HOUSTON – During Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University President Scott Cowen refused to abandon his university. He chose instead to weather the category-4 storm bunkered in the Reily Student Recreation Center.
“He felt like he was captain of a sinking ship and wanted to be there with it,” said Tulane Communications Director Mike Strecker.
Cowen made it through the storm. He and most other Tulane administrators are now headquartered in temporary office space in Houston, miles away from the floods, chaos and crimes of New Orleans. Their offices, which they moved into Tuesday after spending time at Jackson State University in Mississippi and a Houston-area hotel, serve as a base for information technology, campus facilities and services, legal counsel, payroll, the office of the dean of student affairs and admissions, among other tasks.
None of the university’s students, faculty or staff was killed in the disaster as far as the university knows, Strecker said, but they still have heard from only about 1,700 of their 13,000 students.
The Tulane campus avoided the massive damage that much of the city suffered because it rests on the higher ground of Orleans Parish. Experts believe most of the renovations will be infrastructure repair.
“Your definition of what a disaster is and what a bad hit is changes,” Strecker said. “I talked to someone yesterday that had five feet of water in their home and was thankful it wasn’t more.”
It is not yet clear how much it will cost to clean the campus or how much of that cost insurance will cover. What is clear is the commitment university officials have made to reopening the campus in January for the spring semester.
“Based on facts and circumstances we are very confident we will reopen in January,” Cowen wrote in a mass address to Tulane students over the Internet.
Strecker did stress that the campus will not reopen if the ravaged city is still unsafe for students by that time, but he said all signs point toward it being so.
Most students were on campus before the hurricane hit August 29. All were evacuated. Some went back to their homes while others traveled on university buses to Jackson State University, A-where they were sheltered until they found a means to return to their families or enroll in other universities.
Among those were the University of Michigan and other academic powerhouses such as Harvard University and Brown University, where tens of thousands of students fight for spots in their classes each year. The University of Michigan has taken in about 47 undergraduates and a dozen graduate students so far. The school that accepted the most students was the University of Texas-Austin, where about 300 Tulane students enrolled.
Faculty have also dispersed to work at institutions across the country, including the University of Michigan. Faculty generally will not teach full-time classes, but will continue their research at those schools, Strecker said.
Despite having no home fields or practice facilities, Tulane varsity sports teams will play this season. They will be based in several colleges in the South.
Some, especially those in the media, have balked at the idea of sports continuing while the rest of the campus and city is in mourning.
“Our president was very clear that it was important that the teams continue to play symbolically,” Strecker said. “They represent the face of Tulane. They will carry a torch and give us a lot of diversion.”
The football team is anchored at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston and will open its season against Mississippi State Sept. 17. Dubbed the “Big Game For The Big Easy,” 100 percent of its proceeds from a live telethon are slated to go toward rebuilding the city.
Tulane will play an important part in rebuilding New Orleans, Strecker said. The 171-year-old university, which is the largest private employer in the Big Easy, is stitched into the city’s culture.
“The city relies on us and we rely on the city,” Strecker said. “As we improve, the city will improve with us.”
Many students have stepped forward and offered to rebuild the campus. The administration has indicated that it will probably take them up on their offers.
One student, incoming freshman Maren Leopold, has already pledged her time to the school. She spent the last three days earlier this month in Tulane’s Houston offices volunteering her time by inputting payroll data for teachers in a spreadsheet.
Leopold happened to be in Houston staying in a hotel after the storm and saw a woman walking around in a Tulane shirt. That woman turned out to be a Tulane vice president. Leopold – who wants to go back to Houston to assist the administration next week – also represented the student body on NBC’s “The Today Show” along with Cowen.
Leopold will not enroll in an alternate school as many of her classmates have, but will return to campus for the second semester, which will be her first. She said that judging from sources such as Tulane blogs, most of her peers will return to campus in January.
“To me, it seems like if you don’t go back you’re running away,” she said. “I’m definitely going back.”
Tulane is accepting donations over the Internet at justgive.org, goodnetworkforgood.com and through the mail at Tulane University, 1700 West Loop South, Suite 900, Houston, TX 77027.