each of the majors, revisions of syllabi to reflect assessment plans, and individual research,” says O’Brien. “We also announced to the faculty and staff that it was our full intention to reopen for classes in January 2006.”

That’s the goal for administrators at all of the disrupted schools, but to some extent, the decision is out of their hands. Doty hopes to move back into the Gulfport campus for the spring semester—if the city is able to supply power, water, and other services. “Right now, we have not made a decision about the spring semester,” he says. “We have to take care of our students and community first.”

While Tulane University sustained minor damage, most can be repaired with relative ease. For the campus to open in January, DeNisi expects the university will have to provide some housing and other services on its own. “Right now, this is all under discussion,” he says.

At UNO, the early focus was on a branch campus that survived the flood better than the main campus.But even that building won’t be holding classes unless the city of New Orleans is habitable again, and when that will happen is anybody’s guess. “We’ve heard estimates of everywhere from two months to eight months to never,” says Hensel.

Yet an even longer-term problem looms on the horizon: the fates of the affected universities in the coming years. Next year’s classes may be considerably smaller as some temporarily displaced students choose to stay where they are, and other students under recruitment decide not to chance a Gulf Coast school.

“We are currently recruiting students at all levels for 2006,” says DeNisi. “We realize this may be difficult. We realize some of our students won’t return. But we believe that if we can deal with problems in a compassionate way, help students graduate on time, and actually get things running again soon, we will demonstrate that Tulane is a caring and capable organization. It may take a year or two, but if we can learn anything from dealing with this crisis, Tulane will come back a better university than it was.”

O’Brien of Loyola echoes these sentiments. “Katrina will surely test our abilities to manage change and adapt to a new, uncertain environment. It is our intention to resurrect with a stronger, more focused institution.”

Hensel not only expresses confidence that his school will recover, but he also predicts that the city will rebuild. “How can you not have New Orleans?” he asks. “We’ve got to focus on the positive. That’s what we tell our students, that’s what we tell our faculty, that’s what we tell ourselves. We’ve got things to do. Let’s get to work.”