Victor Ukpolo
Victor Ukpolo

The 26th annual meeting of the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education was recently held at the Hilton New Orleans. Several thousand people from all across the United States from four-year universities and two-year community colleges attended the sessions, which dealt with numerous race, gender and economic issues affecting higher education. Affirmative action and gender equity were high on the group’s meeting agenda. 

Marvalene Hughes
Marvalene Hughes

But as the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, a panel discussion on the impact of natural disasters on institutions of higher education featuring Tulane President Scott Cowen; Xavier University President Norman Francis; Marvalene Hughes, former president of Dillard University; Southern University of New Orleans Chancellor Victor Ukpolo and Loyola University President Kevin Wildes may have been the highlight of the conclave.

The panel was moderated by Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau.

Each of the panelists offered insight on how their student bodies, facilities, faculties and staffs were affected by the hurricane.

But it was Ukpolo and Hughes who offered the most riveting experiences.

Ukpolo, who had never experienced a hurricane before Katrina, said the fact he was the only head of a public university on the panel was as revealing as anything. Because SUNO was at that time a “commuter” school, the widespread damage from Katrina essentially meant the entire school was gone. FEMA trailers that were later set up helped, but Ukpolo said the fact that more than seven years have passed and SUNO is just now getting its funds for rebuilding illustrates the disparities in recovery dollars.

Compounding SUNO’s dilemma was Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pervasive attempts to shut the school down in Katrina’s aftermath, Ukpolo said.

Hughes had only arrived at Dillard weeks before Katrina, and she had no idea she would face a Category 5 storm that would prove to be the nation’s worst natural disaster, one that would hit Dillard especially hard with both flooding and fires.

Now that she can reflect, Hughes said it is time for the federal government to enact legislation that would allow institutions of higher education to better respond to such crises. She said the legislation would provide college presidents and other higher education officials with greater latitude that FEMA doesn’t allow.

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