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Dillard's Dire Straits
Historically black college struggles to survive amid New Orleans' post-hurricane diaspora

By Robert A. Jones
New Orleans, Louisiana

Dillard University was built in the 1930s as a collection of sugary, neoclassical buildings set amidst green lawns and oak groves. Few small colleges have been blessed with such a gracious setting. Until last September, when hurricane Katrina struck, Dillard's grounds seemed a place from another time, untrammeled by academic building booms, parking hassles, and the other devils of modern campuses.

Oddly, the storm itself did little damage. If the destruction had stopped when the winds and rain subsided, Dillard's future as a historically black college would not have been threatened. Even the vast majority of oak trees survived the initial storm.

But then came the water, flowing toward the campus from three directions. Dillard sits in the middle of the city's Gentilly district, a lower-elevation neighborhood bordered by canals to the north, east and west. All of them broke and, within hours, Gentilly and the Dillard campus had been converted to a lake.

Now, five months after the storm, the campus remains closed, the building exteriors still showing the dirty lines that mark the high water levels. The entrances to the university are sealed off and guarded to prevent vandalism.

 
The Dillard University police building was among those heavily damaged by the hurricane and ensuing flood. Total campus damage was more than $250 million, of which only a portion is covered by insurance.
(Photo by Vanessa Brown, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
And in the surrounding neighborhood, the pervasive sense of ruin seems even more acute. Great piles of debris line residential streets, few houses are occupied, and virtually no businesses have reopened. At night, many blocks lie in darkness because electrical power remains a hit-or-miss affair in the Gentilly. Even by day, the neighborhood contains an overriding sense of quiet due to the absence of people.

Of all the universities in New Orleans, Dillard suffered the greatest physical damage and faces the gravest threat to its future. Unlike public institutions such as Southern University, Dillard does not have the resources of the state government to help with recovery. And unlike wealthier private institutions like Tulane, Dillard's endowment stands at a spare $48 million.

The damage will surely run several times that figure. Early damage estimates of $400 million, though widely publicized, probably overstated the rebuilding costs, but the total could easily reach $250 million. And college officials have said that reimbursements from flood and storm insurance will fall far short of the needed amounts.

Yet the problem of financing the physical recovery is only one of many daunting challenges facing the university. It must attract new and returning students even while its future remains uncertain. It must create a temporary campus at the same time it is rebuilding the old one. It must provide students with enough teachers and support staff at the temporary campus while radically downsizing its payroll.

And still more challenges lie outside the institution's control. What if Dillard succeeds in reopening its campus in a year only to find the surrounding neighborhood still moribund, leaving students without supermarkets, laundromats, restaurants or affordable housing? What about the environmental contamination left by the flood waters? And, most important of all, what if another storm hits and re-floods the city?

 
Dillard University President Marvalene Hughes had been in office only a few weeks when Hurricane Katrina struck.
(Photo by Dana Smith, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Dillard President Marvalene Hughes recalls the day when she first confronted the enormity of the rebuilding task. Just as the waters receded she was taken to the campus by escort to see the damage left by the flood. "I remember having these traumatic thoughts and fears," Hughes said. "Some cleaning up had begun, and there were these piles of ruined furniture and equipment everywhere. Every building had been damaged to one degree or another, and it was very, very painful. It left me in a state of shock."

After that visit, Hughes realized Katrina had propelled Dillard into unknown territory and inevitably would leave the college without clear answers to some questions. "No one knows how all these issues will work out," she said, "because, very simply, in the history of higher education no one has ever gone through this before."

The plight of Dillard carries a special poignancy because of its history as one of the nation's early black colleges. Though the present campus was built in the 1930s, Dillard's roots go back to post-Civil War years, when schools for blacks first became legal. Previously, the only educational opportunities for ex-slaves were offered by "native schools," underground institutions that rarely went beyond elementary education.

Even after they were legalized, black institutions suffered from chronic underfunding. Dillard was created when two faltering New Orleans colleges were offered the opportunity to merge and begin life anew on a campus financed by the General Education Board of New York, an arm of the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Julius Rosenwald Fund of Chicago, the philanthropic organization of the Sears Roebuck family.

The collection of white, columned buildings on wide lawns in the Gentilly district was the result. The new college survived the Depression, World War II, several lean periods of sparse funding, and an unknown but substantial number of hurricanes. Then came Katrina.

 
After levees broke north, east and west of Dillard University, the campus was flooded to a depth of several feet. Four months after Katrina, as this picture of Kearny Hall shows, some of the water was still there.
(Photo by Vanessa Brown, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"Dillard supporters will need to get a fire in the belly if they want to see it continue and thrive," said Dolores Cross, former president of Morris Brown College in Atlanta (and a board member of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which publishes National CrossTalk). "These institutions (historically black colleges) don't have the financial strength that large, white universities have. Personally, I believe the country needs black collegiate institutions. In New Orleans, you can't talk about the loss of culture and history as a result of Katrina and not talk about Dillard."

On some fronts Dillard already has made significant progress. In January the university reopened in temporary quarters at the downtown Hilton Riverside Hotel, albeit with 1,060 students, a 50 percent decline from last September's enrollment of 2,000. Students are being housed on upper floors while attending classes in former meeting rooms that have been reconfigured for academic work. Some courses, not available at the hotel, will be offered at Tulane, Xavier and other campuses around the city.

Between now and June, Dillard will offer two semesters of academic work at the Hilton, each lasting 13 weeks rather than the usual 15. This arrangement, college officials say, will allow students to advance their college careers by an entire year even if they did not attend an alternative institution in the fall.

Across town, on the old campus, the cleanup phase is virtually complete. Workers have stripped the first floors of buildings down to concrete and steel, and removed the mold that bloomed everywhere during the flood. Hundreds of purifying machines the size of packing crates pulled residual moisture and mold spores from the interiors of buildings.

The cleanup, however, amounts to only the first phase of rebuilding the campus. A few smaller structures will be demolished completely, and then reconstruction will begin. No one is certain at this point how long the construction will take to complete or what it will cost.

Still, achieving these milestones has required heroic efforts by Dillard's senior staff, which numbers only about a half dozen. Most lost their homes in the storm and since have lived itinerant lives in hotel rooms. A temporary office was established in Atlanta but remained hampered by the loss of the university's central computer system and many electronic records.

Connie Seymour, Dillard's registrar, lost her home and most of her belongings to the flood. In the months since, she says she has spent all her waking hours reconstructing the university's record system and preparing for the opening at the Hilton. There has been no time, she said, to work on her personal losses.

"The experience forced me to decide what was really important, and, for me, the answer was Dillard," she said. "The other stuff can wait. I've discovered that good enough is good enough."

Seymour then laughed, and added, "In fact, considering my situation, good enough would be just fine right now."

Many of the senior officials had weathered hurricanes before, and they now concede that, in the days preceding the storm, they never imagined the holocaust that Katrina posed. In fact, President Hughes had initiated a staff retreat the weekend of the storm. Hughes had only arrived as president in July, and the retreat was designed as her first effort to deal with upcoming issues in the fall term.

The first day of the retreat was business-as-usual, said Bettye Parker Smith, Dillard's provost. "We knew there was something rustling around out there in the waters, but we had been through hurricanes many times before. But the next morning I watched the news, and the hurricane had switched course towards New Orleans. I said, 'Hold it, we need to find out what's going on here.'"

Within a short time the retreat was canceled and the administrators returned to campus to evacuate students who had not already left. Parker Smith now laughs at that memory. "That was a Saturday morning, and it's not so easy rounding up students on a Saturday. College students don't always go home on Friday night. We were facing real problems in tracking down some of these kids."

Fortunately, students who had remained on campus began calling their friends who had wandered elsewhere, and soon virtually everyone was on one of eight buses and headed for Centenary College in Shreveport.

The journey was eventful. One of the buses suffered a flat tire and then, as it crept up the highway in bumper-to-bumper traffic, suddenly began to issue smoke from a rear tire well. Students and staff members scrambled out, and no one was hurt. But they watched while the bus and their belongings burned down to charred steel.

After the students had spent several days at Centenary, the citizens of Shreveport raised $30,000 to buy airplane tickets for them to go home. And thus began the familiar pattern of New Orleans refugees: everyone scattered to the four winds. After going home, many students eventually re-enrolled in other colleges across the country.

The staff spread out in a diaspora of its own. Parker Smith wound up in San Antonio living with her sister. Hughes found herself in several locations throughout the South. For the first several weeks, administrators operated without a central office and communicated mainly via cell phones.

Eventually they congregated in the Atlanta office that had been arranged by a member of Dillard's board of trustees. Dillard officials now had offices with telephone service but, even so, they discovered that Atlanta would hardly amount to a home-in-exile.

 
Wearing protective clothing to guard against exposure to toxins, a maintenance worker cleans a hallway in Stern Hall, on the Dillard University campus.
(Photo by Vanessa Brown, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The problem was simple enough: As much as Dillard needed intensive planning and fundraising in order to reopen, it also needed to retain its students. A university without students is not a university. At Dillard, the connection with students is particularly important because student tuition provides about 90 percent of the university's operating revenues. And that connection was eroding with every passing week.

So Hughes ordered a 12-city tour of "Town Hall" meetings that lasted from early November through mid-December and required Hughes, along with several members of the staff, to be on the road constantly, leaving them to deal with recovery issues from their hotel rooms or airplanes.

One of the Town Hall meetings, in Los Angeles, revealed both the frustrations and the inspiration of the tour. Billed as a presentation by Hughes, the meeting was suddenly turned over to Seymour and Freddye Hill, vice president for campus life, when Hughes was called back to New Orleans.

At the time of the Los Angeles event, both Seymour and Hill had been on the circuit for more than a month, and the weariness showed. Seymour actually checked the sleeves of her suit at one point because, she said, she had lost most of her clothes in the storm and had appeared at the Chicago Town Hall meeting with a sales tag still dangling from a new jacket.

Nonetheless they had come to entice students to return to Dillard, and they went about their work with humor and sometimes startling honesty. When one parent asked whether New Orleans was environmentally safe, Hill replied that she could not answer the question.

"Personally I believe it's safe; otherwise I wouldn't be here," she said but then added soberly, "I know there are concerns. Personally, I don't have an address right now because my home was under water. When I first returned to look at my house, we walked around with masks on our faces. We don't wear masks anymore, but you should look at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) website and other government websites and come to your own conclusion about the safety of your child."

 
Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University and a Dillard alumna, promised Brown's help in rebuilding Dillard's shattered office systems and also will help with fundraising.
(Photo by Dana Smith, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
In general, the appeal had both emotional and practical elements. On the emotional side, the women portrayed Dillard as the ruined victim of the storm—which surely it was—but a victim that could be resurrected by students willing to devote their energies to the rebuilding process. Dillard's dire straits, they said, amounted to a rare opportunity to take part in a historic moment in the life of their institution and the city.

At one point Hill described New Orleans as the victim of not one but two disasters: a hurricane that was an act of God, and a flood that was an act of man. The second disaster made her particularly angry, she said, because it was altogether avoidable.

"When we return we will all have the chance to demand a government that will never again ruin the lives of half a million people by its neglect. For students, that experience is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives," Hill said.

On the practical side, the argument was straightforward. Juniors and seniors would benefit by returning, because their accumulated credits would all work toward graduation. If they transferred or remained at their "host" colleges from the fall semester, they would certainly face new graduation requirements and the loss of some credits earned at Dillard.

In addition, they said, Dillard would offer any returning student a $1,000 scholarship that was above and beyond any prior scholarships.

Some parents and virtually all the students at the meeting seemed to buy those arguments. But others had their doubts. One parent expressed worries about his daughter returning to a city when many of the residents had not returned. "I just don't see her going back when the city doesn't have people living in the neighborhoods. If the residents aren't going back, you have to ask yourself why," he said.

Another father said he would prefer it if Dillard delayed its reopening until the city was more functional. "What's the rush?" he asked. "Most of the city is down and out. I keep hearing about people getting sick with this New Orleans cough. What's the point of starting the college so soon when there's this total mess still there?"

After the meeting, however, the father conceded that his daughter would probably return. "She's a senior and she wants to go back," he said. "In the end it's her decision."

Of the many questions hanging over Dillard, one of the largest is the issue of insurance reimbursements. In general, Dillard seems to have fared better than most. Contrary to early reports, the university did have business interruption insurance that has compensated it for lost tuition from the fall semester and will pay for much of the shortfall from the present semester at the Hilton.

Moreover, Hughes characterized the university's storm and flood insurance as "excellent." Thus far that insurance has picked up the bills for the cleanup on the campus and will pay for a significant portion of the reconstruction. Hughes said the university has not been forced to dip into its endowment to pay recovery costs.

Beyond those general comments, Dillard officials have been reluctant to discuss the details of the university's financial situation. However, discussions with officials from neighboring colleges—who face similar problems—suggest that pressures on Dillard come from two directions: student enrollment, which needs to rise steadily for the university to support its operations; and the shortfall between insurance payments and rebuilding costs.

Of the two, student enrollment is probably the factor that will most determine Dillard's future. Lester Lefton, provost at Tulane, says that fixed costs dictate that any New Orleans university will need to recover half or more of its students to survive in the long term. "There are certain costs that can't be reduced when enrollment goes down," he said. "If an institution does not recover half its students, it's going to have a hard time making it."

That is particularly true for Dillard. Its small endowment cannot provide a substantial income supplement and, as a purely undergraduate institution, it receives little or no research funding from governments or foundations. Thus, its tuition payments loom far larger than at state institutions or at a research university such as Tulane.

As a protective measure, Dillard severely cut back its teaching and administrative staffs in November, laying off 60 percent of those employees. Among the faculty, only the 41 tenured professors retained their positions.

More recently, as the reopening at the Hilton approached, the university offered temporary teaching contracts to 44 of the dismissed faculty members, but those contracts will expire at the end of the term.

The temporary nature of the rehirings will give Dillard a hedge against the possibility that student enrollment will not rise as rapidly as hoped, allowing the university to shrink or expand the teaching staff in future semesters.

And like its neighbor institutions, Dillard is also considering a makeover of its curriculum to further reduce costs. "We haven't gotten to the point of determining which majors are most essential," said Parker Smith. "But it's coming, and we will probably lose some. I have those thoughts around midnight."

In the arena of fundraising, the results remain unclear. Dillard officials have declined to reveal precise numbers, saying only that their campaign has made significant progress. Over the past five months they have released figures for one private grant, from the Teagle Foundation, for $500,000, and the United Negro College Fund has pledged to raise several million dollars for all the black institutions affected by Katrina.

Additionally, in December, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush announced a $30 million grant from private donations to be distributed among all universities along the Gulf Coast. Since the number of those institutions approaches 40, the significance of the grant for any single university will not be great.

And federal government aid—the anticipated 800-pound gorilla of post—Katrina support-thus far has proven a major disappointment. The federal legislation signed in late December contained $29 billion in recovery funding, but it included only $190 million for higher education.

Moreover, those funds were split evenly between Mississippi and Louisiana, even though Louisiana's flooding produced far more institutional damage than in Mississippi. In Louisiana, for example, 83,000 students were displaced from their schools versus 12,000 in Mississippi.

Louisiana's $95 million share will be split among 16 public and private campuses, according to a formula to be developed by the state's Board of Regents.

Of course, since the size of the insurance shortfall at Dillard is not known—or hasn't been disclosed—the impact of these funding amounts can not be determined. It appears, however, that Dillard's post-storm assistance from all sources amounts to less than $10 million.

In her efforts to restore Dillard, President Hughes does have one important ally. Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University and a Dillard alumna, has pledged the assistance of Brown's administrators and technical staff in rebuilding the university's office systems, and has also promised help in future fundraising. In late December Simmons invited Hughes to a weekend conference at Brown that addressed Dillard's recovery needs.

Dillard's fate will not be known for a year or more. If the spring semester at the Hilton succeeds and is experienced by students as an adventure rather than an ordeal, favorable word-of-mouth will spread. If the rebuilding of the campus is complete by the fall, students will be able to look forward to a stable college career. Those factors will likely lead to a steady increase in enrollment.

If the trend moves in the opposite direction, Dillard's fortunes could turn downward in a fatal dive.

In one sense, then, Dillard is in the hands of its present and future students. Putting herself in the position of a parent, Provost Parker Smith said she doesn't know what she would say to a daughter who was weighing the decision of returning. "I think I would say, if you want to go, then do it. You will be taking part in an historic experience.

"It's like the civil rights movement. It was a lot different if you took part in the experience as opposed to watching from the outside. Those people who walked in and sat at the lunch counters had a very different story to tell their grandchildren from those who didn't, and I hope the next few years at Dillard will work out the same way."


Robert A. Jones is a former reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2006

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