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Lessons from Hurricane Katrina for Navigating Covid 19: The Case of Tulane

In 2017, in the wake of Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey, Scott Cowen, President Emeritus of Tulane University, spoke with USU leaders on what he learned leading Tulane and New Orleans through the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

In this period of Covid 19, USU will be sharing resources to support universities navigate these difficult times.  We are re-circulating this webinar recording  as Dr. Cowen’s  words remain wise and relevant.

He identified three phases post-disaster—survival, recovery, and transformation. Transferring some of the lessons to the current environment, we learn:

  1. Survival prioritizes communication, safety nets, goals and tapping the community. In practical terms, the university guaranteed pay for faculty and staff however long the university was closed, set a date to reopen (not knowing if it was attainable at the time), and gathered the university associations and tapped into the resources of the sector to support recovery.

  2. Recovery focused on financial viability given the sheer cost of survival and on preserving and enhancing the distinctiveness of their academic programs. Full recovery took ten years, due in part to an extended period of lower enrollment.

  3. Finally, in the transformation phase (which overlaps with recovery), Tulane re-envisioned their future in a new reality, which included a significant restructuring of the university. They used the opportunity to implement a new way of working, specifically building a system based on engaged, place based learning.

He ends with an important piece of advice – think the unthinkable, and prepare for it. Katrina was catastrophic. We need to consider this may be as well Hoping not, but preparing nonetheless.

Here is the video if you want to learn more.

Dr. Cowen also documented his experiences working to restore New Orleans in a the book The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America. 

Perhaps of value too, Dr. Cowen recently published Winnebagos on Wednesday: How Visionary Leadership can Transform Higher Education. As he emphasized, after the survival period, visionary leadership is critical.

Istock photo credit:  frankpeters


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