Warped wooden floors and ruined desks have been stripped out of Xavier University’s main campus building. Its 4,000 students are scattered across the nation. Half the faculty and staff have been laid off.
The nation’s only historically black and Roman Catholic college, which expected to be celebrating its 180th anniversary this year, was battered to the brink of financial collapse by Hurricane Katrina.
“If you bottled up all of the problems I’ve had in 38 years, it would only be half the bottle compared to what Katrina did,” said Norman C. Francis, Xavier’s president of nearly four decades.
Founded in 1825 by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the liberal arts college has built a reputation for black students seeking medical careers. It sends more black undergraduates to medical school than any other university in the nation. It is also tops in graduating black pharmacists.
But after Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, Xavier’s midtown campus was flooded with water up to 8 feet deep.
Millions in damage
Administrators estimate losses at more than $90 million in storm damage and lost tuition and scholarship revenue, a devastating sum for a school whose endowment is only $52 million.
Xavier was forced to lay off or place on unpaid leave 396 of its 784 faculty and staff. That included terminating 78 faculty members, a third of Xavier’s professors.
“Those were tough decisions nobody likes to make,” Francis said. “You wait in hope that maybe somebody will drop a big bag of money at your doorstep and you can keep them all. But that didn’t happen.”
Chemistry professor Heike Geissler learned of her termination last month at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where she has been watching over eight Xavier students who enrolled there after Katrina.
“I don’t want to see Xavier going bankrupt or disappearing from the map, so I’m not mad or sad,” said Geissler, who taught there for seven years and was tenured in 2005. “I have to get on with my life. I’m very seriously considering leaving Louisiana.”
Dillard similarly affected
Dillard University, another historically black New Orleans college with 2,155 students, also had to lay off about half its faculty and staff. It estimates its losses at $400 million.
Since 2001, more than 350 Xavier graduates have been enrolled in medical schools. Xavier also claims to have graduated one of every four of the nation’s black pharmacists.
Up to a third of the black students enrolled annually at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta come from Xavier, said Dr. Bill Eley, an Emory associate dean.
“While we all want to increase the number of African-American doctors, we are constantly searching for qualified applicants. And Xavier has been a key part of meeting that need,” Eley said.
Classes in January?
Both Xavier and Dillard plan to hold classes in January.
Dillard’s classes will temporarily be held at nearby Tulane University. Finding temporary classrooms and student housing by January, President Marvalene Hughes said, has been “like starting a university all over again.”
Francis said Xavier plans to hold classes on its own campus, though the water-damaged ground floors of many buildings may have to be sealed off. He expects roughly half the student body to come back for the winter semester.
Rene Turner, a 21-year-old Xavier senior in pre-medicine, hopes to be among them. She transferred for the fall to Williams College.
“I feel like that’s my home now,” Turner, of Kansas City, Mo., said of Xavier. “I have a deep connection there and have spent so much time there. I definitely want to graduate from Xavier.”