From the issue dated May 26, 2006
Tulane U. Sets the Pace for Recovery
The institution's officials have made some difficult decisions and are moving forward in a city still floundering
By JEFFREY SELINGO
On a hot, muggy April day, a lone lawn sprinkler sprays the freshly cut grass on the quad outside Tulane University's main administration building here, chasing a group of prospective students and their parents on a campus tour. An early-spring heat wave has enveloped this city, bringing students clad in shorts and bathing suits outside to study and sending a signal to the campus that the end of an extraordinary academic year is near.
None of this looks like a university in distress, as many in higher education had imagined Tulane would be by now, after Hurricane Katrina forced the institution to cancel its fall semester last year.
"It feels pretty good, and in some ways, looks better than it did pre-Katrina," Scott S. Cowen, Tulane's president, says of the campus and surrounding neighborhood. "Quite honestly, the quality of life for us now is virtually what it was pre-Katrina."
Indeed, the university has defied many of the worst-case scenarios that Mr. Cowen feared as he holed up in a hotel suite in Houston in the days after the storm: students staying at the colleges that took them in, top faculty members fleeing to other research institutions, and promising would-be students crossing Tulane off their short list.
After welcoming back nearly 90 percent of its 6,400 undergraduates when it reopened in January, Tulane expects an equally high percentage to return in the fall, given the better-than-average number of students who have already registered for classes.
That's welcome news for the university's budget, which is projected to run a $100-million deficit this fiscal year. A $70-million shortfall forecast for the next fiscal year was sliced by $50-million in a restructuring plan announced last December. By 2008 Tulane expects to run surpluses again.
Several obstacles to a full recovery remain, however. Despite a record 21,000 applications for this fall's freshman class, the university may end up falling some 200 short of its enrollment goal of 1,400 new students, which was already nearly 300 smaller than last year's freshman class.
Although most faculty members support the restructuring plan, some of those whose jobs are being eliminated are fighting it. And top faculty members and administrators may still leave. Just this month, the university's provost, Lester A. Lefton, was named president of Kent State University.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to Tulane's long-term health, though, is a problem it never really had to face before: the city of New Orleans. While Tulane's campus and its surrounding neighborhood are functioning again, a third of this once fun-loving city is nothing more than a ghost town. So while Mr. Cowen can point to a revived campus, ultimately, as chief executive officer of the city's largest employer, he is virtually powerless to direct the turnaround of something key to the university's future.
"Tulane is more tied to the success of New Orleans than ever before," says William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who served as an adviser on the university's restructuring plan. "It's dependent on the city's public schools, its art scene, its culture. They need each other, and right now, one is doing much better than the other."
Selling Campus Visits
The city is in varying stages of recovery. Several blocks beyond Tulane's campus, debris and garbage pile up on an almost daily basis as residents return to rebuild their homes. Downtown, the Superdome is closed, a smattering of street signs are missing, and many windows on skyscrapers and retail shops remain boarded up more than eight months after the storm hit.
And then there is the infamous lower Ninth Ward and the area along Lake Pontchartrain, where entire neighborhoods were wiped out and the only signs of life amid the mud-covered abandoned cars and the shells of homes are the occasional white FEMA trailers parked in front yards. "The recovery in that part of the city," says Mr. Cowen, "will be long and arduous."
A former management professor, Mr. Cowen is clearly frustrated with the sluggish speed of the rebuilding process here. Even as he swiftly moved to remake Tulane last fall, Mr. Cowen took on added responsibilities as chairman of the education subcommittee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the mayor's rebuilding panel. But many of its proposals have been tied up in a lengthy mayoral campaign, which just concluded late last week.
"The city needs to get a game plan together and be more successful with the state in getting one voice, one message across and accelerating the pace of recovery," says Mr. Cowen, who would prefer that the next mayor serve only one term to allow him to make the tough decisions needed.
Although this city's devastated neighborhoods are miles away from Tulane's main uptown campus — and were never frequented by its students before the storm — they remain the image that many outsiders, unfamiliar with the city's geography, have of post-Katrina New Orleans. Changing the perception that the city is largely uninhabitable is especially important for Tulane, which draws about 80 percent of its students from outside Louisiana.
So this spring, the university offered campus visits to prospective students and their parents like never before. It began its slate of on-campus programs for accepted students three weeks earlier than normal, adding a dozen visitation days to the calendar. It sent out offers of merit-based financial aid to accepted students two weeks earlier than usual as an enticement for them to visit. And it added visitation programs to draw students interested in public service or the honors program.
The beefed-up visitation schedule was also meant to make up for lost time, given that the entire lineup of programs was canceled last fall. "For half the admissions cycle, we couldn't get people to campus," says Richard Whiteside, the university's vice president for enrollment management. "That's a huge problem when it's the environment that often sells the institution."
Tulane was still welcoming undecided students to campus late last month, just days before the traditional May 1 deadline when high-school seniors decide on their college plans. As Mr. Whiteside greeted a group of 50 students and their parents one morning, he asked them if they had made up their minds yet. Only two hands shot up. "Well, then," said Mr. Whiteside, who has been at Tulane since 1993, "we've got our work cut out for us."
Working Hard for a Class
Bryson Downham, from Kingwood, Tex., near Houston, was among the undecided. Before he arrived here with his father, the soon-to-be neuroscience major was leaning toward Baylor University. But he started to waver after exploring New Orleans on this visit. "There are three things I love — music, art, and food, and they're all still here," he said.
His father, Jim, had a lingering concern, however, about Tulane's ability to handle what he called the "delayed effects" of the hurricane. For instance, he wondered whether the institution would be able to keep professors over the long run (so far, fewer than 10 percent of faculty members have left on their own). "Everyone rallied after the storm," Mr. Downham said, "yet eventually everyone gets fatigued."
Jim Brady, who was visiting from Chicago with his daughter, Analisa, said the news media had presented a "much bleaker picture" of New Orleans than what he saw here. As for Tulane, he had already decided the university was a good fit for his daughter, encouraged in large part by the university's decision to use Katrina to make permanent changes in its offerings, such as a new community-service requirement.
"Every university pitches the same story," Mr. Brady said. "They took one that was a crusher and turned it into a champion tale."
Mr. Brady said his wife participated in a live online chat with Mr. Cowen on Tulane's Web site the night before. It was one of four such chats Mr. Cowen held last month to answer questions from prospective students and parents, an unusual retail-style assignment for the president of a major research university. Mr. Cowen admits he has never worked harder for a freshman class in his eight years at Tulane.
"There's no question that we have to do more than we have ever done before to give people confidence that both New Orleans and Tulane are the kind of city and institution that they hoped it would be," says Mr. Cowen. "This perception problem is going to be with us for several years."
A few days after their visit here, both Bryson Downham and Analisa Brady decided to enroll at Tulane this fall. The final tally for the incoming class, however, may not be known until June, largely because the city's mail system remains unreliable. One day late last month, Mr. Whiteside said he received 16 deposits for the freshman class, 14 of which were postmarked in March, and the other two in February.
As of last week, Tulane officials said they had received about 1,000 deposits and expect to eventually get 1,200. Although that figure is 200 below where Mr. Cowen had hoped to be in May, he declines to say at what mark the class would fall too short of projections and cause further strain on the institution's budget. "There are too many variables," he says.
A Smaller University
One thing is clear: Tulane is about to become a smaller institution. Incoming classes of around 1,400 will be a permanent change, Mr. Cowen says, allowing the university to become more selective. As a result, over the next several years, undergraduate enrollment will shrink to 5,600 students, from about 6,400 pre-Katrina.
Getting to that point will largely be achieved by the vast restructuring plan announced in early December. It eliminated the jobs of 233 faculty members, mostly in the medical school, and suspended 14 doctoral programs and five undergraduate majors, plus eight athletics teams, for an annual saving of some $60-million.
The plan, crafted last fall while faculty members were scattered around the country, still doesn't sit well with the American Association of University Professors and some faculty members, who wanted to have more input (a special AAUP committee is looking into the faculty layoffs at all New Orleans colleges). But this spring, when a proposal to review the academic components of Tulane's restructuring plan came up before the University Senate, the faculty's governing body, it was overwhelmingly rejected.
"It was a vote to move on," says Thomas S. Langston, chairman of the political-science department and the senate's budget committee.
Although his department's doctoral program was among those eliminated, Mr. Langston says he harbors no ill will toward the administration. The Ph.D. program was tiny — fewer than a dozen students — and had been limping along for more than a decade. Along with eliminating some doctoral programs, the university will combine others, going from 45 to 18 in all. That will allow those that remain — mostly in the sciences, where outside research funds are more plentiful — to thrive with additional financial support from the university, Mr. Langston says.
"You don't have to have a Ph.D. program in every department to be a major research university," says Mr. Langston, who was part of a faculty advisory committee that Mr. Cowen consulted last fall as the plan came together.
A few professors say privately that the faculty panel should have pushed Mr. Cowen to hold off on restructuring until later this spring, when the university would know how many students returned after the canceled semester and would have a better idea of its freshman class for the fall. But any delay would have exacerbated the university's dire financial situation, Tulane officials say, especially if an announcement came in April, just as high-school seniors were making their college choices.
"Anyone who seriously doubts the university's financial exigency either doesn't know or doesn't believe the budget numbers," Mr. Langston says. "And if they have reason not to believe them, then they should contact Deloitte & Touche, which audits the university's financial statements."
Even among faculty members who agree with the goals of the reorganization plan, a division has emerged between the losers and winners — those who gained financial resources for their own departments through the elimination of programs elsewhere. "There's some guilt with this," says Michael W. Mislove, a mathematics professor, "since we're going to be fine."
Packing or Planning
Nowhere is that rift more apparent than in the School of Engineering, where six of the school's eight programs are being abolished and the school itself will be absorbed into a new School of Science and Engineering. As professors in the eliminated departments pack up their offices for positions at other institutions or continue to look for jobs before their appointments end next year, their counterparts in the surviving departments are planning for the new school.
When Katrina hit, the School of Engineering was in the fourth year of a 10-year turnaround plan, which was intended to lower the school's tuition-discount rate (which was the highest among all undergraduate majors) and increase its external research grants and private fund raising. Although the school improved in all three areas, Nicholas J. Altiero, its dean, says it was still far short of its goals given the university's needs following the storm.
Tulane officials used similar recent reviews of other programs at the university as they made decisions on what to cut or combine in the reorganization.
But engineering professors whose jobs are being eliminated say that, among other factors, the reorganization plan does not take into account the curricular requirements of the discipline. Morteza M. Mehrabadi, chairman of the mechanical-engineering department, says courses in his department provide the foundation for all engineering majors, including those programs that will remain.
"You cannot have an engineering school without mechanical engineering," says Mr. Mehrabadi, whose department has filed a grievance with the university. "This will only weaken what's left. If you're serious about majoring in engineering, you won't want to come to a school that doesn't have a full menu of offerings."
Despite the changes, Tulane expects to lose only about 55 students over all who were in the affected majors. Daniel Macleod is one of those staying. A sophomore mechanical-engineering major, he is cramming extra classes into his schedule to finish his requirements early. He considered transferring to Texas A&M University at College Station, where he spent last fall, but he abandoned that plan when he picked his life back up here in January. "Tulane and the city is what brought me here in the first place," he says, sitting on the quad outside the engineering building, "and they meant too much to me to leave."http://chronicle.com
Section: Money & Management
Volume 52, Issue 38, Page A30
Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education