More than a year after Hurricane Katrina, Southern University at New Orleans is still operating in a temporary campus of FEMA trailers and waiting for money to rebuild.
So its chancellor, Victor Ukpolo, turned to his former colleagues in Tennessee for assistance.
Middle Tennessee State University announced Tuesday an academic partnership to help rebuild the New Orleans branch of the historically Black Southern University.
Ukpolo characterized the partnership as the first of its kind for any New Orleans university. Some colleges in the city, like the private Tulane University, have expanded the scope of existing partnerships with other schools while hundreds of colleges nationwide offered tuition exchange programs for students affected by Katrina.
“After Hurricane Katrina, there was some discussion to close down the school,” says Ukpolo, who served as an associate vice chancellor at the Tennessee Board of Regents from 1997 to 1999 before moving to New Orleans.
Flooding and mold damaged much of the school’s facilities near Lake Pontchartrain and forced faculty to relocate to more than 400 trailers that serve both as housing and classrooms. Only 2,300 out of the 3,600 students enrolled before the hurricane have returned, and faculty numbers have gone from 160 to 91.
“Katrina is still strong in terms of its impact on people’s lives,” Ukpolo says.
MTSU president Sidney McPhee, who is also the president of the New Orleans-based Sun Belt Conference, says the partnership would help the school recover both academically and financially.
“This is not a one-time deal. We’re not throwing a few dollars at SUNO,” McPhee says.
Although still tentative, officials at the two universities hope to create a collaboration that could involve online instruction, student and professor exchange, joint research and faculty training.
“If this partnership is going to work, it has to be on a sustainable basis,” says Ukpolo.
MTSU and Nashville’s Vanderbilt University are planning an orchestral concert as a major fundraiser for SUNO around the two-year anniversary of Katrina.
With the campus not expected to be ready for classes until fall of 2008, Ukpolo says students from New Orleans could take classes at MTSU, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, as early as this summer.
“MTSU has stepped up to help us close the gap,” he says. “I don’t know of any other institution that has done that for any New Orleans school.”
MTSU hopes to recruit some of SUNO’s students for its graduate programs and improve diversity on campus, McPhee says.
“It’s a win-win situation for SUNO and MTSU,” adds Ukpolo.
Ukpolo says he felt like mayor of the small city of trailers where the school has operated for a year. He estimates the total damage to the university at $60 million.
“For nine months after Katrina, there was no move in terms of repair,” he says. “Because of the lack of quick action, more damage [from mold] was incurred.”
The faculty, many of whom live in trailers on campus, are struggling to rebuild their classrooms after losing notes, books and other technical equipment.
The universities will explore setting up student exchange programs in certain disciplines, which could allow students to register at both universities in order to complete degrees.
The partnership could also include creating more online classes to benefit SUNO’s large commuter student population.
Professors from both universities could participate in training and professional conferences and work together on research, publications and creative arts projects.
Ukpolo says he feels blessed to get support from other educators in Tennessee, where his professional life began as a professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville.
“This state continues to be good to me,” he says.
— Associated Press
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