By Kerry Sanders Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/8/2005 6:40:26 PM ET 2005-12-08T23:40:26

Tulane University did it without FEMA money and without a check from an insurance company. $150 million in hurricane damage is almost completely repaired.

University President Scott Cowan could have waited in a city where progress is painfully slow. Instead, he made battlefield decisions, spending money from his old school budget on repairs. It's almost unthinkable, but come January 17, Tulane reopens.

"We're the largest employer in New Orleans parish," says Cowan. "We're the largest net importer of brain talent into New Orleans parish and the state, the largest economic engine in this parish also. So our recovery will be very key to the recovery of New Orleans."

To make it work financially, Tulane has laid off 230 tenured professors and more than 2,000 instructors and staff. Spanish teacher Alex Baralt found out he lost his job reading a Web site.

"We understand why it had to be done, and that's fine, but there is no reason why a phone call couldn't have been made," he says.

Also cut: most of the engineering degrees and eight competitive sports.

Cowan has been on the road selling his plan. At Boston University and other schools, he's telling displaced Tulane students to come home.

"Right now about 87 percent of the students who have been here before are already registered for the spring," says Cowan.

They'll find a different campus. Students from traditionally black universities Xavier and Dillard will study here. Their campuses were destroyed.

One fundamental change: Students will have to help rebuild New Orleans. Public service is now mandatory before graduation.

Junior Mary Orr has already started.

"This has been, like, an excellent experience," she says. "I can't even describe it."

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