Cheryl Gerber  /  AP
Tulane University student Lee Marinelli signs into her dorm in New Orleans with Tulane volunteer William Kethman on Thursday, the first day of classes since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
updated 1/12/2006 10:32:16 PM ET 2006-01-13T03:32:16

Lee Marinelli opened her dorm room to find everything just as she left it last August — the books and school supplies on the shelves, half-unpacked clothes in the closet, her giant stuffed bear Cinnamon lying on the bed.

Four-and-a-half months ago, the Hurricane Katrina evacuation canceled Tulane University’s freshman orientation after just a few hours. But on Thursday, the school finally came back to life.

Students moved in on a day called “Orientation Deja Vu,” with familiar scenes more typical of late summer — parents carrying trunks and freshmen getting acquainted with neighbors and roommates. And at Tulane’s convocation, audience members stood and applauded as President Scott Cowen — who came to the same podium in Bermuda shorts in August to announce the evacuation — followed a New Orleans jazz band down the aisle and, in full academic regalia, finally delivered his welcome address.

“As I was saying before Katrina interrupted me,” he quipped to begin.

Cowen told the students they were the most famous freshman class in the country, and that living in New Orleans would provide them with extraordinary learning opportunities. It was also, he said, a great moment for the city.

Doubts give way to ‘glorious day’
“This is the first thing New Orleans has had to cheer about in many months,” he said.

But in an interview earlier in the day, Cowen confessed he had not always been as confident in Tulane’s future as his public pronouncements.

“This is a glorious day, because I have to say there were times in the first few months after the storm when I wasn’t sure we would ever be able to reopen the university again,” Cowen said.

Nearly 90 percent of Tulane’s 6,700 undergraduates are returning, the university said, and more than 80 percent of freshmen — a significant accomplishment considering college officials initially wondered if they would break 60 percent. It’s also a big boost for the city, where Tulane is the largest private employer and returning students will amount to a noticeable population increase.

“We are the only large institution that is currently standing in New Orleans right now,” Cowen said.

As students moved in, President Bush also returned to New Orleans on Thursday for the first time in three months, offering a fresh commitment to the region’s long, expensive rebuilding.

Campus flooded but unbowed
Tulane, which sustained $200 million in property damage, still has washed-away lawns, and many students are struggling to find housing (Tulane has leased a cruise ship). But the campus, which was less badly flooded than other area schools, looks remarkably normal. All but one of the school’s majestic oaks — beloved by alumni — survived.

Still, Tulane is changed. In December, Cowen announced plans for one of the boldest reorganizations ever by a university, cutting 27 of its 45 doctoral programs while consolidating its undergraduate program. About 230 faculty were laid off — mostly from the medical school — and eight athletic teams were suspended.

Marinelli got word that her major, computer science, was among the programs Tulane would no longer offer. She’s willing to give Tulane a try, but can’t be sure she’ll finish here.

“I’m going to see what I like better, the computer science or the school itself,” she said. Her mother, Cynthia, was none too pleased her daughter had already bought $700 worth of books for classes she was no longer taking.

Has education been compromised?
Others also are not happy with the plan, which cut doctoral programs in core subjects such as English and economics, and in areas like civil and environmental engineering that seem more urgent than ever.

“Given the depth and the number of the cuts that they’ve made to the doctoral programs and the professional schools ... one does have to wonder whether the institutional mission has been compromised,” said Clarence Mohr, a University of South Alabama historian who has written a history of the university.

Cowen says he understands why people are upset, but says the change will let Tulane improve its undergraduate program while maintaining its research status and plugging a $100 million deficit caused by the storm. It has avoided tapping its $800 million endowment, but has had to borrow $150 million so far, and insurance has so far paid for only a quarter of the damage.

The best news for Tulane is that applications for next year are up 15 percent, a product of publicity from the storm and opportunities to participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans, said Richard Whiteside, the dean of admissions. The school is starting a service requirement.

“If you’re the type of student who thinks of themselves as the someone who would want to make a difference,” he said, “there can be no place better than here, now.”

‘This was the best situation’
That was part of why the reason freshman Brent Bielski decided to come back, after spending last semester at a college in Florida.

“I considered it, but financially and academically, this was the best situation,” he said, waiting in line to register in his dorm. “Plus, I’m excited to see how it turns out, being in an environment that’s unknown.”

His father Ned also betrayed little worry.

“Of course we have the usual parental concerns,” he said. “We hope there’s no toxic waste dump. But we’re sure it’s fine.”

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