Concern is growing among black educators about the future of New Orleans's three historic African American universities, which were hit much harder by Katrina — and have fewer resources with which to recover — than the city's other major colleges.
Dillard University, Xavier University of Louisiana and Southern University at New Orleans got smacked with at least $1 billion in flood and fire destruction — by far the worst damage of all the city's institutions of higher education.
The schools' limited endowments, coupled with a generally less-moneyed alumni base, have posed particular challenges to saving these venerable institutions, say school officials and education advocates. Sources say there have been some preliminary discussions about whether the schools can continue to pay faculty salaries and benefits while rebuilding.
"The task is just daunting," Dillard University President Marvalene Hughes said after she viewed the damage firsthand on Friday. "Seeing it was my reality."
In the hours after the storm, Dillard — a stately, leafy 135-year-old campus — was floating in upwards of 10 feet of water and lost three dorms to fire. Xavier, the nation's only historically black Catholic college, is today drenched in sludge and mold and has a flooded library, among other damage. Southern, part of the only black college system in the nation, was flooded in all its 11 buildings. Chancellor Edward Jackson believes the entire campus needs to be razed and rebuilt, at a cost of $500 million.
Last week, school administrators pleaded with government officials for special and expedited financial help that would include generous incentives to lure back faculty and 8,000 students to the colleges — long considered a vital part of the culture and fabric of the city's large black community — who dispersed to other schools when New Orleans was evacuated.
"These students have to go back to their home institutions for the schools to survive," said Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
There is a very real concern that hosting institutions will see value in trying to retain good minority teachers and faculty from quality schools with stellar reputations. Xavier, established in 1925 to educate blacks, today turns out a quarter of the nation's black pharmacists and sends the largest number of African American students on to medical schools. Its enrollment for 2005 was about 4,000. Dillard, a traditional liberal arts school with 1,500 students and 19 buildings, was before the storm a glorious campus with white turn-of-the-19th-century buildings sitting on 50 acres. The school is known to instill in its students a strong sense of culture and heritage, emanating from its 1869 founding mission to offer otherwise unattainable education to blacks in the South.
The United Negro College Fund has raised more than $2 million for Dillard and Xavier and their students, many of whom need money for books and other expenses at hosting schools. Radio personality Tom Joyner, who has raised $30 million since 1998 for black colleges, diverted $1 million from his foundation to help New Orleans students and is soliciting donations on air. The schools are asking foundations and corporations for funding. At Southern University, a state commuter school, administrators are also dealing with the fact that the vast majority of students probably also lost their homes.
"We just can't afford to lose these schools. . . . They need special attention, and they need it urgently," said Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund and a former president of Dillard. "They are a major part of the national strategy to close the education gap and have long been engines to the black middle class — producing doctors, teachers, lawyers."
'Insurance will not be sufficient'
While Xavier and Dillard have some insurance, administrators maintain it will not go far given the extent of the damage. "Clearly, insurance will not be sufficient," said Hughes. "And we could not operate for more than a year if we had to draw down our endowment -- which I will not do. We'd be out of business."
Congressional sources say that while legislators are acutely aware of the issues facing the schools, it is impossible for them to assess the damage and needs at this time. Most school administrators have not even laid eyes on the damage since Katrina. They have not been able to get to their financial records, and insurance adjusters are just beginning to assess.
"SUNO serves a particular clientele that no other college does — a low-income adult population that desires a four-year degree. They work to get through school, and most of them lost everything," said Jackson, the chancellor. "But it's not just about fixing the school. It's about the city, about having a rebuilt infrastructure so it's a place people want to come back to."
Tulane University and Loyola University, which are scrambling to rebuild their own campuses, have offered the two private schools temporary space so that they may open in January. The offer would also help Tulane and Loyola, which need to bring activity and resources to their campuses as soon as possible.
Students find temporary new homes
Meanwhile, educators and community leaders are confident that a high percentage of the city's 75,000 college students have found temporary homes at other institutions around the country -- many of which are allowing the students to attend at no cost right now.
According to a spokesman for the American Council on Education, all the Ivy League schools, the Big Ten and at least five schools in the California system agreed to take a specified number of students. While the New Orleans schools are worrying about other schools raiding faculty, there is less concern that hosting schools will try to hold on to the visiting students. Students who want to stay at a host school would have to apply and be subjected to the school's rigorous admissions standards.
Troubling for administrators, however, is that the schools do not know where their students landed, and have to rely on being contacted by them or trying to reach them through their parents' addresses. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers would like to tap into a nonprofit national data bank that collects student information, but federal privacy laws prevent the transfer of information on students. A spokesman for the Education Department said agency lawyers are reviewing whether an exception can be made.