Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on college campuses in New Orleans and across the Southeast. School leaders scrambled to respond to the storm’s devastating impact while supporting students whose educations had been so abruptly sidelined.
Michael A. Fitts, JD, president of Tulane University in New Orleans, says his community’s experience with natural disaster renders it more prepared to deal with COVID-19.
“There’s something in the DNA of Tulanians, partly because of a sense of resilience and understanding of the potential for hurricanes, that prepares us for dealing with situations like this,” he says.
The increased capacity of online learning and social media to help students and employees stay connected is a major asset for institutions that Tulane lacked in 2005, Fitts says. However, a special challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it has forced all schools into the same unprecedented situation — unlike during natural disasters when colleges and universities can follow contingency plans and lean on other institutions for support.
Lessons Learned from Katrina
One advantage Tulane had in responding to COVID-19 was the existence of established structures and processes for dealing with a crisis, such as having a designated team of decisionmakers in place to handle an emergency campus closure.
In addition, the university requires all new faculty to be familiar with online teaching.
“We had the ability to go remote very quickly,” Fitts says. Making such a swift move to online learning required already having “a road map of how we support students [from a distance],” he adds.
For example, Tulane offers virtual advising, success coaching, and career counseling services. Its Center on Academic Equity, which Fitts describes as providing first-generation students with “their own helicopter parent,” is supporting underserved students remotely.
Leaders at Tulane also understand the importance of boosting morale during crises. School officials recently created the “Heroes & Helpers” series, which recognizes a university-based person or team engaged in extraordinary efforts in the battle against COVID-19.
The series recently highlighted the work of three doctors from the Tulane University School of Medicine who repurposed a research laboratory for coronavirus testing, allowing COVID-19 tests to be processed on-site within hours rather than days.
Another lesson learned is the importance of meeting the unique needs of low-income and underserved students during an emergency. When the pandemic hit, Tulane let students with unstable housing apply to live on campus for the rest of the semester.
“To my knowledge, we accepted every application to stay,” Fitts says. This includes approximately 225 students.
The university is also working to help students in need through the creation of a COVID-19 fund to assist with additional expenses incurred during the pandemic, such as travel funds and money for internet access.
Fitts recommends that higher education leaders take the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen their institution’s civic connection with and ability to serve those in need. After Katrina, then-President Scott Cowen deepened Tulane’s involvement with the surrounding community through measures such as making it mandatory for all undergraduates to take a service-learning course focused on community development.
“Now, with better internet and technology, there are even more avenues to get out there,” says Fitts, who releases a video every week providing updates to those affiliated with Tulane. “If you’re a leader of an institution, now is not the time to hunker down. On the contrary, be out there.”
The lesson of Katrina, he says, is that is important to stay “completely, continually connected to your community.”●
Mariah Stewart is a senior staff writer at INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our May/June 2020 issue.