When Hurricane Isaac recently battered its way through New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of Katrina, I was vividly reminded of an event that offered the greatest challenge and most significant opportunity in Tulane University’s history. Seven years ago, 70 percent of Tulane’s main campus and 100 percent of its downtown health sciences campus were flooded due to the failure of federally built levees. With approximately 13,000 students and 8,000 employees dispersed across the country, Tulane became the first major American research university in the last century to close its doors for an entire semester. Ultimately, Hurricane Katrina resulted in damages and losses to Tulane in excess of $650 million, and it almost destroyed the university.
What followed was a strenuous, necessary, and, most of all, instructive process of rebuilding and re-envisioning the university. We had to ask—and answer—some tough fundamental questions that would define post-Katrina Tulane. What is our institutional identity? What deeply matters to us? How can we rebuild and redefine Tulane for the twenty-first century while supporting the city’s recovery? Our answers would help us move past a devastating time while strengthening our mission and reinforcing our high academic standards.
Committing to Public Service
After Katrina, we knew we had to become a different university. With 80 percent of the city flooded and most of its businesses closed, Tulane students, faculty, and staff would have to take a leading role in rebuilding the city. I remember telling a large gathering of students and parents who had returned to campus to retrieve their belongings and survey the damage Katrina had inflicted: “If it is not in your DNA to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans, don’t come back.”
Shortly thereafter, we inaugurated the Center for Public Service and fully integrated community engagement into Tulane’s core curriculum. We became the first major research university in the United States to make public service integral to the collegiate experience. In doing so, we aimed to develop the next generation of engaged citizens and leaders.
Tulane students fulfill their public service commitment by completing service-learning courses in their first two years and by participating in a program approved by the Center for Public Service during their junior or senior year. To fulfill the latter requirement, our students choose between a variety of service-learning courses, an academic service-learning internship, a faculty-sponsored public service research project, a public service honors thesis project, a public service-based international study abroad program, or a capstone experience with a public service component. This integration of service and scholarship creates powerful experiences for the Tulane community and substantive impacts for our community partners.
Ensuring that Tulane Empowers
Just as public service is often the first step to true democratic engagement, Tulane’s public service requirement was only the beginning of a dynamic effort to expand our civic mission. Tulane Empowers is the phrase we use to describe everything we do to address society’s most pressing problems and the profound cultural change at Tulane that we have witnessed as a result. It is our way of describing our mission to build stronger and healthier communities and develop the next generation of engaged citizens and leaders.
I strongly believe that it is one of our primary responsibilities as an institution of higher education to empower students through civic learning and democratic engagement, and to bring knowledge learned in the classroom to the community. At Tulane, we want students to draw on their civic knowledge, democratic values, and twenty-first-century skills to make a difference in their community and in society at large. Tulane Empowers encapsulates our goal of helping students—as well as staff and faculty—develop a passion for doing good and empowering others to do the same.
Developing Meaningful Partnerships
At least since the Morrill Act was passed 150 years ago, US colleges and universities have been guided by the duty to advance social and economic development in the communities in which we reside. Colleges and universities are expected to be defining sites for learning and practicing democratic and civic responsibilities. To that end, Tulane’s Center for Public Service partners students and faculty with community organizations in reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships that test students’ democratic values and capabilities against real-world challenges. As an anchor institution, we recognize our responsibility for identifying ways to positively impact the community in which we exist.
At Tulane, supporting our community’s infrastructure in a deep, human way has become a critical component of our institutional life and a prerequisite for academic success. Our current and prospective students understand and value this concept. In our experience, students’ academic achievement as well as their retention and completion rates have benefited from this emphasis on public service. Both data and anecdotal measures suggest that our students are more academically accomplished, engaged, and committed than before Katrina. For example, the mean SAT score for Tulane entering freshmen increased notably in 2008 and has remained in the 1330–1340 range for the past four years. After holding constant for many years, the first-to-second-year retention rate has increased a full 5 percentage points since Katrina and now exceeds 90 percent.
In another effort to cut across traditional academic boundaries and reimagine our role in the community, we created an Institute for Public Education Initiatives to support the transformation of New Orleans’ K–12 public education system. The institute is an action-oriented think tank that informs and advances solutions to the challenges impeding K–12 success in New Orleans and beyond. Through applied research, public policy and advocacy, college readiness programs, university-based initiatives, and community partnerships, the institute meaningfully contributes to our evolving public education landscape. It also serves as a clearinghouse for charter and traditional public schools in Orleans Parish to directly access the myriad of experts and resources available at Tulane. Sparked by my work on the White House Council for Community Solutions and conversations with youth and stakeholders in New Orleans, the institute recently expanded its strategic vision to launch a new initiative that actively addresses the pressing issue of disconnected youth.
Supporting Social Innovation and Engaged Learning
In 2009, as a result of our growing community involvement and civically engaged student body, Tulane began developing university-wide, interdisciplinary initiatives in social innovation to better understand and create new models for social change. Though still an evolving field, social innovation has expanded rapidly as professors and students realize its relevance across disciplines. Over the past three years, our social innovation and entrepreneurship programs have grown from different pockets of creative, solution-oriented activities across campus into a powerful intertwined strategy that includes a wide range of academic and research opportunities, student-led activities, and community partnerships. This fall, we introduced an interdisciplinary Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship undergraduate minor, which has strengthened civic engagement’s role in learning, teaching, and research at Tulane.
To further facilitate students’ transformation into creative, inquisitive, ethical, and responsible scholars and citizens, we launched the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching (CELT) in the spring of 2011. By providing theoretical and applied resources related to four core elements (Classroom Engagement, Research Engagement, Experiential Engagement, and Social Innovation Engagement), the center aims to help students realize their intellectual, social, and ethical potential to actively shape the world in which they live. CELT has been a driving force behind a cultural shift in the way faculty and students interact inside the classroom.
Dismantling the Ivory Tower
Today, Tulane has successfully reinvented its mission and strategy to better serve our students and respond to the demands of our local and global communities. In embracing community engagement and social innovation and integrating these powerful ideas into curricular and extracurricular activities, we have dismantled the image of the remote ivory tower and replaced it with that of an engaged and dynamic community of learners and doers. Our faculty members are connecting the dots between their scholarship and research and the needs of the community, while our students are applying their studies to the real world and learning to solve problems innovatively and compassionately.
Tulane’s efforts to foster a civic ethos on campus were lauded in A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (2012), the report and call to action developed under AAC&U’s leadership by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. As the report outlined, civic learning and democratic engagement may be higher education’s twenty-first-century imperative. Our attempt to meet this imperative through Tulane Empowers has not only strengthened our institution and our community, but has taught us that education, research, and community engagement are central to our institutional identity.
Our journey has confirmed what we sensed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. Engaged learning and solution-oriented civic participation need to be ingrained in principles and expectations across campus. It is our duty to prepare our students for life in a culturally diverse and globally interconnected world that will challenge them as professionals and citizens. By empowering our students to link their studies with the real world and mobilizing our resources to directly combat community problems, we are reinvigorating and expanding our academic mission and effecting positive change where it is needed. I see students take leadership in demonstrating this in varying, remarkable ways every day.
Making Engagement the Rule
One morning a few weeks ago, two seniors came to my office to propose an idea. They had started a clothing line in their sophomore year and wanted to use their expertise to help a Tulane student–athlete who had just been seriously injured in a tragic football accident. Brad and Jesse didn’t know the football player personally, but the first question that came to their minds when they heard about their fellow student’s injury was “What can we do?” They wanted to create and sell t-shirts and wristbands bearing the player’s name and jersey number to raise funds for his recovery. Within just a few weeks, the students sold more than 1,600 t-shirts, generating nearly $15,000. All net proceeds were donated to a fund established to assist the student–athlete’s family with medical bills and related costs. This is just one of many inspiring examples that highlight what Tulane Empowers is all about. The way these two seniors responded to a difficult situation has become the rule rather than the exception on our campus.
For us, Katrina was a catalytic experience that marked the beginning of our transition to a more deeply engaged university. While the unprecedented challenges Tulane faced in fall 2005 necessitated transformative action, our recovery led us to turn necessity into opportunity. I would be the last one to say that we have figured it all out, but I am proud of the progress we have made in empowering our students to contribute to a robust and vibrant democratic society in the twenty-first century. Taking our civic mission seriously needs to be a priority in times of both crisis and prosperity.
Tulane’s Classroom–Community Partnerships
Tulane’s Center for Public Service partners students and faculty with community organizations in reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships that test their democratic values and capabilities against real-world challenges. Example partnerships include
- Economics 3330: Environmental & Natural Resources. Working with Greenlight New Orleans to install compact fluorescent light bulbs in a New Orleans neighborhood, students study and quantify environmental organizations’ economic impact.
- English 3650: Aristotle in New Orleans. This classical rhetoric course challenges students to think about ancient conceptions of virtue and rhetoric while also coaching four New Orleans middle school debate teams that form the foundation of a new citywide league.
- Education 2000: Education in a Diverse Society. This introductory teaching certification course examines the history of American education as well as contemporary education issues. Students are provided with opportunities to serve in New Orleans public schools as classroom assistants, reading buddies, or tutors.
- Biomedical Engineering 4040: Team Design Project II. After learning about the design process and improving their project management and technical skills, biomedical engineering students meet with clients with disabilities and construct devices tailored to their needs.
Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.