Outside the administration building at Tulane University, there is a large southern Oak tree with hundreds of colorful Mardi Gras beads hanging from its branches. It is yet another reminder of how intrinsically linked this university is to the city of New Orleans.
From its founding as a medical college that treated residents during the yellow fever epidemic, to its role in the city’s rebirth after Katrina, Tulane University has a commitment to New Orleans that goes far beyond that of institution and host city. It is the only major research university in the country with a service requirement, much of which is applied to New Orleans’ public schools and community organizations.
Tulane administrators are quick to note that the relationship with the city is far from one-way. Its location in New Orleans’ Uptown District remains a significant draw for students from all over the world. Tulane ranks number one in the country in the distance that students travel to attend college, an indication of its strong brand.
According to its President Michael Fitts, what makes Tulane different from other urban schools is the shared personalities of an outward-facing university in a city unlike any other.
“New Orleans is known for its jazz, creative food, diverse cultures and innovation. You put all that together and you come up with a university that’s a little different with students who are a little more innovative and willing to try different things,” he said.
There is something refreshing about a college president who embraces the culture of a city that throws the biggest party in the world. But it is clear Fitts is referring to its virtues, not its vices, and is honest about the fact that Tulane, like New Orleans, has plenty of challenges to overcome. Fitts says the fact that young people come here from so far away means that they are more independent and, perhaps, more risk-taking than their peers at other schools. He sees this as a key strength, if in moderation.
“What I view myself doing is articulating a vision for a successful life for our students that involves balance,” he said. “We are an institution that really supports balance – balanced academics, balanced extracurricular activities, and a balanced social life.”
Gregarious and thoughtful, Fitts appears the embodiment of that balance, though his career trajectory veered to the serious. He jokes that when he was a Harvard undergraduate, his roommates tried to get him to join the poker games upstairs that a guy named Bill Gates was running but he was always too busy studying. He went on to Yale law school, inspired by the crusading character Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and then to Washington where he was an attorney in the U.S. Justice Department. Before coming to Tulane, he spent fourteen years as the Dean of the law school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Fitts believes being away at college is a textbook example of when people are most likely to experience emotional and behavioral distress. “First year students, for the most part, are in the most vulnerable periods of their young lives. They come to a place that’s very different and far from home when all of their life supports are not there anymore.”
Tulane, like colleges and universities around the country, is experiencing a surge in demand for counseling services, with students reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression. The school is addressing this with increased resources in mental health, a focus on prevention with new wellness initiatives, and building a stronger sense of belonging. Fitts says his number one job is to make sure everyone who comes to Tulane has a home and a community.
Excessive drinking and the consequences that accompany that remain an issue though Fitts resents the perception that Tulane is a party school simply because it is in a party town. He says the “guilt by association” myth is un-founded and that today’s students are more likely to be at a creole bistro than a bar on Bourbon Street. Greek life here is mostly non-residential which avoids some of the negatives associated with fraternities. That said, Fitts admits, “We have the same problems all schools do when it comes to unhealthy behaviors.”
In a recent survey of Tulane students, forty-one percent of undergraduate women say they have experienced a sexual assault since enrolling at the school. Fitts called the findings “deeply disturbing” and pledged an expanded campaign to end sexual violence. When asked if he was surprised at the number, Fitts replied, “yes,” though he believes more schools will discover similar statistics if they examined the issue. He also thinks the fact that more survivors are encouraged to come forward added to the percentage.
It is clear that Fitts is more of a problem-solver than an apologist. He sees opportunity in challenges and encourages his students to do the same. In acknowledging the difficulties students have in transitioning to college, Fitts says, “We also have to understand that this is actually an incredible growth experience for them, a remarkable moment for them to learn a set of life skills that is going to be critical for them forever. The experience of change is something they will experience over and over again for the rest of their lives in a way that older generations never did.”
Fitts’ attempt to articulate that opportunity, within the backdrop of Tulane’s strengths, is what led him to launch “The Undergraduate Experience” – an examination and subsequent recommendations on how to better support Tulane students as they prepare for a changing world.
He initiated a campus master planning process that is making physical changes with philosophical undertones. One of the first initiatives that came out of that effort was the creation of residential learning communities which are dorm environments with themes to them like community engagement, health or social justice. The idea is to make residence halls more than just where you live but also where you connect with people, including faculty.
The architect of the plan is Robin Forman, Tulane’s Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. It is clear he delights in his role and its connection to student success.
“Our students are very academically accomplished, talented and ambitious but they also want a more energetic social and cultural life than you can find on many other campuses. You can see this is a great combination when you look at some of the accomplishments of our alumni,” he said.
One of the ways Forman hopes to improve the undergraduate experience is to do a better job of helping students navigate supports that are available to them, particularly if they are struggling. “We tend to rely on students to not only recognize when the need help, but to self-diagnose what the problem is and find a way to get to the right office,” he said. “We’re trying to get away from all that by having a team approach among departments and helping students find their way to what they need.”
Forman believes bringing resources close to one another will help. The school is currently combining its career center, success center and academic advising into one, newly-constructed building with study and relaxation spaces. The move is both practical and symbolic — an acknowledgement that supporting students’ wellbeing is everyone’s job.
“Your academic advisor has to be someone who very quickly is able to recognize that maybe you are having issues that aren’t just academic and they have to do more than say ‘here, go see a counselor’ because in most cases, it won’t happen,” said Forman.
Putting a value on diversity
Navigating institutional resources can be even more difficult for first generation students, students from marginalized communities or those with fewer family resources. For these students, the school has created the Center for Academic Equity. Open to anyone, the Center is meant to help students without built-in supports (aka helicopter parents) take advantage of the many resources and opportunities that are available to them.
“We want to make sure this is a really inclusive campus, where everyone here has the same chance to be respected, valued, supported and celebrated,” said Forman. “This is the kind of experience we want everyone to have.”
At Tulane, a big part of that experience involves diversity in every dimension — from embracing different cultures, to moving beyond your comfort zone, to learning what you think you already know through community service.
Tulane students have to take two academic service or community engagement experiences to graduate, a requirement the school instituted after hurricane Katrina. Fitts says that while Tulane’s commitment to the community is in its roots, they doubled down on their efforts after the hurricane.
“We understood how important the rejuvenation of the city was to us and the city understood the role we could play in that. We are co-dependent in a million ways,” he said.
Katie Houck is the associate director of the Center for Public Service at Tulane. She also runs the Peace Corp prep program and manages Get Engaged, one of the school’s residential learning communities.
In explaining the goals and the premise of Tulane’s service program, she makes it clear that it is far more than hooking kids up with internships.
“A lot of times, the work we do is really focused on issues of diversity and inclusion, power and privilege. Our students learn how to listen and to understand the root causes of what they see,” she said.
Forman believes the community service program is an invaluable teaching opportunity for students facing a new world which requires them to relate to different people in different ways.
“When you go to a fancy grade school and fancy high school and then to a fancy college, there’s a sense that the only people you can learn from are people with fancy degrees,” he said. “Then there’s this remarkable moment when you work with a community leader who has dedicated their whole life to something and brings an enormous amount of wisdom and insight to the experience and you realize you can learn so much from this person.”
Fitts is hoping that what makes Tulane different will be its best asset going forward. “It used to be that students bore down on one discipline with their goals set on a single career. Our students may have multiple careers in disciplines we don’t even know about today.,” he said.
Preparing students for the new world means changes both inside and outside the classroom. As examples, Fitts points to new ways of teaching at the business school that involves groups and teamwork and advising staff that are not limited to one subject or major. Once again, Tulane is using the city as its muse for teaching to the future.
Thirteen years after Hurricane Katrina triggered floods that devastated the city, New Orleans is now a very different place. While tenacious disparities remain, there is a tremendous sense of hope in a city that has become a laboratory of reinvention. As people with big ideas come here from all over the world, Tulane hopes the university will remain at the center of it all.