Early in 2004, Anna Cowan decided that Tulane University was the school for her. As an aspiring mechanical engineer, Anna knew she'd have great teachers and that her Tulane degree would give her an edge in the competitive job market after graduation.
"I went to Tulane because I thought, out of the schools I got into, it would give me the best education,; Anna says.
When Hurricane Katrina forced the university to suspend operation for the fall 2005 semester, Anna attended Auburn University, confident that she would return to New Orleans in the spring to resume her studies. But in December 2005, she learned that mechanical engineering, along with several other programs at the university, would be phased out as part of the Tulane administration's ambitious Plan for Renewal.
"I got a letter in the mail," Anna says. "It said, 'Your program has been suspended. Once you get here, we'll help you relocate to another major or another school.'"
Students like Anna, who had already completed part of eliminated degree programs, were given three options -- they could change their majors, potentially falling behind; transfer to another school; or try to complete their degrees by June 2007, when phased-out engineering and business school programs officially ended. Anna decided transferring was her best option, even though it meant attending three schools in three semesters. She couldn't realistically finish her degree at Tulane by June 2007, and she didn't want to switch engineering concentrations, especially at a university with an "incomplete" engineering school.
"I really wanted to major in mechanical engineering," Anna says. "I wanted to somehow make it work. I loved Tulane and New Orleans, but when I got back, I talked to everyone and it seemed like no one was very helpful. I knew I couldn't stay there. I just couldn't make it work."
Anna is now at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she expects to graduate one year behind schedule.
Before the storm, the New Orleans region's public and private colleges and universities had a huge effect on the area's economy, generating a total annual economic impact of more than $2 billion. Tulane accounted for a major portion of that impact, TU president Scott Cowen told Congress in an April 2006 request to support New Orleans institutions of higher learning.
"The university's economic impact on the New Orleans economy (before the storm) totaled more than $842 million a year," Cowen said. "Our impact on the state's economy totaled more than $1.12 billion a year. The closing of Tulane University for four months following Hurricane Katrina had a devastating effect on not only the university, but the city and state."
Though it's impossible to quantify the change in local universities' economic impact on the city since Katrina, student spending was still strong when most schools reopened in January 2006. A significant number of university students returned to the city. "Of the more than 84,000 college students that were enrolled in our institutions prior to Katrina, more than 55,000 of them returned," Cowen testified. "Tulane welcomed back 88 percent of our full-time students, including 85 percent of our freshman class -- remarkable, considering these students spent only a few hours on campus before having to evacuate."
Tulane and other area institutions of higher education drastically restructured themselves after Katrina. Although the high percentages of returning students seemed promising for the city at first, it's difficult to measure how the large-scale curriculum changes have affected New Orleans. On a personal level, however, the cuts were severe. Hundreds of Tulane students like Anna Cowan were displaced, and 166 professors -- most of them at the medical school -- were terminated. But Cowen maintains that, despite some upheaval, the changes laid out in his renewal plan were necessary to keep the university afloat financially.
"We made some projections about how much money the university would probably lose because of the storm on an ongoing basis," Cowen says. "We saw the magnitude of those numbers and we realized that if we didn't do anything, the university would not be able to survive at all. We realized we had a financial emergency, which is essentially a financial exigency, and the board declared that in the fall of '05."
Declaring a state of "financial exigency" gave Cowen and the Tulane Board of Administrators license to discontinue programs and terminate faculty members, even those protected by tenure. Rules in the Tulane University Faculty Handbook, a guide to policies and procedures affecting faculty members, state that tenured professors can only be fired for three reasons -- for "adequate cause," for "incapacity because of a major and indefinitely continuing medical reason" or for "extraordinary circumstances caused by financial exigency or by bona fide discontinuance of a program or a department of instruction." When the board declared financial exigency in the fall of 2005, tenured professors' jobs were no longer protected.
This was a bitter pill for tenured professors who lost their jobs. Many of them felt that even though financial exigency had been declared, Tulane's post-storm decisions violated the notion of respect of tenure, a widely accepted standard in the academic community laid out by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP was founded in 1915 to develop standards and procedures for quality in education and academic freedom in America's institutions of higher education, and its policy statements are frequently cited in state and federal court decisions. The nonprofit group has about 45,000 individual members at colleges and universities across the country, 500 chapters on local campuses and 39 state organizations.
Under AAUP guidelines, when faculty must be terminated because of financial exigency, universities should make every attempt to preserve tenured professors, either by favoring them over nontenured colleagues in termination decisions or by relocating them elsewhere in the university. If tenured faculty must be separated, they should receive a year's severance pay and another person cannot fill the position they leave open for at least three years. The Tulane University Faculty Handbook includes similar guidelines about terminating tenured professors in times of financial exigency.
After Tulane's renewal plan was announced in December 2005 and affected professors and students were informed of the board's decisions, some of the terminated faculty members, feeling that the rules of tenure were dishonored, took their cases to the AAUP.
The AAUP investigated cuts at Tulane and at four other New Orleans area universities -- Loyola University, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Southern University of New Orleans and the University of New Orleans. An AAUP committee handling the investigation released a report of its findings in the May/June issue of the organization's journal, Academe.
Last month, after reviewing the committee's findings, delegates at the AAUP's annual convention voted unanimously to censure four of the five local institutions that were investigated. Only LSU Health Sciences Center was not censured -- because it was working to correct problems cited in the Academe report.
Censure is the most severe consequence the AAUP can inflict upon an institution, but it comes with no monetary fine. "Faculty members who are looking for jobs do frequently consult the censure list. It's considered a pretty serious black mark," says Linda Carroll, president of the Tulane chapter of the AAUP. Carroll is also secretary of the AAUP Louisiana conference and a district representative to the national council. "The AAUP is not looking to censure, it's looking to solve problems," she says. "It's really a last resort to put [a university] on the censure list, and we certainly don't want to keep anyone on that list."
At Tulane, president Cowen is unfazed by the AAUP's action.
"I believe it will be taken with a grain of salt," Cowen says. "There are no sanctions whatsoever that come with a censure from the AAUP; that's simply their opinion. And remember, the AAUP is a faculty advocacy group just like a union. So I take the report like I would take an editorial in a newspaper. Some people read an editorial and they agree with it, others may read it and disagree, but it has no practical impact."
While expressing confidence that the censure will not affect public opinion of Tulane, Cowen is angered that it was based on what he says is flawed procedure. He says the AAUP committee performing the investigation spoke only to terminated professors who complained to the organization and then took them at their word. "I think the AAUP process and ultimate report with regard to Tulane was a travesty, the report itself was factually incorrect, had many omissions, and they basically ignored all the input the university provided them."
Administrative reactions are similar at the three other censured New Orleans universities. Loyola University President Rev. Kevin Wildes says, "We find it astonishing the AAUP would censure universities forced to operate under the urgent and enormous pressures they faced and continue to face in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."
At SUNO, the only New Orleans university still operating from a temporary campus, the AAUP lauded the administration for its attempts to resolve problems found during the investigation. The organization says that if SUNO could have guaranteed that a different procedure would be followed in the future, the censure would have been avoided. But the university couldn't make that promise. "After consulting with University counsel," university administrators say in a statement, "we were advised that such a statement goes beyond the authority of either the SUNO administration or its counsel, nor could the [Southern University System] board itself make such a broad sweeping statement or guarantee."
Thus, despite its move toward correcting problems that the AAUP cited, SUNO was censured as well.
The University of New Orleans was working to rehire professors who were placed on furlough after the storm, but the AAUP voted to censure that institution as well -- before UNO's corrective actions could be taken into account.
"We learned about a series of steps that were taken after we already acted to censure," says Jordan Kurland, the AAUP staff representative of the committee investigating the New Orleans universities. "Our censure statement was issued without knowledge of these developments. The people at UNO got this to us too late for action at our annual meeting, but [rehiring professors] is something that ought to be done to remove censure. We are very pleased, we like to hear about corrective measures."
UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan was unavailable to comment on UNO's steps to rehire faculty, but he released a statement in response to the censure: "We are shocked and dismayed to learn of this misguided and ill-informed decision."
While local university leaders are appalled by the censure, B. Robert Kreiser, AAUP's associate secretary, says they should have been prepared for the decision. "None of this comes as a surprise," he says.
To get off the censure list, a university must provide redress to affected faculty and adopt policies that are consistent with AAUP guidelines. "Sometimes the resolution of a censure requires the departure of the administration in office when censuring occurs, especially if they were unwilling to work with the AAUP," Kreiser says.
Tulane president Cowen doesn't plan to comply with AAUP suggestions for censure removal and says that the censure will have no affect on how he leads Tulane. "What the AAUP would have preferred we did was to rehire all the professors that we terminated and bring our faculty handbook into strict conformance with the AAUP guidelines," Cowen says. "Obviously, both of those are impractical and obviously did not occur."
Cowen and Tulane's Board of Administrators have no plans to reverse changes made after the storm. When they announced the renewal plan in December 2005, Cowen called the curricular changes "strategic" and said the plan was designed to enhance Tulane's undergraduate experience going forward. "Some higher education experts have called it the most significant reinvention of an American university since the Civil War," Cowen wrote in a column for the January/February issue of Trusteeship magazine. Critics of Tulane's renewal plan find it hard to justify the sweeping changes made after the storm. They don't believe Tulane's financial situation was or is as bad as it has been presented, and they claim that some eliminated programs were financially viable or didn't cost anything to maintain. Even Cowen's critics, however, concede that Tulane took a big financial hit after Katrina. The issue is one of degree -- did Tulane's immediate financial problems after Katrina rise to the level of "financial exigency?"
Critics point to the university's purchase of a $13.19 million condominium complex in November 2005 and the continued construction of a $7.5 million baseball stadium as evidence of Tulane's solid financial footing after the storm. And, although Tulane's financial exigency status remains in effect, Tulane's endowment is creeping toward $1 billion for the first time in university history. In addition, Tulane recently received an undisclosed amount of money from storm-related insurance settlements.
Janet Rice, associate professor in Tulane's biostatistics department, was a member of the President's Faculty Advisory Committee, which met with Cowen four times before the renewal plan was announced and witnessed the process of declaring financial exigency.
"Each time we met, we were presented with financial information, and there was each time improvement in the financial situation," Rice says. "But it did look pretty grim at that time, and it did seem reasonable to declare financial exigency. I wish that Dr. Cowen had decided to share that information more broadly, and I wish he were explaining to us now why we are still in financial exigency and yet doing things like building new baseball stadiums."
Addressing financial exigency at a 2006 university senate meeting, Cowen said, "It's over when I say it's over." Such words leave some faculty fearful of what could still come.
"It would be better for the faculty if financial exigency ended," says Asher Rubenstein, a mechanical engineering professor who was fired when his department was eliminated.
"They're still afraid for their jobs."
Critics of the plan also say that if Tulane were in a financial crisis, it would seem to make sense to eliminate programs and people that cost the most money. They claim that some cut departments, like mechanical engineering, weren't leaking money. That department, they say, had consistently turned a profit during the years before Katrina, its enrollment was up, and its endowment had increased by $600,000 from July 2001 to July 2005. The mechanical engineering department took its case to the Tulane Board of Administrators, which decided not to overturn the decision to end the program.
"At our presentation, President Cowen told the board they shouldn't reverse their courageous decision to eliminate the department," says Robert Watts, a professor who was with the mechanical engineering department for 43 years before losing his job in the cutbacks. "I don't think it was courageous. It was cowardly."
Watts' view is not shared by all Tulane faculty members, however.
"Engineering is expensive because it needs a lot of equipment and stuff to do its research," Rice says. "Its students are more likely than the students in some of the other schools to need financial aid, so schools of engineering these days are expected to bring in lots of research revenue, and our school of engineering wasn't meeting that expectation. I think the case behind closing the school has some validity."
The two engineering programs that were retained at Tulane, biomedical engineering and chemical engineering, have been incorporated into the new School of Science and Engineering. Watts worries about their future, especially the fate of biomedical engineering, because he says it is a derivative field, meaning it is built upon more fundamental programs like mechanical engineering. He also wonders if New Orleans' post-Katrina needs were taken into account when curricular decisions were made, and if future opportunities for growth were adequately considered.
"The thing I find really appalling is the lack of vision," Watts says. "The engineering school had this lab given to us, plopped in our laps after Katrina. We had the opportunity to develop the world's premiere engineering school. In my opinion, we could have been awash with money. We lost the opportunity because of the lack of vision."
Writing in Trusteeship, Cowen described the cutting process as "wrenching for all of us," and he noted that he and Tulane's trustees recognized the possibility that friends might feel alienated afterward. "Katrina's effects left the board with few good choices," he concluded.
Merging Newcomb and Tulane colleges into one large college for all incoming freshmen spawned one of the most vocal arguments against Cowen's renewal plan. Newcomb alumnae took their complaints to court, citing donor intent as a reason why Newcomb College should not have been disbanded. Newcomb supporters claim that Josephine Louise Newcomb, the original benefactor of the school, gave money for the formation of the separate, degree-granting H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College and for no other purpose.
From a financial standpoint, opponents to the merger claim that consolidating Newcomb and Tulane saved the university little if any money because of a decrease in donations from angry Newcomb alumnae. Many former Newcomb students and professors remain unconvinced that the change was necessary.
"One reason is for financial exigency, but that doesn't hold up," says Jean Danielson, former dean of the Tulane honors program and a retired political science professor who was with the university for 39 years. Danielson testified for keeping Newcomb open in recent court cases. "Newcomb was solvent, Newcomb was a money raiser for the university, and it consistently brought in over the last few years classes of over 700. So for a tuition-based university, Newcomb was the goose laying the golden egg."
Cowen says getting rid of Newcomb wasn't done for financial reasons, however. He expressed confidence that, despite critics' claims of ineffectiveness, the new undergraduate college is better for incoming students.
"Prior to the storm, if you were an undergraduate coming to Tulane University, you came into one of seven different colleges, depending on your interests, and Newcomb College was one of those seven different colleges," Cowen says. "Over time, that had led to a very inconsistent undergraduate experience at the university, because depending on which college you came into, you got different advising, you took a different core curriculum, you had a totally different experience.
"It was our belief, and I think that belief is coming to fruition, that to speed our recovery and attract future students, it would be better to have a single undergraduate college with more uniformity around those issues. Therefore, it would be easier to explain externally who we were and what we stood for. But most importantly, there'd be some uniformity, and people would be able to have a consistent experience at Tulane."
Meanwhile, Josephine Louise Newcomb's heirs and Newcomb alumnae continue to try their case against Tulane. So far, they have been unsuccessful.
Today, almost two years after Katrina, most people affected by the changes at Tulane University don't expect to see decisions reversed. Students and professors have, for the most part, moved on, but not without struggling through a difficult period. For his part, Cowen takes criticism of his decisions in stride.
"Whenever you make a difficult decision, there is always going to be criticism," he says. "There is never a time in anybody's life when they make a difficult decision and someone doesn't disagree. So, you take that criticism and you realize it's a consequence of making tough decisions. But when the survival of your institution is at stake, you do what you have to do to make sure that institution survives and recovers and renews itself as quickly as possible."
Emily Hohenwarter is a Tulane University undergraduate student who is serving an internship at Gambit Weekly.