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The Race Relations Reporter


Charles Hamilton Houston quote


Hurricane Katrina's Devastating Effect on African-American Higher Education

In late August, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. As a result, 20,000 African-American college students in New Orleans suddenly had nowhere to attend classes. About half of these black students were enrolled at the three historically black universities in the city. Damage estimates from the hurricane at these three institutions reach as high as $850 million.
It is certain that the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina has produced long-lasting damage to African-American higher education, not only in New Orleans, but in the nation as a whole.

In late August the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina brought the issue of race relations to the forefront of public attention. After Katrina caused widespread destruction on the Gulf Coast and flooded much of the city of New Orleans, it quickly became evident that most of the people remaining in the city were black. Many of these African Americans were from low-income neighborhoods. Many had no cars, no money, and no friends out of town to whom they could turn.

It was five days before significant federal or state help arrived for the tens of thousands of blacks who were marooned in the city. A number of African-American political leaders charged that the response would have been far quicker had the victims been in the predominantly white cities of Palm Beach or Boca Raton. Moreover, there were vivid memories that Louisiana is David Duke territory. Only a few years ago, the former Klan leader and neo-Nazi carried the white vote in a statewide election for governor.

White racism is still heavy in the Louisiana air. This became most apparent when three days after the hurricane, armed police from the predominantly white blue-collar community of Gretna prevented a large group of black pedestrians who were stranded in New Orleans from crossing a bridge into their city. "We were concerned about life and property," said Gretna mayor Ronnie C. Harris. "It was quite evident that a criminal element was contained in a crowd of probably mainly decent people."

Racial mistrust became so strong in the black communities in New Orleans that there were widespread rumors that the dikes were breached in certain areas in order to intentionally flood poor black neighborhoods. Those who took this extreme position said that the flooding of black neighborhoods was intentionally done not only to save white neighborhoods from destruction but to permanently drive blacks from the city so that whites could once again gain control of valuable land as well as of the city's political machinery.

After the hurricane the media arrived in full force well before federal and state aid workers. The press and television focused the nation's attention on the racial aspects of the tragedy. It was clear from the first hours of coverage that the faces of the victims of Hurricane Katrina were black. But the media's coverage also showed a racial bias. Unfounded rumors of murders and rapes in the Superdome were widely reported and later turned out to be false. Blacks caught on videotape scrounging for food and supplies were referred to as "looters." Whites who were doing the same things were "struggling to survive."

Clearly the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina once again brought issues of race discrimination and black poverty to the forefront of the political debate. We may never know to what extent race had an impact on the government's response to the hurricane. But most blacks who lived through the experience in New Orleans would undoubtedly say that race was a major factor. And to most black leaders throughout America the fact that hundreds of thousands of African Americans in New Orleans were stranded for five days with no food, water, or police or fire protection was a clear expression of the latent racism of American society.

While Hurricane Katrina brought out broad issues of race and black poverty, not to be overlooked is the severe damage the hurricane caused to black higher education, not only in New Orleans, but in the nation as a whole. Here JBHE presents a chronology of what took place and what the future holds in store for African-American higher education in New Orleans.

The Gathering Storm

As Hurricane Katrina grew in strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the category 5 hurricane developed sustained winds of more than 170 miles an hour. Forecasters plotted the path of the hurricane directly over the city of New Orleans. It was feared that a major storm surge would either break or go right over the levees protecting the city, which is largely below sea level.

Officials at the city's three historically black colleges and universities feared for the worst. Dillard University bused about 235 students 300 miles to its sister institution, Centenary College in Shreveport. Both Dillard and Centenary are affiliated with the United Methodist Church. One of the buses with evacuating Dillard students caught fire. The 37 student passengers all escaped the fire, but many lost all their possessions.

About three quarters of the 1,600 students at Xavier University, the historically black Catholic university in New Orleans, left the campus as Hurricane Katrina took aim at the city. About 350 students remained on campus. They were housed in two high-rise dormitories to ride out the storm along with 40 faculty and staff members.

Southern University of New Orleans is a commuter school that had about 2,800 undergraduate students before the hurricane. About 94 percent of the students at Southern were black. As residents of the city of New Orleans, most Southern University students were subject to the mandatory evacuation order of the city's mayor Ray Nagin. But many students who attended Southern University were from low-income families. A large number of these students had no automobiles, no relatives outside the city, and no money to buy transportation required to retreat from approaching Hurricane Katrina. Many undoubtedly decided to ride out the storm at their homes, typically in low-lying areas of the city.

The Wrath of Hurricane Katrina

At 6 a.m. on Monday, August 29, Hurricane Katrina roared onshore in southeastern Louisiana. The then category 4 hurricane was packing winds of 145 miles per hour when it reached landfall. The hurricane devastated coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi and caused widespread damage along the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

Initial reports indicated that the city of New Orleans had been largely spared from what was feared to be a catastrophic disaster by a last minute change in the path of the storm toward the east. But those reports were wrong. While hurricane-force winds did not produce major wind damage to the city, the storm surge caused major breaches in several levees protecting city neighborhoods that sit under sea level. By that evening 90 percent of New Orleans was under water. In some areas floodwaters rose 15 to 20 feet.

The three historically black colleges and universities in the city of New Orleans all were located in areas hard hit by the flooding. While the Dillard and Southern University campuses were largely deserted, of immediate concern were the 400 students, faculty, and staff members at Xavier University who remained on campus. The students were stranded on the top floors of the high-rise dormitories as the floodwaters rose around them. It was days before major recovery and rescue teams reached the city. The Xavier students and staff members had nowhere to go. They were marooned on a high-rise island. The husband of one staff member died of a heart attack.

Three days after the flood began the Xavier students had run out of food and potable water. On September 1 National Guard troops reached the Xavier dormitories by amphibious vehicles and transported the students to a nearby elevated highway. They waited for 10 hours on the highway before they were bused out of the city to Grambling State University.

The Diaspora of African-American College Students

After some intense days of search and rescue, the once thriving city of New Orleans, a metropolis of nearly 1 million, was officially closed. The tens of thousands of students enrolled in higher education in the city had no classes to attend. JBHE estimates that 20,000 African-American college students were among this group. About 10,000 of these were enrolled at the three historically black universities.

Many of the black students from the three New Orleans HBCUs enrolled at other institutions across the nation. More than 700 students from Southern University in New Orleans enrolled at the Southern University main campus in Baton Rouge. After the New Orleans floods, an additional 2,700 displaced students from colleges and universities in New Orleans enrolled at Louisiana State University, the predominantly white flagship state campus in Baton Rouge. Of these displaced students on the LSU campus, more than 33 percent are black. As a result, the black percentage of the overall student body at LSU increased from 8.8 percent to 10.8 percent. This is the highest percentage of black students ever recorded at LSU.

Texas Southern University, the historically black institution in Houston, has enrolled more than 500 students from hurricane-ravaged areas and has hired four faculty members who taught at black colleges in New Orleans. Hampton University in Virginia took in 25 students from New Orleans.

Black students from New Orleans even ended up at Ivy League universities and at small prestigious liberal arts colleges in New England. Eight black students from New Orleans enrolled at Williams College and another seven found a home at Amherst College. Emory University in Atlanta took in 127 students from New Orleans colleges and universities. Twenty of these, or 15.7 percent, were black. UCLA took in 19 black students from New Orleans, most of whom were Xavier students.

Assessing the Damage

The physical damage to the three black college campuses was extensive. Every year for more than a century, graduating students at Dillard University have walked in a procession down the Avenue of Oaks in the center of campus. After Katrina, many of the majestic oaks lay uprooted and splintered. But the uprooted trees are the least of the university's problems.

Some of the buildings on the Dillard campus had floodwaters eight feet high. Three dormitories on campus burned to the ground in the aftermath of the flood. Some of the other buildings were so heavily damaged that they will have to be razed. There is a considerable mold problem on campus and cleanup will take many months to complete. Dillard president Marvalene Hughes estimates the total damage at $400 million. It is unclear at this point how much of this will be covered by insurance.

At Xavier every building on campus had between four and six feet of water. Currently university officials believe that none of the buildings on campus will have to be torn down. However, there were some portable classrooms that are no longer usable. There was extensive roof damage and resulting leaks on upper floors of many campus buildings. There is extensive mildew and mold throughout the campus. Carpeting, windows, furniture, and flooring will have to be replaced in many areas. Estimates of the total damage at Xavier are about $100 million. The university says that it is insured only for damage done by wind and not by the subsequent flooding.

All 11 buildings on the Southern University campus experienced severe flooding. Most of the buildings on campus are two stories high and floodwaters were as high as 15 feet on campus. Initial indications were that the entire campus would have to be razed. Now university officials believe that the entire campus can be saved. But estimates of the damage range as high as $350 million.

Staff and Faculty Reductions

Xavier University announced in late October that it was laying off 318 employees, some of them permanently. Included among the staff cuts are 36 percent of the Xavier faculty. The board of trustees declared a financial state of emergency, which permits the board to cancel all existing faculty contracts, including those of tenured faculty members.

Prior to the flood there were 246 faculty members at the university. Slightly more than 100 of these faculty were rehired for the upcoming spring semester and 89 were notified that their contracts were terminated. Another 54 faculty members were told that they may be rehired depending on how many students enroll for the spring semester. Many of the faculty members who lost their jobs were in the university's mass communications department. Most of the department's electronic equipment was destroyed in the flood.

Dillard University, the other private historically black educational institution in the city of New Orleans which suffered an estimated $400 million in damage from Hurricane Katrina, laid off 202 employees. This is nearly 59 percent of its total work force. Nearly two thirds of all faculty members were included in the layoffs. But no tenured faculty member was released. A university spokesperson said that it had no way of knowing if the layoffs were permanent or temporary. Administrators would reevaluate the situation after they see how many students enroll for the spring semester.

As state employees, the staff and faculty members at Southern University fared quite a bit better. Employees of Southern University in New Orleans were told to report for duty at the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge. Employees will be reassigned to the New Orleans campus as needed. Many of the university's employees were furloughed for a six-week period beginning at the start of November. It is not known whether there will be permanent staff and faculty cuts at Southern University in New Orleans.

Struggling to Get Back on Their Feet

Dillard plans to hold classes in January in classrooms on the campus of Tulane University and possibly in a downtown office building. Some administration officials may be able to return to their offices at the beginning of the year. Students and faculty will be housed on cruise ships docked on the river. Dillard hopes to hold classes on its own campus in the fall of 2006.

Darren Rankin, vice president for enrollment at Dillard University in New Orleans, estimates that when students return to the Dillard campus next fall there will be perhaps 300 freshman students. In recent years there have been about 700 first-year students at Dillard.

Xavier's campus is in slightly better shape than Dillard's. The campus is now surrounded by construction fencing. Work crews living in an extensive trailer park on a university parking lot are working seven days a week to get the campus ready for a scheduled reopening on January 17, 2006. The university hopes to hold many undergraduate classes on campus but may also hold classes in available space at Tulane and Loyola universities. The College of Pharmacy will also be able to meet for classes on campus. Graduate programs will only be offered online. All intercollegiate athletic events have been canceled for the remainder of the academic year. The university's summer Institute for Black Catholic Studies will move temporarily to the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

An online survey taken of Xavier students found that 90 percent of the respondents said they planned to return to New Orleans. But, of course, the students who do not plan to return were probably the ones who did not bother to respond to the survey. The university hopes to have 1,800 dorm spaces available in January. There were about 3,300 undergraduates on campus before the flood. There are very limited off-campus housing options for Xavier students so university officials know that they will not be able to reach the same enrollment level for some time to come.

Southern University in New Orleans plans to reopen in January in temporary structures. While the campus buildings may be saved, renovations and decontamination will not have progressed to a point where the buildings will be usable for the spring semester. The university has ordered 250 mobile classrooms, 250 mobile housing units, and 10 bathroom units from the Federal Emergency Management Association. An additional 300 mobile units have been requested to accommodate students from New Orleans who relocated to the Southern University main campus in Baton Rouge. The university estimates that when the New Orleans campus reopens enrollments will be down by 33 percent or more.

There is no central database of information on what happened to all the black students at colleges and universities in New Orleans. Even the black colleges don't know what happened to many of their students. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, all of the universities were knocked off the Internet. Now that they are back online, they are pleading with their students to contact them so the universities can get some idea of how many students plan to return when classes resume for the spring semester.

At this point it is anyone's guess how many students will return to Dillard, Xavier, and Southern University of New Orleans.

Looking to the Future

If estimating the number of enrolled students who will return is guesswork, even more uncertain is the prospect of recruiting new college-bound black students to come to New Orleans' predominantly black universities. It is considered likely that all three black universities will have an extremely difficult time making the case to prospective students that they should come to New Orleans. On recruitment trips outside of New Orleans, admissions officers for Xavier and Dillard are frequently confronted with students who are skeptical about the future of higher education in New Orleans. Dillard's Darren Rankin told the Los Angeles Times recently, "We're dealing with a real public relations nightmare here. It's clearly the most trying situation I've ever encountered in my 20 years of working in higher education."

Parents of college-bound children from outside of New Orleans were shocked upon hearing stories of lawlessness and looting after the floods. They will be concerned for their children's safety in such an uncertain environment. The status of university facilities and finances also is contributing to a wariness among prospective students and their parents. The universities face huge rebuilding costs and at this point it is unclear where the money will come from to even start the job. Neither Dillard nor Xavier has a large endowment and alumni of the two institutions are generally not wealthy.

To Build, or Not to Build

Some politicians and social commentators have stated the view that it is foolish to rebuild the city of New Orleans because it is below sea level and will remain vulnerable to future hurricanes. Likewise, some people in Louisiana are questioning whether it is wise to rebuild the Southern University campus in New Orleans with public funds.

An editorial in The Advocate, the daily newspaper in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said, "Louisiana would be better off if the state does not rebuild [the historically black] Southern University in New Orleans. Its record is poor. Its graduation rates are dismal compared to its peers. Its existence has always been more about racial politics than education policy. Louisiana cannot afford an infinite number of low-performing, four-year universities. It just doesn't make sense to rebuild failure."

Interim chancellor of Southern University in New Orleans Robert B. Gex responded to the editorial by saying, "If The Advocate thinks racism and prejudice is over, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell them." He notes that a large percentage of Southern University students are over the age of 25 and are enrolled in school while working full-time. Many are the first in their families to ever attend college. While the six-year graduation rate is low, these students are receiving valuable training that can help them in their jobs or to improve the quality of their lives.

In the end, it is likely that political considerations, including the fact that blacks make up 30 percent of the electorate in Louisiana, will result in the rebuilding of the Southern University campus in New Orleans.

The presidents of the two privately operated black universities in New Orleans are determined to do everything in their power to restore their institutions to their former glory. Norman Francis, the president of Xavier University for nearly 40 years whose home was destroyed in the flood, says, "The challenge is monumental. We're taking it one day at a time. We will be back. It might take time but we'll be back to where we once were." Francis is the longest-serving incumbent university president in the nation.

The expected large drop in enrollments at Xavier for the foreseeable future is particularly alarming because the university is the largest feeder of African-American undergraduates to U.S. medical schools. In 2004, 137 Xavier graduates applied to medical school. This was 48 more students than the number from Howard University, which ranked second. The loss of Xavier as a feeder institution for U.S. medical schools is a severe blow to efforts in increasing the number of practicing African-American physicians in this country. Even when the university gets back on its feet, for several years to come the number of Xavier graduates going on to medical school is likely to be only a fraction of what it once was.

Dillard president Marvalene Hughes had not been on the job for two months before the hurricane hit New Orleans. She had previously served as president of California State University Stanislaus. Armed with an enthusiasm for her new job, Hughes quickly took action after the floods ravaged the Dillard campus. Within days she had established an office in Atlanta to coordinate the university's recovery efforts. Ever since the storm hit, she has been a tireless campaigner in efforts to get the institution back on its feet. She has been accessible to the media, alumni, and anyone who might be able to help Dillard get started on the road to recovery. Hughes has criss-crossed the country meeting with displaced students and trying to raise money to help Dillard recover from the hurricane. She has received pledges from Brown University and Princeton University to help rebuild the Dillard campus. Brown University president Ruth Simmons is a graduate of Dillard.

President Hughes remains optimistic about the future of the institution she leads. She recently told JBHE, "I think Dillard's future will be brighter, stronger, and better."

We at JBHE hope that she is right. Yet it is clear that there is a difficult road ahead for black higher education in New Orleans.

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