How Our Community Responded to Hurricane Katrina

Focus on the Presidency column written by Tulane President Scott S. Cowen
November/December 2005

Higher education associations gave us invaluable guidance in serving students displace by the hurricane.

Hurricane Katrina, as the world knows, devastated the lives of thousands of people and businesses in the Gulf Coast region, including many universities and colleges. Tulane University was one of Katrina’s many victims. Our faculty, staff, and students are now spread around the country, and the Tulane administration is operating out of locations in Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Louisiana and Connecticut.

Despite the challenges we face, we are determined to reopen the university in New Orleans on January 17, 2006.

As difficult as this experience has been for the Tulane community, we consider ourselves fortunate in comparison with the plight of many others affected by the hurricane. This natural disaster has created a metropolitan diaspora of historic proportions that will forever affect our region and its people. Never in my wildest imagination could I have envisioned the tremendous suffering and loss of life that consumed our city.

Yet every disaster carries with it remarkable stories of heroism and courage that rekindle the spirit and provide hope for renewal. Many of these stories will never be publicly told, but the incredible response of the higher education community to its fellow institutions in need is one story that should be. Those of us at the universities and colleges Katrina affected will be forever indebted to our colleagues around the country for their generous response in the days following the storm.

Less than a week after Katrina struck, nine leading higher education associations convened in a conference call to discuss how they could help affected colleges and universities. It quickly became apparent that the most pressing issue was the needs of displaced students. Within 24 hours, these association issued a statement outlining how institutions around the nation might accommodate these students for the fall semester.

I firmly believe that this statement, and all the schools that voluntarily adhered to it, will be viewed over time as the critical factor in the recovery of Gulf Coast colleges and universities. It will also go down in history as a remarkable offer of assistance and support at a time of unprecedented need.

Specifically, the nine higher education associations encouraged colleges and universities around the country to (1) admit students from hurricane-impacted areas only on a visiting or provisional basis, so that they would remain enrolled at their home institutions, and (2) waive tuition if the student already had paid tuition to the home institution—and if the student had not paid the home institution, the host school was to charge the home school’s rate of tuition and remit that amount.

This statement was extraordinary, both symbolically and substantively, for everyone involved. For affected students, it provided an opportunity to continue their college educations this fall. For host institutions, it was a concrete way for them to offer needed assistance. For Gulf Coast institutions, it offered the chance to retain their students while providing much-needed resources to sustain faculty and staff during this difficult time.

The majority of universities and colleges around the country are following the associations’ guidelines, a historic act of altruism that deserves our recognition.

Unfortunately, there is some misperception that affected colleges and universities can cover the majority, if not all, of their losses through insurance, government subsidies, or use of their endowments. I know of no affected university, including Tulane, with resources adequate to cover a disaster of this magnitude without additional assistance.

Tulane has learned many lessons from the Katrina odyssey, several of which I plan to share in my next two Trusteeship columns. However, let me start here with the most obvious: An effective disaster recovery plan must anticipate catastrophic events that could shut down an entire region for an extended period of time. Tulane had an emergency preparedness plan in place, but that plan never envisioned a disaster of such magnitude.

While having an emergency plan that envisions a regionwide disaster was the most obvious lesson we learned, the most gratifying one was the unified response to adversity by all of our institutions. I will never be able to express my gratitude adequately to our higher education community, which has shown itself to be just that—a community, in the best sense of the word.

Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.

Section: Focus on the Presidency
Volume 13, Number 6, Page 5