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Dillard University, five years after Katrina

To commemorate the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I offer a guest blog post by Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard University.

Dillard, a private, historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans, was heavily damaged by flooding after Hurricane Katrina. One residence hall was destroyed by fire. But the campus rebuilt as classes relocated to the New Orleans World Trade Center and a Hilton hotel.

dilllard pic 071.jpg

Here is how the campus looked post-Katrina. It reopened for business in fall 2006.

Hughes wrote the following essay Aug. 27.

* * * * *

This week, the American people will be inundated with images of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The loss of human life and livelihoods, neighborhoods and our centuries-old culture is tragic. We have been asked many times by many people, "How did you and your university survive?"

The task was daunting. The damage done to Dillard's campus in the wake of the storm is almost impossible to describe. The east levee of the London Avenue Canal, located near the rear of Dillard's campus, was breached around 9:30 a.m. on August 29, 2005. Lake Pontchartrain poured into our campus and remained there for nearly three weeks. Forty- three buildings at Dillard were damaged or destroyed. Three buildings burned while the campus was still underwater. We sent our students first to Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, to ride out the storm. When they could not return to New Orleans, we sent them to study at over 200 colleges across the country while our campus was closed.

Our post-Katrina capital losses including infrastructure and clean-up efforts exceeded $280 million. Lost revenue from tuition and fees for the 2005-2006 academic year was over $25 million. Total damages to Dillard stretched to $400 million. Although the university had insurance, the losses were staggering.

Restoring the university's finances, recovering the student body and managing the rebirth of the campus were monumental tasks for our team, alumni, faculty, staff, and board of trustees. We all took comfort in the fact that the flood waters spared Lawless Chapel, a worship space that not only embodies our connection to the Methodist and Congregational churches, but a space where the black and white communities met and shared cultural events long before integration was codified into law. First we prayed. Then we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

There were no living spaces in New Orleans, but in January 2006, more than 1,000 students returned to live and attend classes at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel. My staff and I traversed the country raising funds. Dillard received an outpouring of support from churches, private foundations, corporations, fraternities and sororities, and alumni. From the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ, to the Carnegie Mellon Foundation and Delta Sigma Theta, the institutional community gave huge sums to help us jumpstart our financial recovery and begin the process of reconstructing our campus.

We literally established offices in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and the federal government for assistance. In our first year, we raised more than $34 million in public and private gifts and grants for construction, operating expenses and scholarships.

On July 1, 2006, we held our first post-Katrina commencement on Dillard's lovely "Avenue of the Oaks," graduating 347 students. By commencement in 2007, we had restored a majority of classroom buildings, and students were living in renovated campus housing. One month later, Dillard closed on a $160 million HBCU loan to continue construction already in progress. But recruitment became a major challenge. The images of post-Katrina New Orleans remained vivid in the collective memory and the national media continued to show pictures of a flooded New Orleans whenever it profiled the city. The perception prevailed that New Orleans lay mired in mud and crime, and many parents hesitated to send their children to a city that appeared mired in chaos.

The Dillard community came together to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to help guide the transformation of the university. Instead of merely rebuilding our physical campus, we decided to transform Dillard into a premier private undergraduate and graduate university. We issued each academic division a challenge: develop world-class curricula based on state-of-the-art technology. Make academic success the number one priority. Promote a culture of research that permeates undergraduate studies. Increase opportunities for cross-disciplinary learning. Focus on public health. Expand selectively into graduate studies. Develop a "green" curriculum. Strive for diversity.

We developed a five-year plan for recruitment and accelerated our recruiters' traveling. We visited churches, schools, rotary clubs, spoke to any assembly of parents and teenaged children.

In September 2009, Dillard enrolled 1,017 students for the fall semester, the largest influx of students to campus since Hurricane Katrina hit.

Today, we have much good news to report.

Enrollment is up by over 40% from fall 2008, and is up 20% from fall of 2009. Next month, we will seat the largest freshmen class in the history of the university.

We have restructured our academic offerings and have partnered with the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) to offer a new teacher- training program RSD believes will revolutionize teacher education in New Orleans and, perhaps, serve as a model for programs across the country.

Dillard is the only undergraduate school in Louisiana and the only HBCU in the nation to acquire a pulse laser detection system, allowing our physics and engineering students to do research available only on the graduate level and our nursing school is recognized as one of the best in the region.

Our graduates attend some of the best graduate schools in the world. We have graduates at the London School of Economics, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, John Hopkins, and Oxford, to name a few. We have a Dillard graduate at Brown University. Ruth Simmons, a Dillard alumnae, is the university president at Brown.

We, again, live up to our reputation of having beautiful green spaces framed by rows of 100-year-old oak trees.

Our Deep South Center for Environmental Justice has been in the forefront of post-Katrina efforts to research the impact of the storm on the city's environmental and human capital. The director, Dr. Beverly Wright, was recently awarded the Heinz Foundation Medal. Currently, she is involved in training workers participating in the BP oil spill clean-up efforts.

Dillard has rebuilt better and stronger. We have rebuilt 32 buildings on campus, and three residential complexes off campus. We also have two new LEED Gold certified, environmentally sustainable buildings that are certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. These green buildings are the first of its kind on a college campus in Louisiana. The new $38 million Professional Schools and Sciences Building has 127,000 square feet of state-of-the-art classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls. The new $15 million multipurpose Student Union Health & Wellness Center is over 55,000 square feet and will house student offices, meeting rooms, a 60-seat movie theater, bowling alley, fitness center, and a 13,000 square foot community health center. The community will receive much-needed health care in the campus facility.

Dillard's journey to renewal and transformation began in prayer. As we mark this five year anniversary, I keep the third verse of James Weldon Johnson's "lift Every Voice and Sing" close at hand.

"God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way. Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray."

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By Daniel de Vise  |  August 30, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Administration  | Tags: Dillard University, Dillard University katrina, Hurricane Katrina, Katrina anniversary, New Orleans Katrina  
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This university president should have properly proof read her guest blog before releasing it. For example,the correct name o the Baltimore university referred to is "Johns Hopkins" not "John Hopkins". The president of Brown University is referred to as "an alumnae" of Dillard University. Alumnae is the feminine plural. The lady is an "alumna", feminine singular.If this comes from a university president it merely reinforces the perception of Dillard as a third tier university.

Posted by: dmcl363 | August 30, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

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