Chapter 3: After Katrina: Rebuilding a Residence Life Program

by Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough

Posted on December 08, 2016

Download as a PDF

Download as a PDF

August of 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I was president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR, during that time. Along with the rest of the nation, I watched the developments in shock.

Dillard and Philander Smith are United Methodist institutions, as well as members of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Therefore, I also had access to a greater depth of information than the average observer.

When I moved to Dillard in 2012 as president, I was interested in learning more about hurricanes and how they may impact a campus. I learned even more about the devastating effects of Katrina on Dillard. While the national news often equated the damage to the higher education institutions in the state, having a chance to speak with facilities staffs at Tulane, Loyola and Xavier confirmed that Dillard's damage was unequaled.

It was clear to me. Although there were now two new buildings on campus, and a great deal of renovation, when I began my presidency—almost seven years after Katrina—the campus, like the city, was not fully restored. In particular, we had access to one campus residence hall, the on-campus apartments, and three off-campus properties. Three major residence halls were still under renovation.

The process of rebuilding a campus, including a residence life program after a catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina, provides a blueprint for others who may experience this kind of unfortunate incident. While many great decisions were made, there were some key lessons learned.

When Katrina approached, Dillard evacuated all residential students to Centenary College of Louisiana, five hours north. Centenary and Dillard, sister United Methodist institutions, have an MOU which allows Dillard to send residential students there in case of evacuation. They provide usage of their dome for lodging, and students are able to eat on campus and use campus facilities.

The idea was that after Katrina, the students would be able to return and the semester would resume. As we know, however, the levy next to campus was breached and water poured into the campus, water that covered the grounds for a solid three weeks. All totaled, 43 buildings were damaged or destroyed, including three that burned down, for an estimate of damages (including lost tuition revenue) of $400 million.

All totaled, 43 buildings were damaged or destroyed, including three that burned down, for an estimate of damages (including lost tuition revenue) of $400 million.  

The semester was cancelled at that point and plans were to determine how to open in the spring even though the campus would be unusable. In addition, the University partnered with colleges and universities across the nation to find places for students to enroll that semester. The obvious challenge was evident: once you essentially "transfer" your entire student body, how will you get them back?

Partnering with the Hilton hotel for lodging, and local institutions for classroom and administrative space (along with space at the hotel), Dillard reopened as a satellite university on January 3, 2006. At the time of Katrina, Dillard enrolled almost 2,000 students. When classes resumed, 1,100 students were enrolled, driven largely by seniors who were expecting to graduate that spring.

The work for the University during the first half of 2006 was to renovate the campus enough to move back by the fall of 2006. This meant not only active construction using both insurance and FEMA money, but also soliciting private and federal sources of funding to rebuild the campus. One of the major successes was eventually being able to secure a $156 million loan from the Department of Education to address the needs of the campus. At the same time, the president, Dr. Marvalene Hughes (who began her presidency just 7 weeks before Katrina hit), not only raised funds but had to lead a campaign to assure people that Dillard would survive, which was a significant concern. In fact, suggestions were made to relocate the university to a completely new city out of the state.

The University successfully completed enough of the renovations to reopen in the fall of 2006, housing 619 students (with about half of them at three off-campus properties which also housed faculty and staff who lost everything during the storm). Dillard was able to maintain an enrollment of 1100 for the fall of 2006 despite a large graduating class, and losing half of the freshman class that began weeks before Katrina. Yet that enrollment was over 40% lower than the previous fall.

The ongoing worries about hurricanes impacting New Orleans, along with the slow pace for rebuilding the campus, continued to take a toll on enrollment. By the fall of 2008, enrollment stood at 851, now some 63% below the record high of 2300 in the fall of 2003. The good news is, however, this is the place where the enrollment drop finally bottomed out and the campus began to grow.

At this point, Dillard was able to grow. Prior to Katrina, the administration, led by Dr. Michael Lomax, made an effort to improve the physical appearance of the campus, which included significant renovations. Katrina wiped away all of that work, and the University began to redo renovations with the goal of creating a vibrant, residential program.

In addition, prior to Katrina during the rapid period of growth, the University acquired properties in the area to provide additional housing. Three apartment complexes were purchased, all within two miles of the campus. While the facilities did offer university-controlled housing, the distance, while not great, separated students from the main campus activities. In addition, concerns about crime in the neighborhood made them less than desirable for students and parents. However, these three properties, acquired between 2003 and 2004, were very important, post-Katrina, as they were easily renovated and provided housing for students, faculty and staff after the storm.

While the university began the process of growth, and with the slow pace of renovating campus residential facilities, the campus had difficult choices to make. Part of the philosophy had been to develop a vibrant residential program that fostered a close-knit community, which, based on research, would lead toward higher retention and graduation rates. This was important for Dillard as an institution that traditionally enrolls many first-generation, low-income but strong students.

Part of the philosophy had been to develop a vibrant residential program that fostered a close-knit community, which, based on research, would lead toward higher retention and graduation rates.  

At the same time, Dillard was desperate to grow enrollment. In addition to developing a revenue base in order to return to full operations and restart academic programs, Dillard wanted to resume its role as an anchor institution to the community; having active students, faculty and staff was important to dozens of small businesses.

Because much of the pace of renovation was driven by insurance and FEMA, the University in the years post-Katrina housed many of the students off campus. There was unfortunately a dip in retention and graduation rates as well, which produced data points that harmed the institution's reputation in national rankings and, later, when presented in the College Scorecard launched by the Department of Education.

Specifically, students who entered Dillard between 2000 and 2004 had an average retention rate of 72%. Those who entered between 2005 and 2012 had an average retention rate of 62%, 10 points lower. Similarly, prior to Katrina, graduation rates remained in the 40% range, while students enrolled during Katrina had rates in the 20 to 30% range.

When I arrived in 2012, with a background in student affairs, I agreed with my predecessors that a vibrant on-campus living environment was important for Dillard University. We were nearing the completion of renovations, able to use the all-campus residential units by January of 2014. It would not be until the fall of 2014 that we would begin an academic year with all-campus housing available for use. We sold two of the troubled off-campus units, and the one within blocks from campus is now empty as we discuss how to renovate and remodel it into a modern residential unit.

Since 2012, we hired new leadership for the residence life program with a strong directive to develop community on campus. We improved the First Year Experience program at the same time, also bringing in new leadership that provided a new model for intrusive, individualized advising and mentoring. Finally, beginning in 2015, we strengthened the religious life program which provided another strong foundation for the residential student population, connecting them to the campus through faith.

The residential experience has been enhanced with new campus programming. We added a lecture series in 2013 to bring a variety of scholars, entertainers, writers and authors to campus for monthly events that also engaged the broader community. We enhanced the athletic experience, providing a rich game-day program employing dozens of students to promote the games, create campus spirit and build a social media buzz (an effort recognized by our NAIA athletic division in 2016). We have worked to create an atmosphere in which we actively seek to partner with entities to bring unique opportunities to campus.

These programmatic elements helped to provide a firm foundation for our residential program, and the initial results suggest a new trend. Freshmen who entered in 2013, 2014 and 2015 had an average retention rate of 73%, returning this number to pre-Katrina levels. Additional analysis over time will determine if these short-term indicators last during a 4 to 6-year graduation period.

The active campus life has engaged potential students, creating an increase in applications and recent growth in freshman class, as well as for alumni, who have increased their giving every year since 2012. As both groups visited campus, seeing students fully engaged and on campus was a far cry from 2012 when most of the housing was off campus.

In the decade since Hurricane Katrina, Dillard University has been on a unique journey. An institution that was growing rapidly, reaching record enrollment in 2003, dropped over 60% of its enrollment due to the storm, and began the process of rebuilding the institution slowly but deliberately. While a horrific event, Katrina provided an opportunity not only to improve the campus infrastructure, but help create a new campus culture of engagement which will yield positive results.