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Devastation Brings Sweeping Changes
Opportunity, and opportunism, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

By Kathy Witkowsky
New Orleans

On a sweltering August morning, about 150 faculty, staff and students gathered under a white tent between trailers 19 and 25 on the temporary campus of Southern University at New Orleans to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The ceremony included a litany led by two students and a short speech by Johnny Anderson, chairman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors, which oversees the school. "I didn't come here to celebrate, because there is no celebration to be had," Anderson told the audience.

The biggest round of applause came after William Belisle, SUNO's director of research and strategic initiatives, played a rap song, entitled "Sure Feels Good to Come Back to New Orleans," from a CD he had made. Belisle was selling the CD, he announced, for $14.99, and donating a third of the proceeds to a scholarship fund in the hopes of helping a displaced student return to SUNO.

Students who do return to SUNO will find a vastly different institution than the one they attended prior to Hurricane Katrina.

 
Enrollment has dropped 25 percent at the University of New Orleans, leading Chancellor Tim Ryan to drop programs and lay off faculty.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
In part, that is because of the physical damage wrought by the storm: SUNO is operating out of 45 modular trailers, while officials wait for the repair and rebuilding of its main campus, which suffered severe flooding after Katrina and remains uninhabitable. Uninhabitable, too, is much of the surrounding neighborhood, which lies in the city's hard-hit Ninth Ward, where many abandoned houses still bear the black X marks left by search and rescue teams. Before Katrina, SUNO had been solely a commuter school, drawing heavily from the Ninth Ward and the rest of the city of New Orleans; now displaced students, faculty and staff are living in 400 FEMA trailers located behind the classroom and administration area. So many residences were damaged that rental units are hard to come by in New Orleans, and rents have skyrocketed.

But the changes go well beyond the physical campus: The school has cut 19 programs, and enrollment is down 30 percent, to 2,500 students. Forty percent of the faculty were furloughed last year, and even though many have since been rehired, morale, said Alvin Bopp, a professor of chemistry who just completed a term as faculty senate president, is "somewhere between low and leave me alone."

It doesn't sound like a promising scenario. But Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education E. Joseph Savoie believes that SUNO, along with the rest of the state's higher education institutions, will ultimately benefit from the sweeping changes that last year's storms (Hurricane Katrina was followed less than a month later by Hurricane Rita) helped him usher in. "We are definitely becoming a better system. Katrina helped quicken the pace," he said.

"Disaster is not strong enough" to describe the situation the higher education community faced a year ago, said Savoie (pronounced SAV-wha). Eighty-four thousand students and 15,000 faculty and staff were initially displaced; 19 campuses were temporarily closed (and several of them have not reopened). Public institutions of higher education alone suffered $500 million to $600 million worth of damage, more than $150 million in lost revenue and tuition, and $75 million in immediate budget cuts.

But at the same time, Savoie said, the storms washed away many obstacles to reform, providing an opportunity to accelerate efforts to improve the state's troubled higher education system. "We're hoping to skip a generation of evolution. We're determined not to restore what we had," said the 52-year-old Savoie, who has been commissioner since 1996. "It's statewide. We're not just dealing with the affected campuses. We're using that to drive policy decisions."

The state's budget picture is considerably brighter than it was just a few months ago. But officials do not plan to rescind the series of program and administrative cuts they have already made, and are still pondering the future of some heavily affected campuses. A moratorium on the development of new programs not directly related to storm-recovery remains in place. "I think that the education leadership in the state has done a pretty good job of using Katrina as a device for making some badly needed changes," said Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS). Jones has consulted for the state's Board of Regents, which oversees the 33 public higher education institutions.

Some of the most significant changes occurred at SUNO, an historically African American institution which has a dismal 12 percent graduation rate and a reputation for political infighting. The regents resisted calls to recommend closing or merging the school with nearby University of New Orleans (UNO), a far larger and more selective institution; either action would have required legislative approval. Instead, Savoie and his staff worked with SUNO's governing board and administrators to identify and phase out programs with low-completion rates or low enrollment, or those that weren't accredited or were duplicated at UNO.

Majors in chemistry, math and English are among the programs being eliminated, although the school will still offer courses in those subjects. The idea is for SUNO to focus on the needs of the surrounding community, with programs such as criminal justice, social work and early childhood development. "If they are successful in developing that niche, they'll be meeting a serious need," Savoie said. Plans, he said, are also in the works to locate related state-agency offices at the school's rebuilt campus, which will bring more students to the school and create additional training opportunities for students.

"We would have liked to do it on our own terms and at our own pace," SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said of the cuts.

But, he added, "We will emerge a better institution, no question about that." Already, said Ukpolo, who became chancellor last January, SUNO has introduced four new degree programs that address the community's post-Katrina needs, such as health management information systems. And it has plans to establish two more.

In addition to the programs cut at SUNO, about a dozen others were eliminated statewide, including five at the University of New Orleans, which also was heavily damaged by Katrina, and where enrollment, which had been more than 17,000, is down about 25 percent this fall. The programs that were targeted—bachelor's and master's degree programs in both economics and mass communications, and a bachelor's degree in health promotion and human performance—were chosen based on the recommendations of department chairs, because the programs either had low completion rates or were not critical to the school's mission, said UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan.

UNO also eliminated about 50 elective courses and 89 faculty positions, according to Ryan. "We're not stronger right now," he said. "But we have a platform to build on so we can get stronger."

"I don't think a disaster of this magnitude creates opportunities," said Delgado Community College Chancellor Alex Johnson. "What Hurricane Katrina allows us to do is focus on the critical needs of education in our community more than we ever have in the past." Delgado, for instance, whose main campus is still only about 60 percent operational, has not cut any of its 40 programs but is offering more courses in construction trades and additional accelerated nursing training to address the city's post-storm workforce shortages.

The school, which prior to the storm was one of the largest education institutions in the state, may be much smaller in terms of enrollment and faculty positions, which are at about 70 percent and 60 percent of pre-storm numbers, respectively, said Johnson. "But in terms of our mission, it's much expanded."

Due to a reorganization of the Louisiana Technical College, the state's vocational training system, Delgado Community College is now linked to four LTC campuses (though two of them are still closed). Decentralizing control of all 40 LTC campuses statewide is expected to save between $3.5 and $4 million a year in administrative costs.

The commissioner's office had begun drawing up plans for the reorganization prior to Katrina, but the gloomy budget scenario after the storms allowed Savoie to be a lot bolder in his recommendations. "It bridged a lot of political pushback," Savoie said.

 
E. Joseph Savoie, Louisiana commissioner of higher education, sees opportunities for constructive change in the wake of the devastating hurricanes.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Future changes in the system will depend in large part on population trends, he said. For instance, officials have yet to decide whether to reopen one heavily damaged technical college campus in New Orleans' depopulated Ninth Ward, and might combine another damaged technical college campus in Slidell, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, with three off-site learning centers there run by three different institutions.

The commissioner's office also might recommend more narrowly focusing the mission of Nunez Community College to concentrate on workforce training, Savoie said. Nunez is located in Chalmette, just east of New Orleans, and both its campus and the surrounding community experienced heavy flooding; many residents have not yet returned, and enrollment is about half of what it was before the storm.

"We don't need to build or create additional colleges," said Savoie. "We need to collaborate among our existing institutions and collapse assets at the same time that we offer a broader scope of services."

One example of that is an unusual partnership between schools from two different university systems in the state: Students in the pharmacy school at the University of Louisiana at Monroe will be able to do their clinical studies at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. That will allow the school to expand the pharmacy program at a time of critical demand for health professionals.

"Many of these things were kind of on a wish list, and the storms have made them more possible," said Savoie, a Louisiana native of Cajun descent known to his friends as "T-Joe."

"We hope we never have another opportunity like this," said Dave Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board. Nonetheless, he said, it is an opportunity, one that Savoie and state officials are wisely taking advantage of.

"They really do have their eyes on the future," said Spence. "The changes I know about are not cosmetic, they're substantial, and will result in a much better system of postsecondary education."

But the cuts that have occurred at both public and private institutions in the state (Tulane University, for instance, eliminated four out of its six engineering programs, and laid off 225 faculty, the vast majority of them medical school clinical faculty) have raised some concerns.

A popular phrase among Louisiana higher education officials these days is that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste," said Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). "But the relationship between Katrina and what's being done is in many ways dubious."

The AAUP does not make judgments on curriculum changes such as those implemented at SUNO. "Times can change, and needs can change, and adjustment is necessary," Kurland said. But, he added, "This kind of transition is very complicated and difficult to implement. It's the kind of thing that's done over years, and you can't just do it in one fell swoop."

 
Only 70 percent of the students, and 60 percent of the faculty, have returned to Chancellor Alex Johnson's Delgado Community College campus.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Kurland is the staff director for a special committee of the AAUP that is investigating layoffs and program cuts at eight postsecondary institutions in New Orleans (three public and five private), where he said more than a thousand faculty have not returned this fall. No one, he said, has broken down the numbers in terms of who was laid off, and "who left in disgust, and who coincidentally decided to retire." Many of them taught at the city's two medical schools, which, due to hospital closures, are suffering from a lack of patients.

The committee is expected to release a draft of its report sometime this winter. "As of now, we're not faulting anybody," said Kurland, adding that the idea behind the report is to be helpful by practicing "preventative medicine" rather than "pathology."

Thanks to an infusion of federal disaster-recovery funds, the state's budget has improved dramatically since the spring; as a result, this summer, the legislature not only restored the initial $75 million that had been cut but allocated an additional $75 million for higher education this year. The total higher education budget has more than doubled since 1995-96, from $594 million to $1.28 billion in 2006-07.

But instead of simply giving the money back to the institutions and programs that had been cut, Savoie and Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a former schoolteacher who has made education one of her top priorities, agreed they should dole it out more strategically.

"The governor said, 'I will not put the money back. I will require that it be done in a different way that will seed the reforms that we were trying to do pre-Katrina,'" said Kim Hunter Reed, Blanco's deputy chief of staff. "This is the kind of investment that will ensure our recovery."

The state has been plagued by low graduation rates (in 2004, it was 34 percent for students at public four-year institutions) and poverty. Funding per student at four-year institutions is more than 30 percent below the regional average.

Guided by a 2001 master plan, officials had been trying to increase minority enrollment and retention, improve adult education, and increase graduation rates. The numbers have improved, though not nearly enough, said Savoie. Now that admissions standards have been fully implemented at all but three of the state's four-year institutions, he expects the graduation rate to pull close to the national average within six years.

The admissions standards have also helped to "right-size" the state's institutions, by steering more students toward the two-year schools, which are less expensive, and where enrollment more than doubled between 2000 and 2004. In 2000, only 35 percent of college freshmen were enrolled at two-year schools; five years later, that number had increased to nearly 42 percent. The current and immediate need for increased workforce training is expected to further that trend.

Higher education officials also worked with the K–12 system to overhaul teacher education and administrator programs; this year, Louisiana earned the top spot among all 50 states in Education Week's 2006 "Quality Counts" assessment of efforts to improve teacher quality.

"I think the culture has changed. But we were so far behind—two or three laps behind—we've got a lot of running to do," Savoie said.

"I think they've made real progress," agreed NCHEMS Dennis Jones. "But having said that, they were way behind. And they still are."

Savoie has an unusually close relationship with the governor—he describes himself as "part of the family"—that stretches back to the days when he was a university student; the governor's husband, Raymond Blanco, who is the vice president for student affairs at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, later hired Savoie for his first job. Because the governor has been part of a campus community most of her adult life, she has a unique perspective on higher education, Savoie said. The two serve together on the Southern Regional Education Board, where Blanco just completed a term as chair. In addition, both Reed, Blanco's deputy chief of staff, and her chief of staff, James Clark, are former deputy commissioners of higher education who worked for Savoie.

"You don't have to do a lot of explaining to her on higher education issues," Savoie said. "She understands these issues very well. And she is fully committed to the value the colleges and universities have in terms of the quality of life in the state."

Lawmakers are also supportive of the higher education agenda, said state Representative Carl Crane, a longtime Republican legislator from Baton Rouge who is chair of the House Education Committee. "In spite of the storm, I think that we're still moving in the right direction. And I'm going to give credit to Savoie and the Board of Regents and their staff for what they've done to stay focused on whatever it took to make higher education whole again," said Crane. "I'm not trying to sugar coat. We still have a long way to go to get to where we want to be. But I think overall, we're well on our way to getting to that point."

Katrina, said Sally Clausen, president of the University of Louisiana System, exposed an underbelly of poverty and helplessness in New Orleans that has brought a new sense of urgency to the education reforms that were already moving forward. "We've been plodding along doing what we thought was right. But we could go to sleep at night." Now, she said, "there are nightmares that are occurring because we're not doing our work fast enough."

This year's higher education budget is 7.1 percent above the budget originally approved for 2005-06 and has been designed with the post-Katrina economy and recovery in mind.

A large chunk of the increase—$31.7 million—is allocated for a faculty pay raise averaging five percent, the first in five years. Given that hundreds of faculty were furloughed after Katrina, "I still get a little grief about that," said Savoie.

 
Chancellor Victor Ukpolo of Southern University at New Orleans is convinced "we will emerge a better institution" from the hurricane wreckage.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
But the state's average faculty salary still is 14th among 16 southern states, and, Savoie said, many talented faculty who were concerned about the state's economic stability were being lost. "So it was an important strategy to say, We're coming back, and we want you to be a part of it, and we're going to invest in you to demonstrate that."

The state also has lost thousands of students and potential students. Even before the storms, Louisiana's high school population was on the decline; nonetheless, by enrolling higher percentages of recent high school graduates, the state's public colleges and universities had achieved record enrollments four years in a row.

Katrina and Rita have drastically changed that scenario. Preliminary fall enrollment figures for public institutions of higher education are down seven percent from pre-storm numbers, from 210,000 to 195,000. And Savoie suspects that many of those students are only attending school part-time as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives after the storms. More ominously, first-time freshman enrollment has declined 11 percent. Officials are still analyzing the long-term implications of that figure.

In an attempt to attract and retain college students from this smaller pool, the state's new budget includes $2 million for a new dual enrollment program that is meant to encourage high school students, more than 30 percent of whom drop out before graduating, to stay in school and get an early jump on college. There is also a half-million dollar initiative for adult learning. (Twenty percent of Louisiana adults ages 22 to 44 do not have a high school diploma or equivalent; only 19 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher.)

Another $15 million in state funds, and $38 million in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, are being used to provide free short-term training in construction trades for an estimated 15,000 workers. To ensure that those workers are employable after the anticipated post-Katrina building boom, they will be required to achieve certain academic standards before they can receive that skills training.

The state also used $8.5 million of a $95 million federal relief package to create 9,000 "Return to Learn" scholarships. (The rest went to individual campuses). "It was an important signal to students that we were interested in getting them back to Louisiana to get in school," said Savoie. The scholarships were snatched up within a few months.

But even before Katrina, the state had a shortage of jobs for its educated professionals, many of whom were leaving Louisiana. Educating its population is not enough; it also has to provide employment opportunities.

 
Alvin Bopp, former president of the faculty senate, says morale is low at Southern University at New Orleans.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
To help address that issue, the Board of Regents has allocated $29 million in federal CDBG funds, and $25 million of its own funds ($5 million annually over each of the next five years), to rebuild the scientific research facilities and recoup associated faculty it lost as a result of the storm-this time with an eye toward areas that have the greatest potential to generate commercial discoveries, federal research dollars and jobs.


The American Association for the Advancement of Science is consulting with the state to help it decide which disciplines to focus on. Once this has been done, the Board of Regents plans to invest in programs at all levels of postsecondary education that will support those disciplines. "The idea is that if we come up with some research discovery that could be commercialized, and have a business created around it, we want to be simultaneously building the workforce for that business so that they can locate in the state," said Savoie.

That sort of emphasis on economic development and recovery will be front and center this fall, as Savoie and his staff begin writing a new higher education master plan that will pick up where the last one left off. "We're determined to do all the right things," he said. "This is a serious time for our state. And when I think back on my service, I don't want to have any doubt that I've done everything possible to make improvements."


Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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