Seeking Higher Ground

April 26th, 2007

On Saturday, August 20, Heather Lane waved good-bye to her parents in Sacramento, California, and flew to New Orleans to begin her freshman year at Tulane University. She had no way to know it, but three days later the National Hurricane Center would announce the formation of Tropical Depression Twelve over the southeastern Bahamas. As Lane took part in a pre-orientation that included tours of Bourbon Street and Preservation Hall, the tropical depression gained strength and was given a name, Katrina.

On Thursday, August 25, Katrina, now a hurricane with eighty-mile-per-hour winds, swept through Miami and across the Everglades before moving west toward the Gulf of Mexico. The next day, as the storm gathered moisture and intensity over the Gulf's warm waters, Katrina veered northwest, and that evening the National Hurricane Center predicted a second, stronger landfall east of New Orleans. The governor of Louisiana declared a state of emergency. On Saturday, Tulane canceled orientation and advised students to evacuate. At 8 a.m. Lane's aunt and uncle phoned from nearby Mandeville, Louisiana, and announced they were coming to get her. Lane grabbed her laptop, purse, and a bag of dirty laundry, expecting to return to campus in a few days. "I left my contacts," she says. "I forgot my hairbrush."

That same morning, Kate Considine, a junior transfer student from the University of Connecticut, arrived at Tulane in a taxi. By now the campus was nearly deserted. Considine couldn't find anyone to help carry her bags. When she heard the campus would close at six that evening, she called her father in Connecticut, who managed to book her on an 11 a.m. flight for the next morning. "I was panicked," she says. On the plane before takeoff the pilot announced that the passengers were lucky - theirs would be one of the last flights into or out of New Orleans. He praised the attendants for agreeing to fly. "It's a big one coming," he said. A few hours later the airport was shut down.

Katrina, one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history, made landfall in Louisiana at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, August 29, with winds of 145 miles per hour. Before long 80 percent of the Big Easy was underwater. Lane and Considine, though safe and dry, were suddenly among thousands of students in academic limbo.

Fifteen hundred miles to the northeast, President Ruth Simmons learned that the Association of American Universities (AAU), which comprises sixty-two research institutions, had called on its members to temporarily enroll students from Tulane, the only member school in New Orleans. "I thought that was at best a partial response," she later said.

Simmons, who has long been an advocate of both public service and opening up Brown to a broader range of students, knew from her own experience that Tulane was not the only university Katrina had ravaged. A 1967 alumna of Dillard University, a historically black college in the city's Gentilly district, she had more than a passing acquaintance with New Orleans. In fact her academic career had begun at the University of New Orleans, where she had been an assistant professor of French and, later, an assistant dean.

Simmons also knew the racial and class landscape of the city. Many students from families who had lost their homes and livelihoods, she realized, would be reluctant to come to Brown, not just because of the expense involved but because they'd feel uncomfortable far from home and at an Ivy League school. At the same time, those who were willing and able to make the leap would need extraordinary help.

Like Simmons, Valerie Petit Wilson, an associate dean at the Brown Graduate School, has roots in New Orleans. She was born and raised there, and in the days after Katrina hit the city, Wilson spent much of her time trying desperately to reach her father. A molecular biologist, she had graduated from Xavier University, another historically black college in the city, and had worked at Tulane before coming to Brown. As Katrina approached, most of her family had evacuated to Houston, but her father had refused to leave his home in a neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain. Wilson e-mailed the satellite coordinates of her father's house and a bird's-eye description of his rooftop to everyone she knew in the area. "It's like a 9/11 feeling all over again," she wrote. One day she opened a news magazine to see the image of a corpse floating in a grocery store. "That's a grocery store I used to go to as a child," she says. "It's so familiar, but so surreal at the same time."

By e-mail Wilson told her former students and colleagues that Brown would soon announce a plan to open its doors, to make sure "this natural disaster doesn't become a career disaster as well." She urged them to stay in touch. "After all," she wrote, "our collective memories may be all we have left to keep New Orleans alive." After six anxiety-filled days, Wilson got word from her father. Stranded on his rooftop, he was rescued by helicopter and reunited with the family in Houston.

The day after Wilson sent out her mass e-mail, Simmons posted a letter on the Brown Web site offering tuition-free admission for the semester to undergraduates not only from Tulane, as the AAU had asked, but from Dillard and Xavier as well. She chose Dillard and Xavier because they are members of the Leadership Alliance, a Brown-based group led by Wilson that aims to bring more racial and ethnic minorities into academia. Simmons's letter also invited to campus displaced students from other schools who were either Rhode Island natives or had a sibling already at Brown. She also pledged that academic departmentsÊ admit graduate students, tuition-free, for one semester as exchange scholars, as well as whatever faculty members and postdoctoral fellows the University was equipped to absorb. "In moments such as these," Simmons wrote, "we must do more than offer sympathy. We must act, and quickly."

Simmons took the bold step of putting aside academic qualifications for the visiting undergraduates, admitting them in the order that their applications came over the fax. (Graduate students were assumed to be academically qualified; their admission depended on finding a Brown program that could support their research.) "We knew [students] didn't have access to records," she says, adding that weeding out every C student would take so long that the offer would be ineffective. "The longer we delayed," she says, "the more behind students would be when they started." Other Ivies took a different approach. "I'm going through enough," Kate Considine thought when she saw Yale's application form, which asked for SAT scores and a transcript. "I don't need to reapply to college."

On the morning after Labor Day, the first day of the new academic year, Simmons was working at home when she received an e-mail from her office saying that Cathy Frank Halstead, a Corporation member and the daughter of Sidney Frank '42, had called. When Simmons returned the call, Halstead said her father, who last year gave $100 million to Brown for financial aid, had learned of her offer to Katrina victims and wanted to give $5 million to help. "I started crying," Simmons recalls. "I was literally speechless." Frank attached no conditions to the unsolicited gift.

Simmons quickly directed some of that money to incoming students and to professors who'd need help buying such necessities as clothing, books, and computers. Some would need to buy their first winter coats. Others couldn't afford a plane ticket to Providence. Simmons wanted to make sure that nothing would get in the way of bringing these men and women to Brown.

In all, fifty-nine undergraduates and twenty-seven graduate students arrived on campus, along with four professors and one postdoctoral fellow. Brown admitted more undergraduates than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Dartmouth. Penn welcomed around seventy. Columbia and Cornell took about 200 each.

Some chose Brown for its proximity to their families. Tulane senior Alice Dickinson, for example, is now commuting from her home in Rumford, Rhode Island. Considine, who is from nearby Brooklyn, Connecticut, had spent a semester at Brown in 2004. Others, like Tulane junior Ernesto Kufoy, whose family lives near Lake Charles, Louisiana, chose Brown because it has courses he needs for his major in neuroscience. Kenny Balla, a Tulane sophomore from Tom's River, New Jersey, turned to Brown after a week at Penn, where he says too many professors shut him out of courses. And Joelle Nixon, of Abbeville, Louisiana, a junior at Dillard, chose Brown because she admires President Simmons.

Lane wanted to see the East Coast for the first time. When she arrived, classes were under way and the first leaves were starting to turn. The experience, she says, was "like trying to jump on something that's already moving." She tracked down the nearest Salvation Army store, where she spent $7 on two New England essentials: a warm comforter and a winter coat. She unpacked her few belongings, learned her way to the Ratty, and chose four courses: calculus, French, history, and costume design.

Brown next faced the problem of finding classes and space for an influx of unexpected students on an already packed campus. The office of summer and continuing studies, led by Dean Karen Sibley '81 MAT, became the clearinghouse for the visiting undergraduates. In a day, Sibley and her staff created an intake system to help them register, find housing, and navigate the course catalog. All around campus, administrators worked with Sibley to eliminate the usual red tape. The Brown Bookstore, for example, allowed Gulf Coast students to buy books on credit until their financial aid came through. Faculty added extra seats in their classes. The Ratty provided hot meals right away, instead of waiting for the students to get the required paperwork. More than 100 local residents, including many Brown employees, volunteered rooms in their homes. RISD offered two empty dorms on nearby Angell Street.

"I never could have imagined a university being quite as welcoming," says art history major Alice Dickinson, the Tulane senior. She says when she explained to Sibley her worries about applying to graduate school, Sibley replied, "We're going to take care of you. You're a Brown student now."

At the Graduate School, Valerie Wilson connected students with appropriate academic programs. The biology and medicine division took in about half the group. "A few are just starting their degrees," Wilson says. "Some are literally here to write their dissertations in a calm and quiet place." The Graduate School gave each student $1,000 for moving expenses. Two weeks into the semester, Brown officially welcomed the graduate students at a special orientation, where Wilson was amused to see a grad student distributing Mardi Gras beads. "Their spirits are very high," she says. "They are grateful to be here, to be safe."

Pamela O'Neil '91 PhD, assistant vice president of research initiatives, and Carolyn Dean, associate dean of the faculty, encouraged Brown professors to invite their displaced colleagues to campus. O'Neil, who came to Brown less than a year ago from the University of New Orleans, says the arrangement costs Brown very little, since most of the visiting scholars remain on the payroll of their home institutions. Among the visitors is Sangeetha Madhavan, whom Mark Pitt, director of population studies and a professor of economics, invited to campus. Madhavan, a former Brown post-doc, had been at Tulane for only three weeks as an assistant professor of sociology. She is now a visiting assistant professor of population studies.

For the new students, however, the honeymoon ended quickly. Many, including Joelle Nixon of Dillard, say the greatest challenge has been catching up on the mountains of reading assigned before they arrived. Naseem Duval of Macon, Georgia, a junior in a six-year pharmacy program at Xavier, had to change her major to chemistry because no pharmacy school had openings after Katrina. Because Brown doesn't offer a business degree, business majors are adjusting to economics courses - the closest match, even though the economics program at Brown is more theoretical. And Brown's open curriculum is tricky to match with more restrictive programs. Heather Lane, for instance, wonders whether Tulane will recognize her calculus course, which is mandatory pass/fail.

The social adjustment has been equally difficult. Ernesto Kufoy cringes in class when professors introduce him as a Tulane student. "I just want to fit in," he says. "I don't want everybody to know I'm a visiting student. I just want a little bit of normalcy." When one professor asked the class to work in groups, Kufoy raised his hand to say it was his first day; he didn't have a group. The professor, assuming he'd been skipping classes, told Kufoy to leave the classroom. She apologized when she realized Kufoy had just arrived from Tulane. "I'm getting used to getting embarrassed," he shrugs.

Thirty of the undergraduates live in RISD dorms, which have become a refuge for them. "We all watch TV at night, go to the Ratty together," says Tulane sophomore Alex David, a biology major from Long Island, New York. "I haven't been able to meet a lot of Brown students, but I really don't feel alone."

Anthropology major Casey Coren, a Tulane sophomore from Redding, Connecticut, was taken aback by how little work Brown students did during shopping period. At Tulane, she says, she'd buckle down on the first day of class. She's found other cultural differences as well. Providence restaurants stop serving food at 10 p.m., while New Orleans kitchens are open all night. Brown's social life centers on campus, while in New Orleans it spreads into the vibrant neighborhood clubs and bars. Hirsch Srivastava, a Tulane junior from St. Louis, Missouri, says he could find twenty concerts to go to on any given night in New Orleans. Now he spends most of his time studying - by choice. He is taking five courses, including two in his major, economics. "You don't get many chances," he says, "to get a free Ivy League education."

Kufoy has noticed another cultural difference: Brown students think New York City is far away. They seldom even take road trips to Boston. In fact, when Heather Lane mentioned she'd walked to Providence Place mall, less than a mile down College Hill and across the river, a group of Brown students seemed amazed she'd traveled so far. "It's very insular somehow," Lane says. "And we live on the outside of it."

In a Boston Globe op-ed published in October, Ruth Simmons and Shirley Tilghman, the president of Princeton, described the quick response of universities around the country in admitting students from the Gulf Coast. "Now," they insisted, "we must turn to the long-term needs." They argued that education offers a remedy to the social, racial, and economic disparities that Katrina brought to light. "We must make it a priority," they wrote, "to rebuild not only homes and businesses, but also institutions of higher education."

Specifically, the two presidents pledged to help Dillard get back on its feet. Founded four years after the end of the Civil War, Dillard normally enrolls around 2,000 students, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and 99 percent of whom are African American. Joelle Nixon chose Dillard because her mother, a lawyer, graduated in 1974, and her grandmother is also an alumna. "I really wanted to be part of the tradition," she says.

Dillard lies next to Interstate 610 and along the London Avenue canal, which runs into Lake Pontchartrain. After Katrina, the breached levees left many of Dillard's pristine white buildings in ruins. Fire destroyed five others. To Simmons, it was like losing a home. She felt the loss even more intensely because her niece is a Dillard student. "But more than that," she says, "I understand, given my perspective, what an enormous loss this is for higher education."

According to Simmons, historically black colleges and universities, along with community colleges, are unmatched in the opportunities they offer to African Americans, serving as an entry point for many to the middle class. "Their retention rates are better" than other schools, she says. "Their postgraduate success rates continue to be exceptional. Without these institutions, there will be far fewer engineers, far fewer physicians in this country who are African American." Xavier, for instance, ranks first in the nation in placing African Americans in medical schools. Simmons says if New Orleans is to survive, it will need Dillard and Xavier to provide the future leaders.

Dillard's president, Marvalene Hughes, faces a particularly difficult situation: she is new not only to the school but also to the city. Simmons says Dillard probably doesn't need the Sidney Frank money: it can count on insurance policies, the government, and private foundations to fulfill its monetary needs. "What they need more than anything," she says, "is technical expertise." Brown and Princeton plan to send administrators there to help work out such fundamentals as how to administer the school's finances while it is closed, how to keep in touch with a dispersed student body, and how best to rebuild classroom and research facilities.

In addition, Brown has allocated an initial $200,000 from the Frank fund to help the historically black Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, with which Brown has a longstanding partnership. The money will help students from Dillard and Xavier who are now temporarily enrolled at Tougaloo. It will also help the university repair residence halls and classrooms damaged by Katrina.

Not surprisingly, Simmons has seen Katrina in part as an opportunity for Brown to help those most in need. On September 20 she opened a meeting of the Brown University Community Council, an advisory forum of administrators, students, faculty, staff, and alumni, by asking a question: What is the racial breakdown of the visiting students? She says she wanted to know if the students who'd come to Brown after Katrina accurately reflected the demographics of the city of New Orleans. Had Brown succeeded in its effort to cast a wide net?

As it turns out, 63 percent of the visiting undergraduates are white, while most of New Orleans is African American. The Graduate School does not have a racial breakdown of its students, but more than three-quarters of its visitors are from Tulane, which is predominantly white. While poverty runs deep in New Orleans, only about a third of the visiting undergraduates qualified for need-based financial assistance through the Frank fund. The Graduate School is giving semimonthly stipends to thirteen students in need. Probably, Simmons says, many students of limited means didn't find out about Brown's offer in time to enroll, which indicates that over time more needs to be done to reach them. "There is an information divide," she says. "There is an access divide. There is a resource divide." She is not suggesting that Brown screen Katrina victims according to race or income level, though. "I don't for a moment believe that our efforts should have been aimed only at people who were victims of deep poverty," she explains. "Our effort was intended to help everyone."

What happens when the semester is over? Some of the visitors are determined to return to New Orleans. "I plan on graduating from Dillard in 2007 and pursuing a PhD in psychology," Joelle Nixon insists. Alice Dickinson misses her friends and the familiarity of Tulane. "I thank Brown so much for opening up," she says. "But I do want to go back to my school and graduate with my class. It's almost more important after this to go back and show support." Heather Lane would like to finish her freshman year at Tulane. But she worries that it will no longer attract the best applicants. She doesn't want to pay top dollar to attend a school with a declining reputation.

Hirsch Srivastava, who spent a summer at Brown during high school, plans to apply to transfer to Brown. "This was my dream school in high school," says Srivastava, one of several visiting students to say Brown rejected him as a regular applicant. "I don't want to come off as opportunistic. I love Tulane. But I've always liked Brown more." He will have to follow the same, intensely competitive admission process as any other transfer applicant. Because of the way the admission deadlines are set, even if he's accepted he won't be able to transfer until next fall.

Katrina has led Naseem Duval, the pharmacy student at Xavier, to rethink her entire career path. "Right now I'm traumatized," she says. "I don't have a desire to return." This semester she is taking courses in public health, Africana studies, nutrition, and the sociology of medicine. She plans to either transfer to a pharmacy school outside of New Orleans or finish a bachelor's degree in chemistry at a state university in Georgia. She thinks the chemistry degree might open more doors.

Alex David has seen photographs of a Burger King next to his New Orleans apartment building. Because the water was chest-high and his apartment is on the second floor, he has reason to hope that everything he left behind - his clothes, CDs, guitar - are salvageable. But he's not sure he wants to resume his studies at Tulane. "I just feel like New Orleans won't be the same," he says. "I don't want to go back to the school if there's nothing there."

Kate Considine feels little loyalty to Tulane, having spent so few hours in New Orleans before her last-minute flight out of town. While she hasn't made plans for next semester, she's been integrating herself into student life at Brown, working as a lifeguard at the Smith Swim Center and joining a Swearer Center group that teaches science in Providence elementary schools. "I thought it would be great to get younger kids in the Providence community excited about school and learning and science," Considine, a political science major, wrote in an October e-mail. "We start teaching in the classrooms next week, and I cannot wait!"

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November / December 2005