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The Nation

'Kick in the Gut' for Black Colleges

Before Katrina, 10,000 students attended three historic campuses in New Orleans. Now traditions are in tatters and futures are in limbo.

October 04, 2005|Scott Gold and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS -- We love thy every blade and tree.

The first line of "Fair Dillard," the alma mater of Dillard University, is dedicated to a majestic promenade of trees that locals call the "avenue of the oaks."

Generations of students at Dillard, one of the nation's oldest historically black colleges, have walked the avenue on graduation day. The rest of the year, the oaks provide shade and a picturesque backdrop.

But on those spring afternoons, in the heart of New Orleans, the limbs seem to beckon young African Americans, coaxing many of them along a path from poverty to the middle class and beyond.

Today, the grass is dead and covered with a sludge left by Hurricane Katrina's flood. The oaks are splintered, toppled and rotting.

Lost in the madness of Katrina, the nation's black college community has been devastated by the storm.

New Orleans is home to three historically black universities -- Dillard, Xavier University of Louisiana and a branch campus of Southern University. A month ago, 10,000 students were attending such colleges here, more than in any other city in the country, one federal education official said.

Today, all three New Orleans colleges are closed indefinitely, although Dillard announced plans Monday to resume some classes on the Tulane University campus as early as January, when Tulane reopens.

The New Orleans campuses of Xavier, Dillard and Southern, and three others in Mississippi with less damage, would likely require a combined $1 billion before they can reopen, said Lezli Baskerville, president and chief executive of the National Assn. for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents historically black colleges and universities.

For these colleges, which have relatively small endowments -- Dillard's is $46 million; Harvard's, by comparison, is $25.9 billion -- securing those funds is a monumental order, even if insurance policies cover a chunk of the loss, as expected.

"We've had a real kick in the gut," said Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund and Dillard's president from 1997 to 2004. "This is a substantial blow, not just to New Orleans but to African American higher education."

The first task in rebuilding has been finding a home for displaced students. Colleges across the nation have quickly opened their doors, often at no cost, and fundraisers have provided stipends to many students.

The broader goal of reopening the New Orleans colleges, however, has become a daunting proposition. A chief concern is that students will never come back, even after the campuses are cleaned up.

Although Southern University, the only public school among the three, draws its student body largely from the New Orleans region, Xavier and Dillard have increasingly attracted students from other states and nations.

At Dillard, for example, the student body increased from 1,600 to 2,300 during Lomax's tenure. By last year, the university had students from 34 states and a dozen foreign countries.

The lure, as at many historically black colleges, was a rich academic and social tradition and a nurturing environment. But it was also New Orleans itself -- its dynamic culture, its clubs and dance halls, its large African American population.

That city is now unrecognizable. Just outside the 55-acre Dillard campus, in eastern New Orleans, roofs are collapsed on single-story "shotgun" houses and abandoned rescue boats are strewn on front lawns. A briny, foul stench has settled in.

Lomax said he believes New Orleans eventually will be able to lure the students back.

"These students were there because this is where they wanted to be," he said. "These are students who have chosen these schools."

Backers of black higher education are trying to piece together -- perhaps with federal assistance -- financial incentives that would draw black professors and students back to town.

Quanita Davis, a 19-year-old from Hacienda Heights, would have been a sophomore at Xavier this year. Now she is back in Southern California, missing her classmates, she said, but trying to find a new academic home.

She is inclined to stay closer to home; her current top choice is Claremont McKenna College.

"Xavier being in New Orleans is what made the school what it was," she said. "And New Orleans is not going to be the same anymore."

If many students decline to return, the effect on New Orleans -- and on black professionals across the country -- would be lasting.

The three black colleges here have a deep connection to the largely impoverished communities where they are situated. Without them, said Ruth J. Simmons, a Dillard graduate who became the first African American president of an Ivy League school when she took the helm of Brown University in 2001, "the fate of that city vis-a-vis African American residents would be even more dire than it is."

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