The Katrina hangover lingers on

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After Theo Spencer fled the AB Freeman School of Business as Hurricane Katrina bore down on Louisiana’s Tulane University, he thought he would be back to resume his studies within a few days. Months later, the 30-year-old, second-year student is still trying to decide whether or not to return.

When Tulane appealed to the academic community to take in its 12,000 students – without charging tuition – so they could maintain their studies while the campus repaired property damaged by the storm, more than 500 universities and colleges worldwide responded.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania offered Mr Spencer a place. He had not applied to Wharton – it was so near his home that he had overlooked it preferring more far-flung programmes.

There are upsides to being at Wharton. For example, it is much bigger, making
it more attractive for recruiters. But there are also
disadvantages.

At Tulane, where there are less than 80 students in Mr Spencer’s MBA class, everyone knew each other, and as a result class discussions had become so comfortable that it was sometimes
hard to end them. At
Wharton there are 1,200
students. “There is this uneasiness with not knowing everybody, so you hesitate to talk,” comments Mr Spencer.

But he is not weighing one programme against the other when deciding whether or not to return. Instead, his dilemma is that he has one semester left to finish his degree and returning to Tulane would cost him dearly. Not only would he again have to bear relocation costs but it is difficult to find affordable housing in New Orleans, where the hurricane destroyed so many properties that rental costs are highly inflated.

Tulane may have restored its campus for the next semester, but many students such as Mr Spencer wonder where they will live and how different life will now be in Louisiana.

“You’re expecting me to find an apartment and uproot my life again for three months?” he says. The last time he researched New Orleans, he says there were no apartment vacancies, a 10pm curfew and limited shopping and gas supplies. “They’re asking us to come back to a situation that is unknown.”

Yet Mr Spencer might well be forced to go back. Tulane asked those schools that gave its students a home not to recruit them actively. If it loses its student body and the tuition fees that represents, the financial blow could be crippling after the losses already incurred.

Hurricane Katrina cost Tulane University $130m in property damage and operating losses. It has had to continue paying faculty and staff and will have to offer students financial credit for facilities they might have paid for but have been unable to use in the past weeks.

The hurricane hit just as classes were about to begin. “The president essentially said: ‘Welcome to Tulane, now get out of here,’ ” says Angelo DeNisi, dean of the business school.

Columbia University
in New York took in the largest number of students, although some went as
far away as Europe and
Australia.

The school’s human resources department has been calling freshmen personally, to ensure they return and Prof DeNisi has been dispatched across the US to stage a series of meetings to show students that the faculty is behind them.

Prof DeNisi accepts that the lack of affordable housing means many might be unable to return: “We’re really concerned some might not come back,” he says.

Tulane cannot turn to other schools for advice, as none have experienced a similar crisis. “This is unprecedented in the history of the US, to have had a national disaster of this magnitude with a diaspora of this magnitude,” says Scott Cowen, Tulane
president.

The school has started a massive fundraising campaign to recoup its losses, but bringing back its student body is even more important to its long-term survival.

To encourage that process, Tulane has agreed to accept “virtually anything” academically from those schools that adopted its students and let it count toward students’ degrees, as opposed to questioning the curriculum, text books, teacher’s credentials and so on, as is normally done.

“Everything you take – except maybe basket weaving – will count toward your degree,” Prof DeNisi says.

Imane Hlil, a Fulbright Scholar from Morocco, acknowledges the efforts Tulane is making to restore the student body. And while the second-year MBA student says she has enjoyed studying at New York’s Cornell University because it has given her the opportunity to experience another school, another state, different weather and meet other students, she plans to return to Tulane.

But she does have her reservations. “I will go back to Tulane as long as I am able to readjust to New Orleans in its new form,” she says.

Prof DeNisi knows he has his work cut out for him. He had only been appointed dean of the school in July. “Somehow,” says Prof DeNisi, “I didn’t think this was the way I would be starting my career as dean.”

He says to maintain Tulane’s student body and then expand it the business school will try to attract students by focusing primarily on working to rebuild New Orleans.

“This will be a part of the curriculum for every student, undergraduate and graduate alike. It will take various forms but it will involve real projects that will be supervised by faculty and done for credit.”

In addition, the business school will increase the number of undergraduate courses taught by tenured faculty, in an attempt to put its “real experts” in front of its undergraduates.

“There are some people who will be very unhappy about some of the changes that are being made and I assume that they will blame me, among others. That is not so good,” says Prof DeNisi. “But, on the other hand the fact that everyone was away and I had to keep things moving means that I have unique information and insight about what is going on. I have been able
to make my mark on the school more quickly than would otherwise have been possible.”

But, he adds, on balance he wishes that the hurricane had passed them by.

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