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Has the Government Abandoned New Orleans’ Top Black Colleges?

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Two historically black colleges in New Orleans remain closed after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Reopening the colleges requires money, which may prove a challenge. We speak with the President of Xavier University about this. [includes rush transcript]

More than 75,000 college students in the New Orleans area were forced to flee due to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. About 6,000 of those students attended Xavier and Dillard University, two historically black colleges in the city. Like so much else in the wake of the devastation of Katrina, these black colleges received far worse damage from the storm than their white, wealthier counterparts such as Tulane and Loyola Universities- both of which sit on higher ground.

Xavier University is located near downtown New Orleans while Dillard University is near one of the city’s canals. Both universities suffered major damage from the storm and subsequent flooding. But unlike other universities in the city, Dillard and Xavier have very small, restricted endowments and students who are almost completely dependent on financial aid. These schools also provide unique opportunities for its student body- Xavier University has produced a quarter of the black pharmacists in the country and produces more future black doctors than any other undergraduate institution. The Federal government has yet to offer the help the universities will need to operate again. ?

  • Dr. Norman Francis, President of Xavier University
  • Gene D’Amour, Senior Vice-President for Resource Development and Xavier University

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Xavier University is the only historically black Catholic university in the country. We’re joined now by its president, Dr. Norman Francis, as well as the Senior Vice President of Resource Development, Jean D’Amour. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

DR. NORMAN FRANCIS: Good morning.

GENE D’AMOUR: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you. Dr. Francis, tell us what has happened now? Your doors are not open today, is that right?

DR. NORMAN FRANCIS: No, our doors are not open, and that means we are not operating this semester, but we have great hopes and optimism that we will be starting back in January. It’s going to be a massive job. We got hit — almost every building was touched in some way by wind and, of course, by the water and the flooding. Interestingly enough, the comment you just made, Dillard, of course, was by a canal called the London Avenue Canal. And in front of our doors, our front door, is the famous 17th Avenue Canal, the one that everybody heard about. It flows right straight in front of us all the way to the lake. So we got much flooding. And that’s going to be part of our reconstruction.

The challenge for us, and let me make two points because I think it’s important for your audience to know. We are the only historically black Catholic university in the United States, and of course, we are church-related. We have — part of our mission is the Catholic mission that was started to create leadership for African Americans, although we serve a very diverse population now. We are not supported by the institutional Church. Many people misunderstand that. We are really on our own with respect to raising monies and having money for operation. And right now, what we face is a very difficult job, and we are going to have to have help from our federal government and the congress.

Ironically, five years ago, the congress passed a law that took out private college and universities and non-profit organizations from FEMA support. That is, if we have — and we have — flood damage, FEMA will not pay for the reconstruction. They will help us relocate buildings on campus to do the work, but not construction. State universities can receive that, but not we. And that’s going to make it very difficult for us to reconstruct as we should, if in fact the federal government does not come in and provide us with money for the reconstruction of our facilities, as well as for helping us to retain our faculty and our staff during this interim period.

We have, as you mentioned, I think, very small endowments, and much of it is restricted. And we need to keep that faculty and staff that produced those amazing results that you just indicated. For a school of only 3,000 in arts and sciences, producing the greatest number of African Americans who get into medical school in this country is just an amazing job, and great work by the faculty and staff. And being the only college of pharmacy in the city of New Orleans, we serve the health care needs of all of the city of New Orleans, as far as pharmaceutical services go. And that enrollment is about 30% non-black.

And so, we are very critical to the economic and social and cultural welfare of the city of New Orleans. And yet, we are standing there on our own, hoping for the best in the congress. And if it doesn’t come, we’re going to have to look for outside support from people all over this country, recognizing what we have meant certainly for the leadership in the African American community and now for all of New Orleans in our health care needs, as well as our economic development. This is a tough time, but I would not want to give the impression that we’re not going to be there. We will be there. And we will work to get back to where we were, and what we are counting on certainly is the congress and the good will of those who know what we have meant and what we mean in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Xavier University Vice President, Gene D’Amour, you lost support from the government, even before the hurricane, around financial aid?

GENE D’AMOUR: Yeah. The issue there was really quite a bizarre one. While Dr. Francis and the student services staff were in the process of saving lives of students at our campus and taking care of the floodwaters, the Department of Education basically was in the process of creating what I would consider a second disaster. Basically, after the flood — I’m sorry, before the flood, our students had registered, they were enrolled. They were in classes. They had committed to, of course, the tuition to be paid for their education. The Department of Education had committed to the financial aid that would be taken. The institution had hired its faculty at salary, and we were underway. After the disaster happened, obviously, we could no longer do business as usual. And I think — hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Are you still there? Yes. Vice President D’Amour.

GENE D’AMOUR: Should I keep going?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Go ahead.

GENE D’AMOUR: Okay, after the flood, a very creative decision was made. And that creative decision was —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

GENE D’AMOUR: That creative decision was to basically move summer vacation. That is to say, to allow the students to take what normally would be their summer vacation in October, November and December, and then continue their classes starting in January after we had repaired the buildings. So, they would continue to get their total year’s education, and during their, quote, “summer,” they could work as they normally do. They could take additional courses at other institutions or help their families do alright.

On September 2, the Department of Education came out with a policy announcement that they would waive standard financial aid deadlines and procedures for institutions not impacted by the flood. And they encouraged those institutions to enroll our students in the disaster area as regular students working toward the degree in the other institution, which, of course, they weren’t. Most of these students would take a few courses if they wanted to, but they were certainly not enrolled toward a degree in another institution.

The reason they did that is because then that allowed the Department of Education to move the financial aid that they had committed to our institutions to another institution. So, at that point, all of the financial aid, the basic tuition and loans that we were operating off of, that we were paying our faculty salaries, basically, the rug was — the financial rug was pulled out from under us. All of the funds were frozen, and at that point, we no longer had any funds to pay salaries or to move forward to continue our semester.

And the bizarre thing about it is what it in effect did was not only put us in almost a position of bankruptcy, particularly if you’re an institution like an HBCU that has very, very small endowments, but it actually supplanted the private gifts that were being given to students, because many of the institutions in other areas offered free tuition to the students if they wanted to take additional courses. So, now we have the Department of Education moving financial aid from the effective institutions to other institutions that had been willing to give free tuition. So it was a very bizarre —- and of course, it was especially problematic for HBCUs, because HBCUs don’t have -—

AMY GOODMAN: Historically black colleges.

GENE D’AMOUR: Historically black colleges or universities.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Norman Francis, when do you hope to open the doors of Xavier University?

DR. NORMAN FRANCIS: We hope to open in January, certainly by the middle of January. We hope to be back in business, certainly sufficient enough to offer courses; and what has helped us greatly is that we’ve started working on assessing where we are with respect to the damages and the like, and Tulane University and Loyola University have already extended their hands and said if there are classes that you cannot offer, then the youngsters can come and take classes at our place, tuition free. If you need a lab, we’ll make a lab available to you. So, what’s happened is that we have now a consortium, so to speak, that buttresses what we have on our own campus. And we feel very confident that we will in fact be back in business for a large part of what we need to do. That’s certainly going to be true of the college of pharmacy and a major part of the arts and sciences —

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get information about the progress that Xavier University is making in reopening, what’s your website?

DR. NORMAN FRANCIS: You can give it, it’s, Xavier University.


DR. NORMAN FRANCIS: And they can also — In a very short future, we’ll be back in the business — communication has been very difficult, but we’ll be back in business. And we are hopeful that the Department of Education will change its mind, that the Congress will make it possible that those funds will stay at the University and that they’ll be available for us to use now and in the future when those youngsters come back.

AMY GOODMAN: What authorities are going to bat for you?

NORMAN FRANCIS: Well, we have visited with, and I personally visited with both of our congress — senators, and we visited with the two senators from Mississippi. And we have a package before the Congress now getting — and asking for support to not leave us in the conditions that we are in now. The monies that are made available — Actually, there was a $200 billion relief package for New Orleans; but only $100 million of that package, or 2%, was reserved for our colleges, and that was for financial aid to students for when they come back.

I think that the interesting part is — and we’ve got to make that change — is to change the FEMA position regarding keeping non-profit and college and universities out of their support. The public should know that we have liability insurance, but that covers wind damage; but the wind damage may be only about one-third of the two-thirds of the total damage that we have faced. So that the water damage, which is not covered by liability, it has to come from the federal government of FEMA. And with the action of —- the Congress took five years ago, that takes us out of it. But we -—

GENE D’AMOUR: If I could just add one thing into that. Every other agency and grant program —

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Gene D’Amour.

GENE D’AMOUR: I’m sorry. Every other grant agency in Washington treats public and private universities the same. National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, Department of Education — public and private are treated the same. This is one program in the entire federal government that does not.

NORMAN FRANCIS: And it’s the biggest one now that we are facing now, because flooding was the important part of this. But let me put it this way: We are working very hard to get the Congress to understand that the college and universities certainly — if you’re going to rebuild New Orleans, the colleges and universities in New Orleans, and certainly the historically black colleges like Dillard and Xavier, are extremely important to the future of New Orleans. In fact, the colleges and universities in Louisiana and New Orleans, in particular, are the crown jewels of the institution. And everybody talks about education, and this is part of what our future is going to depend on.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I want to thank you both for being with, Xavier president, Norman Francis and Vice President Gene D’Amour; and we hope for you the very best in rebuilding your university in New Orleans.

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