Sur­vivors’ club: lead­ers of storm-hit uni­ver­si­ties share how they dealt with dev­as­ta­tion

Lead­ers of storm-hit uni­ver­si­ties share the ways they dealt with dev­as­ta­tion. Paul Basken writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The US has a grow­ing club of uni­ver­si­ties that have sur­vived dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­canes. One hard-earned re­sult: an ex­pand­ing list of ex­am­ples of how to re­bound and pros­per.

The lead­ers of sev­eral such in­sti­tu­tions gath­ered in New Or­leans – a city al­most de­stroyed by Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in Au­gust 2005 – and shared what they learned.

Some of the big­gest les­sons were to de­cide quickly to re­build; to keep staff paid and stu­dents en­rolled even as debts mount; not just to make emer­gency plans but to test them thor­oughly in ad­vance; not to rely on the gov­ern­ment; to ig­nore the lawyers and talk to the par­ents; and to pre­pare for men­tal health chal­lenges long af­ter­wards.

“Re­silience,” said Scott Cowen, a pro­fes­sor of busi­ness at Tu­lane Univer­sity in New Or­leans – who was its pres­i­dent when Ka­t­rina hit, leav­ing it un­der­wa­ter for two months – “is not just a word we should use ca­su­ally; it’s a word we should un­der­stand deeply and broadly.”

Pro­fes­sor Cowen – along with the heads of the storm-rav­aged Univer­sity of Hous­ton and Univer­sity of the Vir­gin Is­lands – re­counted his re­cov­ery story at the an­nual con­fer- ence of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Pub­lic and Land-grant Uni­ver­si­ties.

After re­lo­cat­ing to Hous­ton with top Tu­lane staff, Pro­fes­sor Cowen said that he made three sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sions in the first 24 hours: to restart the univer­sity in the com­ing spring se­mes­ter; to pay staff dur­ing that time de­spite hav­ing no in­come; and to ask col­leges around the coun­try to ad­mit Tu­lane stu­dents for free for the rest of the se­mes­ter and then re­turn them af­ter­wards.

“Those im­me­di­ate de­ci­sions you make are of­ten the most crit­i­cal, and the com­mu­ni­ca­tions you make are of­ten the most crit­i­cal,” Pro­fes­sor Cowen said. The call to re­open was es­pe­cially dar­ing given high-level talk in Wash­ing­ton about whether it made any sense to re­build New Or­leans, given that half of it is al­ready be­low sea level and will be well be­neath that in a few decades.

“We ab­so­lutely had no idea whether we could open up at that time, or whether we would ever open up,” he added. Tu­lane (pic­tured above) did re­open the fol­low­ing Jan­uary, but it took an­other four years be­fore it re­gained its full firstyear en­rol­ment of 1,600 stu­dents.

Hous­ton’s chan­cel­lor, Renu Kha­tor, said that she too pushed her ex­ec­u­tive au­thor­ity and ig­nored pow­er­ful ad­vice after her city was hit by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in Au­gust 2017.

Putting a pri­or­ity on the peo­ple, she won back staff – many with their own homes un­der wa­ter – by waiv­ing rules to let them bring their chil­dren to cam­pus and eat for free in the univer­sity’s din­ing fa­cil­i­ties. She even had to over­ride univer­sity lawyers who ob­jected to wa­ter res­cues tak­ing place be­fore they could check le­gal cer­tifi­cates on par­tic­i­pat­ing boats.

“I told my at­tor­ney it’s my job to make aca­demic de­ci­sions, and it’s your job to go and de­fend me,” Pro­fes­sor Kha­tor said.

David Hall, pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of the Vir­gin Is­lands, said that he too made an im­me­di­ate com­mit­ment to re­open after be­ing hit by back-to-back Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­canes, Irma and Maria, in Septem­ber 2017.

As part of that, Pro­fes­sor Hall promised all stu­dents that they would “be held harm­less”, with no fi­nan­cial penalty if they de­cided to with­draw. At the same time, he promised “to do all we could to save the year and save the se­mes­ter” for those who re­mained.

About 350 stu­dents left dur­ing that se­mes­ter, 200 of them im­me­di­ately, said Pro­fes­sor Hall. The twocam­pus in­sti­tu­tion still has only about 2,000 stu­dents, sev­eral hun­dred short of its pre-hur­ri­cane num­bers.

The longer-term re­cov­ery may be men­tal health re­lated, Pro­fes­sor Cowen said. Ka­t­rina killed 1,823 peo­ple and caused the pop­u­la­tion of New Or­leans to fall from 480,000 to 10,000 within three weeks.

Pro­fes­sor Cowen de­scribed stay­ing in the flooded city for five days be­fore es­cap­ing by wiring a bat­tery into a golf cart and si­phon­ing fuel from a truck to reach a res­cue he­li­copter. He had to fire four of his top 12 ad­min­is­tra­tors in that first week in Hous­ton. “They were not ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with this sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “They were won­der­ful peo­ple un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, but not un­der oth­ers.” Even harder, Pro­fes­sor Cowen said, was the need to fire 1,000 staff to make the bud­get work as the univer­sity re­built its stu­dent body.

The lo­cal, state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment largely failed to help, Pro­fes­sor Cowen said. “Their strat­egy for it was to hope that some­body else was go­ing to come and help us, and no one helped us,” he said.

Four years later, Pro­fes­sor Cowen added, he was di­ag­nosed with post- trau­matic stress. “I thought I was fine,” he said. “I was not fine.”

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