Thursday, February 9, 2006
John K. Eason (Tulane) shares his experiences in living through Hurricane Katrina:
Most everyone has seen the images of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans on CNN and elsewhere. Now almost six months later, our headlines continue to reflect stories of storm-related personal struggles, political gaffs, and maddeningly persistent governmental failures. This is not one of those stories. I’m writing here to provide more targeted insight on how things have been progressing at Tulane Law School in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although my reporting is a bit on the personal side of things, progress at Tulane carries a much broader relevance in light of the University’s status as the single largest employer (government or private) in New Orleans.
Tulane’s law school facility sits in the approximate center of campus, so when I returned to New Orleans in the days immediately following the hurricane, I was heartened to find flood marks reaching only the foundation of the building. There were, of course, scattered windows blown out, but overall things did not look too bad during my hasty visit/escape. On the other hand, most of the campus to the lake side of the law school was under water (there are four directions in New Orleans: lake side, river side, upriver, and downriver). I peeked into the law school’s two lowest-sitting classrooms and then quickly fled with my research files. I say “fled” because the very large weapon that a National Guardsman targeted on me as I surveyed the exterior of the building left me a bit skittish about hanging around for a more detailed evaluation. The sortie did, however, allow me to meet my publishing deadline, but I digress.
As circumstances would have it, however, the University co-opted our Dean Larry Ponoroff and bounced him to Houston, where he occupied a central role in the Universities’ leadership structure for the next few months. So those of us with speaking engagements or other deadlines went ahead and snuck into the building anyway. It was, truly, a lawless city. More seriously, the Fall was a very odd and sad time for the law school. Our colleagues had scattered to various parts of the country and many were working out of offices at the several law schools that so graciously accommodated them. Most of us did manage to stay in touch, however. In addition to University specific list-serves, personal phone calls, and e-mails, Steve Griffin stepped forward and arranged regular meetings through scheduled conference calls. Lots of Q&AA, the latter “A” standing for “angst.” But also a lot of earnest “so glad to hear your voice – how are you – what can I do.” Personally, I was exceedingly pleased when circumstances allowed me to visit my friend and mentor, Marjorie Kornhauser, in her temporary office at NYU Law School.
So, did anybody come back to Tulane? Tulane Law School actually has the highest number of faculty-in-residence teaching this semester that anyone can recall. And I do mean teaching. The cancellation of the Fall semester left us with many returning 1L’s who had visited at other schools, and many who had not. So along with our regular 15 week upper-level curriculum, we are teaching a consolidated 1L full-year curriculum between January and June 30. Those of us who teach in the 1L curriculum will therefore end up during some portion of the year handling three courses at once. While that may be a one-time variation on the “three course package” we all coveted when deciding to make our careers here, who could have ever envisioned circumstances like this? No one is complaining, though. Teaching is fun, after all, and everyone here is both willing and eager to do whatever it takes to get the University and our students on track. It’s a pretty ambitious but infinitely manageable plan that will lead us into Fall 2006 with things about as “normal” as anything ever is in New Orleans.
Overall, the University suffered about $200-$250 million in physical damage and an approximate $150 million operating loss. The physical damage will ultimately be covered by insurance, and some creative financing has spread the operating hit out over several years, leaving the endowment in tact. Needless to say, the University has taken a serious look at its core mission and made some strategic decisions. The law school has fortunately emerged from this strategic restructuring virtually unscathed. The administration has even restored our faculty-wide discretionary book and travel allowance for the Spring semester. Although we like to think that these and similar lagniappes resulted from the law school’s longstanding status as an effective and efficient operating unit within the University’s business model, we certainly didn’t mind loaning Dean Ponoroff to the University President for a few months to help guide these decision.
On a more personal level, three of our faculty members lost everything to the flooding, and several more sustained significant damage to their homes. The news stories simply cannot convey the profound impact Katrina has had – and continues to have – on people’s personal lives. This week, for example, I had lunch with three of my faculty colleagues, two of whom I discovered are currently living apart (geographically) from their spouses and children because of the storm’s impact on their homes, schools, or support systems. For some of us, dealing with the storm and its aftermath has simply been all-consuming for six straight months now. Returning to the classroom and the familiar gatherings of students and colleagues has been an uplifting renewal, to say the least.
And there are now other happenings that foster a growing positive attitude around the law school. Tulane is open, financially dented but sound, and operations are underway at all levels. I look out my window and see green grass, live oaks, a new University Center under active construction, and students everywhere. Though water marks can still be seen on some campus buildings, the mold is gone. In fact, I’d wager that today the law school is the most environmentally-sanitized building in the nation. And we got these cool new ergonomic classroom chairs, but again I digress.
As to the law school’s student body, roughly 86% of our students have returned, with the greatest attrition coming from our 1L class. But again there are positives. Objectively, the LSAT/GPA quality numbers on our returning 1Ls are identical to the (pre-Katrina) 1L class as a whole, and diversity has also been maintained. We expect similar results with regard to next year’s entering class, which we plan to downsize about 15%, much to the delight of the faculty. The mantra around here is “opportunity in the face of adversity,” and if we can keep our classes smaller going forward beyond this Katrina year, we’ll be all the better for it.
More subjectively, the students who did return are eager to be here and have expressed a strong desire to be involved in the rebuilding of the city. This mood has not escaped the attention of our faculty. Our new “Student Opportunities Committee,” for example, just recently disbursed student volunteers on a weekend mission to clean City Park, restore a local wildlife refuge, and paint local school facilities. The storm has also altered academic life in some pretty interesting ways, too. Legal service pro bono and clinical opportunities abound. Interesting national figures appear regularly on the campus speakers list. The students have also created unique social opportunities. Entertainment on the first Friday evening of the semester, for example, consisted of the student-initiated “Katrina Stories.” That production catalogued in dramatic style the storm experiences of over 50 members of our law school community. Student initiative also led to the law school’s recent hosting of representative students and administrators from the 100-plus law schools that so kindly accepted our students for visits this past Fall. The weekend schedule included service opportunities, panel discussions by various leaders and experts, and of course, some fun – it is still New Orleans, after all.
Although I should probably stop with that campy note, I cannot help but to express a personal observation that flows from being here in New Orleans these last several months. Things formerly taken for granted now get noticed, processed, and internalized. I won’t bore you with my own contemplations, but I would urge those of you in academia to push back from your desk and think about the leadership your colleagues often display, the energy and creativity that your students bring to your work day, the fact that your daily efforts have an undeniable positive purpose, and the good fortune you enjoy simply because you have a job and know that you’ll still have it tomorrow – never mind that it’s probably the best job around. If the storm has affected us in any way down here, it’s taught us that those things matter, a lot.