As was the case with more than 17,000 other students, Lindsey Price had just begun another semester on the campus of the University of New Orleans (UNO) in mid-August, 2005. The University that semester had achieved an all-time high in its enrollment with 17,300 students. It placed UNO as the second largest institution of higher learning in Louisiana.
Then, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Eastern Louisiana and Western Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the catastrophic flooding of metropolitan New Orleans due to the failure of the levees and floodwalls which should have performed, brought education at all levels and institutions to a complete halt.
School administrators, teachers, staff and students across the education landscape were unsure what the future would hold – an understatement. Within a matter of days, parents that were part of the diaspora from the storm were advised by city and educational officials to find a school for their children to attend in whatever community there were displaced. College students from the various universities in New Orleans were advised the same.
“We were invited to come to the campus at LSU, although not to share space on the academic campus,” recalls Professor Rich Baron, who was UNO Provost at the time, the school’s Chief Academic Officer.
“We were given two rooms in a building near the campus where we squeezed our senior administrative team – Deans and Vice Chancellors – in a conference room. We had 22 people in a meeting room fit for 12,” says Barton. “Each of us had space for a laptop and a cup of coffee.”
Other university staffers handling emails and calls from students and faculty were in a room nearby, according to Barton.
“We called our space the ‘war room,’ because from our perspective we were fighting to keep UNO alive.”
The air was ripe with rumor, among them that New Orleans, described by many as “wet” would not be “dry” for six months. The city was closed. And questions swirled, among them being if there was a need for a four-year public institution in New Orleans moving forward.
Says Barton, “We grew frightened that in the aftermath of the storm, a movement might take place to close UNO without seeing what the city was going to need. Other universities in the city, among them Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, Dillard and Delgado, were closed. We were advised to do the same.”
What UNO did have in its real estate inventory was a three-story building in neighboring Jefferson Parish, much of which was not flooded, where a few thousand students attended classes. And the school had an already established on-line presence, offering a small cadre of classes via the internet.
UNO had one other thing … a percentage of the student body who contacted administrators working in temporary offices in Baton Rouge urging university leaders to find a way to stay in operation.UNO students were invited to enroll in LSU that fall. But for students like Price, the thought of taking classes on the sprawling LSU campus, possibly losing credits, simply the thought of more change in the midst of losing your house, your part-time jobs, whatever was daily life, was untenable.
“It became our determination to find a way to provide an education for UNO students, despite university system leaders telling us we should close,” says Barton.
“We also were told we had to lay everyone off, recalls Barton. “Other local universities instituted that at some level, but we did not want that to happen to our employees. It was bad enough people were going to have to rebuild houses and lives, but if we laid people off during this terrible time, we feared we would lose them for good. They may take other jobs in other cities, and they may never come back.”
UNO leaders put together a plan to reopen the university in October, 2005, offering most courses on-line, with classes also being held in the location in Jefferson Parish.
“We had two motivations driving us,” says Barton. “We had to get back in the business of higher education. And we had employees who needed income so they could begin to rebuild their lives right here in New Orleans.”
By the time the spring semester was ready to start, UNO had enough of its campus ready to hold classes back on the lakefront campus, most of that due to the work of the Vice Chancellor for the Physical Plant, Joel Chatelain and his crew, as Barton tells the story. Barton describes the team as a “marvel.”
Student body enrollment did drop to approximately 7,000, but the students who chose to stay with UNO retained all their credits. More than 760 students graduated at the end of the fall 2005 semester, students who might otherwise had their plans irrevocably altered. As Barton recalls, spirits at the graduation were high.
Classes resumed on the lakefront campus the following semester, a few weeks later than originally planned, but with no spring break and an extended semester at the end, but the road to recovery for UNO has not been easy or swift. Enrollment at the beginning of 2006 was a little over 11,000 and students returned to a campus with no student union, no athletic arena, and no housing, closed because the university could not get the funding needed or projects approved. Because the university would get state funding based on the number of students enrolled, its allocation was cut, forcing UNO into financial exigency. Faculty and staff layoffs loomed, and class offerings had to be reduced.
Barton describes those days as “some of the most trying” in his academic life.
Ten years later, UNO continues to adapt and change to the times, streamlining operations and refocusing efforts to provide the best possible education for the people of New Orleans.
Despite its challenges, UNO was named one of the nation’s best institutions for undergraduate education, according to The Princeton Review.
“We are pleased to be included once again in The Princeton Review’s annual college guide,” said UNO President Peter J. Fos. “This type of recognition underscores what many people throughout the New Orleans area and the region already know — that the University of New Orleans offers superb academic programs at an excellent value. We are proud of our dedicated faculty and staff, and our talented and diverse student body. We are truly the heartbeat of the Crescent City.”
In its profile on UNO, The Princeton Review praised the university for offering “lots of opportunities for students to develop their personality, leadership skills and career skills,” and quotes extensively from UNO students. Among their comments: UNO “opens doors to students who come from different social and economic backgrounds,” and gives them “the opportunity to get an education that helps students to gain better future.”