Tulane University Reopens and Is Ready for Almost Anything

Focus on the Presidency column written by Tulane President Scott S. Cowen
March/April 2006

We learned to be determined, prepared, self-sufficient, focused, and to have trust in our board.

I am pleased to report that Tulane University reopened on January 17 after closing its doors for four months as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The last time any major research university had to close for such an extended period of time was more than a century ago.

Tulane reopened with 87 percent of its pre-Katrina full-time students, a number that far exceeded our projections. This success, combined with the Renewal Plan approved by our board in December, holds the promise of a secure future—academically and financially—assuming our plan is fully and successfully implemented. We are now a smaller but more focused institution that retained its core academic strengths while repositioning itself to play a major role in the recovery of New Orleans and other areas around the world that suffer similar devastation.

We have learned a lot.

First, that we have the confidence, talent and determination to accomplish just about anything. Our ability to overcome adversity has empowered us to dream bigger dreams and to use this moment to accelerate the academic progress and impact of the university. Many obstacles and challenges still exist, but we are confident we are on the path to a secure future.

Second, that we needed an emergency preparedness plan that would be responsive to a catastrophic event. Our previous plan, while broad, never envisioned a disaster of Katrina’s magnitude. One of the first things I encountered when I came to Tulane in 1998 was a hurricane threat. I remember closing the university only to have the storm change course and leave us with a bright, sunny day off. I have since come to accept hurricane threats as a fact of life here.

Our old plan was good for evacuating students, closing the university and putting key personnel in place to care for the physical facility. But it did not factor in the possibility that we might not reopen quickly or that we would lose all communications for an extended period. In the event of another once-in-a-century disaster, we will be much better prepared.

Our third lesson was the importance of making ourselves as self-sufficient as possible. In the aftermath of Katrina, the local systems and infrastructure we all take for granted were overwhelmed. Early projections had the local public school system closed for at least a year, so we scrambled to charter a K-12 school to ensure our returning faculty and staff would have schools their children could attend. Many of our employees lost their homes and much of our students’ off-campus housing had been destroyed. As a result, we purchased an apartment building and leased a cruise ship for a semester.

Fourth, we learned the importance of staying focused on institutional goals. The first instinct after a disaster is to lick your wounds and wait to see what happens. After much soul-searching with our senior administrators and board, however, we felt strongly that if we simply waited to see who returned to Tulane in January, the university would be setting itself up for a protracted uncertainty—if we survived at all. Instead, we looked at our mission and goals and at how we could remain on course with what would certainly be a smaller institution.

Finally, Katrina taught us whom we could trust in times of need. The bureaucratic failures of all levels of government in responding to Katrina have been well-publicized. What has not been so well covered are the many people who stepped up to help all the higher education institutions in the hurricane-ravaged areas.

For Tulane, the entire higher education community coalesced and acted quickly to take in our students for the fall semester. The NCAA and Conference USA allowed our athletics teams to play at other campuses and gave us a five-year recovery period during which we are exempt from meeting certain requirements. Our alumni and friends throughout the country offered moral and financial support

And members of the Tulane University Board of Administrators exemplified leadership during an unparalleled time of testing. Without these dedicated people, Tulane could not have survived.

Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.

Section: Focus on the Presidency
Volume 14, Number 2, Page 5